The roads were icing over. Staff began calling in to work: Not gonna make it today. Roads are too dangerous. Amiya Cleveland had been getting by week after week, but just barely. And now Winter Storm Uri was on top of North Texas. Cleveland knew she’d have to close her Grand Prairie restaurant, ITSO Vegan, and wait it out.
But waiting also meant getting behind on bills that would have been paid with a week’s worth of service. Cleveland was almost immediately $4,500 in the hole. So she launched a GoFundMe a week ago to help save her vegan restaurant. As of press time it has raised over $5,600.
“I never thought I would have to start a GoFundMe, but so many people depend on us being there,” says Cleveland. She runs a restaurant that provides soulful plant-based fare: mushroom po’boys, “chicken” fried steak made with seitan, collard greens without the ham hocks, cashew queso, and other comforting soul food without the meat. People with high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes seek this menu—Cleveland has even served cancer patients. Of course there are vegan customers, but she estimates 85 percent of those she serves have a health issue that necessitates eating less meat.
“So many really depend on the vegan restaurant because that’s what they eat. I can’t close and leave them with nothing,” says Cleveland, whose restaurant is the only vegan one in Grand Prairie.
Like so many in the food industry, the last year has been rough, to put it mildly. There had been unexpected repairs and extra COVID-19 expenses like sanitation and additional to-go ware. She had to cover absent employees taking the mandatory two-week quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19. Long before last week’s weather emergency, ITSO Vegan had been in an unrelenting battle with the tempest that is the pandemic. And then she had to close because of the weather.
“So many really depend on the vegan restaurant because that’s what they eat. I can’t close and leave them with nothing.”Amiya Cleveland, chef-owner, ITSO Vegan
It’s not the first time Cleveland had to temporarily shut down the restaurant. The ongoing pandemic has meant fewer people frequenting the new space. (Cleveland opened ITSO Vegan with her husband, Tytus, in March 2019, just a year before the pandemic. As the old adage goes, the first years of a restaurant’s life are the hardest. Dallas Morning News called ITSO a Black-owned business success story.)
“Nobody was ordering anything. We were really, really squeezed. We had to shut down for two months. We couldn’t afford to stay open. No one was coming out,” Cleveland says of that first closure.
After that initial hiatus, they came back. “We reopened with what we had,” she says. Others were “ordering through third party delivery apps [which] charge commission rate of 30 percent.” Those rates eat into revenue.
Cleveland is hardly alone. Nonprofits that are on the ground helping weather-battered Texans have also suffered damage and need more funding than ever. She’s looked into round two of the Paycheck Protection Program and is applying for grants, too.
ITSO Vegan is one story of many. Restaurants everywhere continue to scrape by.
“Things that were out of our control,” says Cleveland, from a pandemic and its associated costs to a statewide winter storm, “means not being able to feed people.” And for the chef, nourishing her community with plant-based sustenance is essential. She’s not giving up without a fight—and a fundraiser.