“Ivy hates mushrooms and she don’t rock with curry,” Carnell Willoughby says over a cup of coffee at Upper Cup Coffee Co. on Parsons Avenue. He is telling me the story of how he transformed his Aunt Ivy’s sautéed cabbage into his own.
Carnell’s curry cabbage, featuring cabbage with green peppers and mushrooms, seasoned with garlic, sea salt and Jamaican curry powder, is a signature dish at Willowbeez Soulveg, a Columbus-based pop-up restaurant and catering operation specializing in vegan and vegetarian soul food owned by Carnell and his brother Malik.
“I didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur,” Carnell says. From a family of eight siblings, the curry cabbage was an instant hit at Willoughby get-togethers, a monumental feat considering Ivy’s celebrated family chef status.
As we talk, the doors of the coffee shop open and close and many a visitor stop to greet Carnell and Malik, who grew up nearby. It was in this space that their first pop-up was held in 2012. Carnell breaks out into an infectious smile recounting the story of that first culinary dive: When he arrived to set up there was already a line of customers waiting, they sold out of food quickly, and it was the highest-grossing day in the history of the coffee shop.
It’s the same scenario when I stop by The Hills Market Downtown on a recent Friday afternoon during one of Willowbeez’s twice-weekly lunchtime pop-ups in the space. Halfway into their allotted time at the market, they’re mostly sold out, though Carnell has a salad to offer while he fries me up a “Soul Power Roll,” a spring roll filled with quinoa, lentils and mushrooms. He moves smoothly between his work behind the counter and connecting with the crowd. Everyone in the room seems to know him personally.
His nephew, who is working the counter with him, tells me: “Hunter got the last Black Power Slider, if you want to check it out.” He points to a hipster dressed for the office in the corner snacking on a black bean, quinoa and portabella mushroom slider. Over coffee at Upper Cup, Hunter’s name was also mentioned. A Willowbeez devotee and now friend, Hunter attends nearly every pop-up that Carnell and Malik offer.
That is the magic of Willowbeez Soulveg. They sell out more often than not. Meet the charismatic Willoughby brothers once and you’re a convert, supporter and friend. Their soul food transcends boundaries with a diverse base of followers attracted to plant-based fare rooted in African-American cuisine.
The Birth of a Food Entrepreneur
One night in 2009 Malik had a life-changing dream. He woke up and called Carnell. The Zen-like brother to his sibling’s creative personality, Malik dreamt of a restaurant serving up the family’s food but in a healthy way that “keeps the pipes clean.”
“On the menu was the curry cabbage,” Malik says. “I had this dream and I knew it could be manifested in power food. It had to be branded: Willow like a tree, bee like a honeybee.” From there Willowbeez Soulveg, a play on the brothers’ last name, was born.
Weeks and months passed. Carnell drafted menus and hung them on the fridge. He tested recipes in his home kitchen.
Then, one fateful day in 2012, he went to 400 W. Rich St. and discovered the 400 Farmers Market.
“It was in a warehouse and there were trapeze artists and break-dancers and all of this stuff going on,” Carnell says. “People were selling granola. There were farmers with produce. It was just really cool. It was new school mixed with old school.”
Carnell met one of the organizers and she asked him what he could sell. Initially hesitant, Carnell remarked that he just wanted to thank her for the experience. However, the seed had been sown. He paid his $10 weekly fee (at the time, the market was held every Saturday morning), borrowed a table and crockpot, and launched Willowbeez Soulveg with curry cabbage and cornbread. He quickly sold out his first morning at the market.
The Power of Community
Willowbeez offers their lunchtime pop-up restaurant at The Hills Market Downtown. The brothers have also sold their food at various spots in Columbus such as Two Dollar Radio Headquarters and the Hot Times Festival.
Last year, Willowbeez was a food vendor for the Cap City Nights Festival, held several times a year at community centers in traditionally underserved neighborhoods. They have also provided cooking demos at healthy intervention initiatives organized by the city, nonprofits and community groups. This work is at the heart of Willowbeez’s mission.
“We want to transfer the best of our energy to those we serve,” Carnell says. “There are enough businesses in our community that are destructive. We want to wrap our arms around the community through our food.”
Noting that the soul of their plant-based food is love, Malik adds, “It’s a business and we expect a return on our investment, but we also want to make sure we’re doing the right thing so that at the end of the day we can rest well.”
Whenever they can, Carnell and Malik try to reinvest in their community. Desserts are often sourced from friends in their neighborhood trying to gain an entry into the catering market. And all of their marketing content is produced by a firm located in King-Lincoln.
Carnell and Malik recognize that their success rests not only in the support of the community but in Columbus’ rich and accessible start-up resources, such as the 400 Farmers Market and the Food Fort, a food incubation space operated by the Economic & Community Development Institute (ECDI), where Carnell prepares Willowbeez’s food.
“They are a godsend,” Carnell says in reference to the Food Fort. With licensed commercial kitchens, coolers, dry storage and business resources, the enterprise enables food entrepreneurs to develop a concept without substantial upfront cost.
Challenging the Norm
Full of power foods like quinoa, lentils and kale, Willowbeez has faced criticism that their soul food doesn’t adhere closely enough to the traditional cuisine.
“Back in the day, you had to use replacements in vegetarian soul food,” Malik says, a vegetarian since the ‘90s. “You had to make sure that you had something that was kind of like chicken and you had to have macaroni and cheese.”
“With what we’re doing some people might say, ‘Man, that’s not soul food. You’re using quinoa.’ But we are interested in serving food that’s good for the body, in particular, power foods with high nutritional profiles. In return, that food is good for the soul.”
What’s on the horizon for the brothers Willoughby and their plant-based power food?
With other takes on the cuisine in cities like New York, Chicago and Detroit, Willowbeez is happily riding the national trend. After a local public media video profiling their business was picked up nationally, they were invited to offer pop-ups in Missouri, Texas and Virginia.
Humbled by the interest, they are focusing on growing locally. In the spring, they plan to launch a pop-up restaurant in a shipping container housed at the corner of Mount Vernon Avenue and 17th Street. The space, which will be open five to six days a week, will have outdoor seating. Also in the works is a plan to permanently house Willowbeez in a new grocery store concept in development in King-Lincoln.
They also hope to expose more areas of Columbus to plant-based eating through the low input, yet high impact, pop-up concept. “I want to go to Linden,” Carnell says. “I want to take our food to areas that are forgotten.”
Follow Willowbeez Soulveg on Facebook and Instagram: @WillowbeezSoulveg.