"You can't eat an idea": Meet Ayinde Howell

As many of my friends can tell you, I’ve experimented with every type of food lifestyle imaginable, mostly on a mission to get healthy and be able to walk down the beach in pasties and a Rihanna-style-no-clothes-thong (just kidding, sort of). I stopped along my food journey to try veganism and vegetarianism and hung out there for a while, taking in delicious tempeh, tofu, and other good stuff. I met Ayinde Howell a couple of years ago at an event focused on food and relaxation, and started following his website IEatGrass.com for inspiration. I needed a mac and cheese fix that was dairy free, and Ayinde makes vegan food that makes you want to dance after you eat it. From vegan sandwich cafe owner in the pacific northwest , to personal chef to the stars (hello, India Arie), to having his own online cooking show, in Ayinde's words - he's "come a long way just by cooking some tofu." Here's his story: 

Let's just start from the beginning. What was your childhood like?

I was born in Tacoma, Washington, which is a small town in the pacific northwest of Washington State. My parents decided they wanted to go vegan when my mom was pregnant with me, so they decided to drop meat and dairy and all that other stuff. I was born into a vegan household. Once they started, they were really dedicated to continuing. We had a garden in the backyard, they milled flour. It was crazy. We did all sorts of stuff in the house.

Your family was the real in-the-ground-understanding the earth type of people.

Oh yeah for sure, for sure.

A  lot of black families in the U.S. have a very southern history especially when it comes to food. Was this the case for your family?

Oh for sure. My dad is originally from a small town called St. Stephens, Alabama. They relocated to Los Angeles, shit, I guess in like the ‘50s. They used to eat all sorts of stuff. Hamhocks, pig’s feet, ham, chicken. My dad even said they ate possum at some point, which is very disturbing.

Ha! I won't knock it until I tried it I guess.

Ha, yeah. My mom is from Baltimore. Both of my parents and grandparents were known for their cooking. My grandfather on my father's side was known for his fried chicken, and my grandpa on my mother's side was a caterer. Cooking sort of runs in the family for a few generations actually. They were the Waynes Brothers of food.

We definitely had a lot of Southern influence in our food. So we sort of translated into that into vegan form.

So would you say that, this lifestyle was the impetus of you becoming an entrepreneur?

Oddly enough that also sort of runs in the family. There have been entrepreneurs on my father's side for at least four generations. It's something I grew up with, it’s always been an option for me. I think my very first business was selling slingshots to neighborhood kids when I was like 9 or 10, and getting busted by the cops cause they were like, "Windows are getting broken in the neighborhood."

You should have responded with, “Well, I can't help that I provide a good product.”

Ha, right? My parents also owned a corner store. It was like a half block from the house. I used to make the slingshots at the back of my parents corner store. The police came through the store one day, and my parents didn't rat me out, they were like [to the police], "I don't know what you're talking about." Get out of here with all that. Then to me they were like, "You can't sell sling shots anymore, they'll arrest you."

So after that slingshot success, what was your first real endeavor into business?

My parents had a convenience store, then they opened a vegan cafe, and that closed, and they opened one again later on, in the early '90s. Then they started a wholesale distribution where we would make vegan sandwiches to sell to stores. My first job in the kitchen was making potato salad, and I was a potato salad master. From there, I started getting involved in making the food. Once I turned 16, I started to deliver the sandwiches. That experience of actually getting new accounts, growing distribution, and all that sort of stuff made me think, ‘Wait, there should be an outlet for people to get this stuff hot and fresh.’ I finally mentioned this idea to my parents, and my mom was like, “Well, find a place and do it.” I was like what? I didn't realize I could do that myself.

So I found a small cafe over near the University of Washington in Seattle. I took over the lease for about $5,000. The first few years, I realized I had no idea what it was like to run an actual cafe. It was very different from distribution - you make stuff, you take it to people, they give you a check, and there you go. You open your doors to a cafe, you are waiting on people to come in. My first challenge as an entrepreneur was to find a way to build business and sort of recreate. It was small enough, so I just did everything. I was the dishwasher. I was the chef. I was the busboy. I was the accountant.

I opened up in 1999, and then by the time I got rolling 9/11 rolled around, and people just sort of stopped going out in general. People sort of wanted comfort food. Veganism wasn't that popular back then, it’s not like it is now. Then the Atkins diet came out. I don't know if you remember that. People stopped eating bread. Here I am in a sandwich shop and no one wants bread. I had to go back and make a bunch of wraps, and made a bunch of freaking salads, and more side dishes and stuff. I constantly adapted.

The cafe finally got on track. We started to get some traction and some newspapers started writing it up. It was weird for me. I was like this young black guy who owned a business. That was sort of a part of what people came to see [when they visited the cafe]. I remember one of my customers, it was this black guy, came into the cafe one day and he was like, "You the only nigga I know in the paper not for getting shot."

Ha-ha that is awful but he probably had a point.

Ha, very true. I learned a lot. If you're dedicated to doing what you're doing, then you know you just have to find a way to make it work. It's funny, I ran into someone recently who was starting a cafe and she asked me if I had any advice, and I told her, "Be prepared for success." A lot of times when people start businesses they are ready to struggle, but they are not ready for success, and that happened to me. Something just clicked and people started to show up. I wasn't ready to handle the volume when it happened. And that's one thing I definitely learned. Don't just be ready to struggle, be ready for it to work beyond your wildest dreams.

That's also a good way to stay optimistic and driven too. It's not the first thing people think of.


A lot of the promo stuff you did for your business was before social media was big, right? Were you doing a lot of word of mouth?


You were making flyers at Kinkos?

There was no Facebook, there was like Friendster at the time. But no, nobody even knew what social media was.

Do you feel like social media has been pretty big in your success now?

Absolutely. After I left the cafe in Seattle, I moved to New York and worked as an executive chef in Manhattan for three years. When I moved on, I launched IEatGrass.com as a way for people to find me. I launched the blog in like 2010. I feel like social media is imperative. I force myself to be up on every platform that comes out, or at least know about it. I don't necessarily need a profile, but I need to know about it and watch it in case something happens.

Yeah, social media is an incredible tool. Most people use it just to mindlessly consume things. I think if most people saw it as a powerful tool to get their message out or to have a platform, we'd have a lot of things being shaken up that's for sure.

Yeah, absolutely.

What would you say are the biggest pros of working for people?

The pros are is that check that shows up every 2 weeks like magic. Just like ping, the numbers on your bank account just roll right up. That's like the best part ever.

Sounds very wheel of fortune.

Secondary, it was a pro to have people there to manage other parts of it. I could focus on my job as opposed to having to do everything.

What would you say was the biggest con of working for somebody?

If you want to work for yourself, working for someone else is just going to take up all of your time. If you eventually want to build something on your own it gets harder and harder. You put in all these hours and you get home and maybe you just want to crash out instead of putting in that extra time. Maybe you don't want to do the 6a-10p and you just want to chill for a minute, and then it's the next day. And then you know god forbid you have a life, and you have to see significant others and all that other stuff. Your time gets so consumed, and not to mention it crushes your soul. I mean. There's that part. It does crush your soul.

Ha-ha. How has being a black man affected you being an entrepreneur? Has it made it easier or harder at all?

I'm definitely unique in my field. When people meet me, I don't fit into any sort of stereotype, so I just become this thing out here. I definitely use the fact that there's only one other well-known black vegan chef out there to my advantage. We have a whole different vibe. I definitely use every part of my being to my advantage in pushing it forward. As an entrepreneur you are selling yourself. It's really about how much can you get people to believe in you.

Being a vegan is also like being another kind of minority. A lot of people don't understand that lifestyle. How do you stay balanced to your lifestyle? Especially because I think the black community’s relationship with food can be so unhealthy.

I'm constantly looking at ways to get that message into the black community. In 2012, I had a spread in Essence with recipes, which was great. I was able to get a lot of feedback. I did 106th and Park. When I'm in front of African American audiences the feedback is good.  My goal these days is working my way more in front of the camera so people can be like, ‘Oh yeah this guy is healthy. He's active, he's vegan.’ You got to sort of lift the veil away and show people that it's a viable option. I think it's just a matter of exposure and education.

Like that whole episode when Jay- Z and Beyoncé went vegan for a couple of weeks was ultimately good because it was exposure to people who didn't even know what veganism was, or they were on the fence about it. Now those people may look into it. It’s also about combating the bad vegan food out there. There's a lot of bad vegan food out there. I try to put out good recipes and things that are familiar to people, so they can see that this is what veganism is, this is something that I can make at home that tastes good. And the end result is it also cuts down on type 2 diabetes in the community and childhood obesity.

That’s definitely true. So where do all your ventures stand now? You're writing, you're a personal chef?

I work as a personal chef off and on. I'm on a few people's short lists for personal chefs. My last client was India Arie. I toured with her for the past year and a half when she went out on her last album. I've done some work with Alicia Silverstone. I am also finishing my cookbook, which will be out in the fall around October 16th.

Well congrats on that, writing a cookbook is not easy.

Oh my god, it's been 2 years in the making. It's not easy at all. I am also working with ulive.com and they are testing the cooking show out as pilot. People have to watch it and like it and want more and then we'll do some more. So hopefully that will come back around. I've been really focusing on just the book and getting the book done. My co-writer Zoe Eisenberg and I had a lot of ideas on how to expand the book in a way that makes sense to people and is accessible. That's my activism. I just make good food and put it on the table. If you eat and and like it cool, I'll give you the recipe and you can make it at home. I tell people all the time, you can't eat an idea. The idea of veganism may be great, but if the shit don't taste good, what are we talking about? 

Word. Food has to taste good at the end of the day. Are there any other challenges you've faced on your journey to this point or big successes you're proud of?

I think the biggest thing is just keeping your stamina up. Any entrepreneur will tell you, you're full of tries and fails before you get to the success. My biggest thing I've sort of noticed is how far I've been able to go just cooking some tofu. To my private chef work, to traveling around the world, to being an executive chef in Manhattan, I've done a lot of stuff that a lot of other contemporaries [in my field], vegan or not, do not get the opportunity to do. I think that one of my biggest things is just understanding my value, and deciding where to put it and deciding what is enough. Learning how to say no.

People have asked me on several occasions to join their team or do this or that. I understand that these are my best years and I want to put that towards what I want to build, and to give everything to what I want to build. If later on I want to do something for someone else that can be an option. I don't want to give my talent, myself, my time to go build somebody else's dream. To me as an entrepreneur, as a black man, as a child of the revolution, I can't be doing shit like that, you understand what I'm talking about?

You were getting all serious with that last statement. You were almost Oprah but then turned into Malcolm X in the middle of it. I mean you've definitely had that seed of entrepreneurship instilled in you from seeing your family do it for generations.

I was raised in a household of god bless the child that has his own, so to speak. I had an ex-girlfriend who didn't really get the entrepreneur thing. Her thinking was like, why do this? I have a job that pays me a lot of money, I got benefits, I got two weeks off. There's that whole world of working for people, and that's fine, but that's not for me. It never has been. Every time I've worked for someone, I've always felt like it's temporary while I can get my stuff together, you know get back to my entrepreneur shit. Cause ya'll don't know what chu talking ’bout.

It's definitely a different mentality. It's not for everybody and I respect that, but there’s a lot of people who could prosper in it if they understood it as an option.

I think there's a big fear element. You think, ‘Well, who's gonna want my idea, or who's gonna want this food, or this photo op?’ At the end of the day, it's understanding how people work. People in general want convenience given to them. If you can find a way to make something more convenient or give them something that they like at a price they are willing to pay, that's all you need.

Was there any advice that you want to give to somebody who is following the same path?

When it comes to starting a business, go for it. I think that if you have the idea that you can do it, go for it. Even if that business doesn't succeed, you start to understand the process of how to do it. And you get that taste that you can do this.

Exactly! I would compare it to riding a bike for the first time. No one researched that before just doing it. No one was like, ‘Ok I put my helmet on and pedal 30 times to start.’ Imagine all the things you did as a kid and you did not Google them, you just did them.

Yeah that's the thing. It's for the person who has the idea to do it. Just go for it.