By Jamila Alfred, VO Maryland/DC Events and Outreach Coordinator
Last week I had the pleasure of meeting with Baltimore, Maryland power couple Naijha Wright-Brown and Gregory Brown, owners of the scrumptious vegan soul food restaurant The Land of Kush.
Located conveniently near the highway, this restaurant attracts more than hungry vegans looking for a yummy fix—it also brings in curious foodies and those who appreciate the taste of Southern cooking done right. Needless to say, this place has something for everybody!
When I lived in Baltimore last year, I’d always stop by The Land of Kush before class to grab a juice and then again afterwards for dinner. I can confidently say that the food, along with the laid-back, Afro-futuristic atmosphere, kept me coming back for more.
I was also very impressed with their choice of staffing, which consists mostly of Black, inner-city youth. This creates wonderful community support and helps keep Black businesses alive and thriving.
Naijha and Gregory are an absolute delight! Who’d have known that such busy people could be so down-to-earth? Their stories aren’t only entertaining, but also inspirational. Let’s get to know them!
Jamila Alfred: Where did you grow up?
Naijha Wright-Brown: South Bronx, New York.
Gregory Brown: Baltimore, Maryland.
Jamila: What are your professional backgrounds?
Naijha: Well, I’ve been working since I was 14, with several years of customer-facing, administrative and technical work, management, entrepreneurship, and putting together shows—whether it be comedy or talent shows. I also did some acting in my late 20s!
Gregory: I went to Morgan State University in Baltimore and graduated with an accounting degree. I used to work for MCI and Verizon Wireless, and now I own a restaurant.
Jamila: What do you do for fun?
Naijha: We love swimming, bike riding, going to comedy shows. I’ve loved comedy ever since I saw Chris Rock. I love to travel! Before we opened up, I was traveling a lot—about four times a year. About a week away wherever I went.
Gregory: Yeah, those are common interests for me, too.
Jamila: When and why did you go vegan?
Naijha: I went vegan in 2006, but I was fully into the game in 2008 because I was doing the fish thing before 2008. My journey started through health. I had high cholesterol and I didn’t know anything about veganism or vegetarianism.
Before I met Greg, I researched ways to lower cholesterol. Then when I met him where we both worked he would bring in these exotic dishes. That’s how I started getting educated on the vegan lifestyle. The whole movement with the animal rights and stuff, I didn’t get into that or learn about that until we opened The Land of Kush in 2011 or 2012.
Gregory: So I’ve been vegan since ’98, and got into it for the health reasons. I used to listen to the rapper KRS-One and he always talked about a vegetarian diet. That’s the route I took.
Jamila: What organizations are you involved in?
Naijha: I’m actually a reading partner for Reading Partners, so I help elementary school children with their reading. During the school year, I’m assigned a student and I help them read. I am also involved in the Black Vegetarian Society of Maryland (BVSMD)!
Gregory: I sit on the board of Farm Alliance of Baltimore—it helps urban farmers kind of put stuff together and sell their produce collectively at farmers markets.
I also sit on the board of the Visit Baltimore Education & Training Foundation—that’s basically an organization that gives scholarships to Baltimore city youth in the hospitality industry, so whether it’s culinary or working with hotels or the convention center. It gives them scholarships to get degrees and work experience. I am also involved with the BVSMD.
Jamila: Do you organize events in Baltimore?
Naijha: I co-founded Vegan SoulFest and we are now in our third year! It’s a vegan soul food festival. We say that because we have a lot of Black vegans and ethnic vegans in the area, so we wanted to reach out to that market and create a festival for them.
We’ve also helped with the Hip Hop Is Green Dinners. We’ve thought about venturing out on our own and doing some meatless meal dinners—anything that is going to reach and bring the community in to try plant-based food and teach them about the benefits of veganism.
Jamila: How was The Land of Kush born?
Gregory: I was working for MCI and I didn’t like working there because I wasn’t using my degree. Someone asked me to write down all of my questions to God, listen for answers, and then write the answers down. I wrote down that I wanted to own a restaurant. I was going vegan at the time, so I was like, “Why not a vegan restaurant?”
Then I began the journey of trying to get the restaurant open when, lo and behold, a friend asked me to find a vegetarian vendor for her company’s free jazz festival called Jazzy Summer Nights.
When I asked a couple of people that owned restaurants they were like, “Naww—there’s too many Black people out there at the festival. They don’t like vegetarian food. You’re not going to make any money.”
But I went back to my friend and told her I’d do it. I sold out of food at the festival, but I didn’t really make a profit because I didn’t know what I was doing.
I went to work for Verizon Wireless so I could recoup my money. I met my lovely wife there and we served food at a couple of events together. We served food at the African American Festival in Baltimore in 2008, Artscape in 2009, and then we opened up the restaurant. I left Verizon Wireless in 2010 and we opened up the The Land of Kush in 2011.
Naijha: I was interested in the The Land of Kush once Gregory introduced the idea to me. I had come to Baltimore from New York and I was always involved with something in New York, like talent shows or anything dealing with producing and promoting things.
I didn’t know anybody in Baltimore outside of the folks that transitioned with me through work. When Gregory proposed the idea of what he was trying to do, I wanted to help him because it seemed like something new and different. It was really exciting because I was just getting into the vegan lifestyle. I contributed to the website and the menu.
People were loving the food. The numbers started going up month after month. Then I was thinking, “What’s next?” I’m always in that producing mode!
Jamila: Tell me about your experiences as Black business owners.
Naijha: It’s an experience! Being in customer service for Verizon Wireless and actually the quality assurance aspect of it—I’m talking about consumers, corporate, and government—I understand the importance as a Black business with customer service.
The stigma perceived by some customers who patronize Black businesses is that you’re going to a Black business and the service isn’t going to be up to par, so that’s a constant focus. When we’re bringing in employees, we ingrain that into them—that is, the importance of service to our customers. A lot of them are from the community and it might be their first job. They’re not used to customer-facing. We have to teach them all of that and the importance of being a Black business and delivering that.
It’s also relationship-building. It’s not like you’re waiting for people to come in. We actually spend a lot of time going out, whether it’s to corporations, or companies, or tastings. We find out what to do out there and how we could assist. We’re so little, so we can’t help everybody, but we try to collaborate with people to see what they need from us.
Gregory: It’s not just a business—it’s social outreach as well. Obviously we conduct a business for profits and to further our lives and create wealth and an opportunity for ourselves, but it’s also an opportunity to go out into the community and educate Black youth about veganism. That is something, a lot of times, that’s somewhat foreign to them. Going out teaching, doing cooking demos, teaching them about produce and fruits and vegetables, and things like that. It’s just a part of the cause for us.
Jamila: What advice do you have for young people of color who want to start a business or get more into vegan advocacy?
Naijha: Disregard the naysayers and what they think. People are going to laugh about a lot of things. Gregory’s family even laughed about him wanting to open up the restaurant. But do it anyways—disregard the naysayers and take the risk—because there’s nothing better than the experience. In order to succeed you have to fail, but failing is learning so you can move on to the next level.
Gregory: Set a goal for yourself, you know? Have a vision for yourself and work towards it. Don’t be afraid of the obstacles. A lot of people stop because they’re afraid of what might happen and it’s okay to run into obstacles. Go run into them so that you can learn about them and overcome them.
Jamila: What future projects do you have?
Naijha: BVSMD is in its infancy. The first thing we did was the Hip Hop Is Green Dinner at Northwestern High School in Baltimore where we served over 200 individuals at that dinner. We used entertainment and lectures and we want to do more of that coming into 2017.
We also want to bring veganic wine and beer, entertainment, semi-fine dining, and carry-out to our business. [Veganic being a word combination of vegan and organic meaning organic plants farmed without the use of animal products or by-products.]
Gregory: The other thing we wanted to do is look for a second location for the The Land of Kush—so we want to franchise and look into those options. We want to expand the The Land of Kush because we’ve done well and want to spread that hopefully across the country.
Jamila: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me, Naijha and Gregory! And readers, if you ever find yourself in or near Baltimore, make sure you stop in and say hello to the folks at The Land of Kush. VO wishes the best of luck to the dynamic duo in the future!