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This segment called Women of Color Negocios will highlight amazing businesses around different cities that are either plant-based or spreading awareness of Veganism through a variety of platforms. We will be interviewing these women, knowing how their businesses started, and be inspiring to other women of color that want to spread similar messages! Have a vegan business you would like us to highlight? Contact us!
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Long before Next Stop Vegan existed, Blenlly Mena, a native Bronxite with proud Dominican roots, was situated in a small village in South Korea preparing veganized dishes from her culture for the friends she made in town. Veganism was almost unheard of in South Korea, so when she started introducing the concept of it to people in the area, they were curious about the culture and most importantly, the food. What is a typical dish amongst Latinxs (rice and beans, burritos, guacamole) was unheard of cuisine amongst her South Korean friends, let alone vegan cuisine. Amazed by the flavors, the love of her food spread from one friend to the next, creating a new unexpected journey for Blenlly.
How did veganism become a part of your life?
“It all started three years ago while living in Los Angeles. I was trying to change my lifestyle and I’ve always been very into nutrition. I understood veganism, but I wasn’t really sure what it was until the instructor of a weightloss challenge I participated in challenged us to go on a raw foods diet for two weeks. Veganism is one thing, but raw vegan is another extremity. I learned very promptly how intense it is.
Sure enough, I did the two weeks challenge and it worked out amazingly. My body just detoxed completely. Everything just changed: my spirituality, mentally I felt more awake, more energetic, more spirited. After I finished the challenge, I realized I liked this, but I just wasn’t sure what it was. So while researching raw dieting and raw recipes, the word ‘vegan’ popped up a lot. I was following all these YouTubers and Instagramers, and that’s when I learned about veganism and the word itself. I learned how veganism is not just a diet, which I thought it was, it’s a lifestyle.”
How did you get involved in the meal-prep business?
“When I created vegan dishes for my friends in South Korea, everyone was like “Oh my god, this is amazing! You should run a business like this!” So then I was like “Yeah, sure! I’ll do this! Whenever you guys want. I love this.” I was putting everything on my Instagram and people were excited and interested. Eventually, one of my good friends, Sunil Mahtani, said “You should consider meal-prep.” He was actually in a meal-prep service in Korea. It was vegetarian/vegan, coincidentally. He said, “You should try it yourself. You have this Latin twist and this passion for it. You would beat the Korean market in a heartbeat!” I was like “Nah, I’m good. I don’t like cooking like that. I cook for you guys for fun. I can’t cook for the public like that.” And he said “Well, you should consider it.” That was the initial conversation.”
A few months later Sunil, so impressed by Blenlly’s food, asked her to cook for him. This was the start of the business, initially called It’s Blenlly Catering. “I did this whole shopping list, I created this whole vision of what this business was going to look like in South Korea.” On meal prep day, Blenlly stuffed her bag with all her seasonings and made an hour long trip to Sunil’s house. This meal prep day turned into a 14-hour event of non-stop cooking for Blenlly, “we started cooking Saturday at 12 and ended at almost four in the morning.”
After the end of that day Sunil said, "This is your it, Blenlly. This is your passion"
Blenlly was reluctant to the idea of starting the business because of how competitive business would be back in America, but Sunil persisted. He offered to help Blenlly make a business plan, even going as far as promoting the business online. After this, she was contacted by another friend in South Korea who wanted the same service done. Soon, people started asking for her service more and more and suddenly, It’s Blenlly Catering was booming. It wasn’t long before Blenlly would be going back to America, where her business would evolve into more than just a weekend gig.
How did the name Next Stop Vegan come about?
“One day, I’m sitting in my office and I start envisioning this business. Is it going to be in The Bronx? Do I want to cater to Latinos? Do I want to cater to just vegans? What name am I going to put? I went on Facebook and asked my friends to help me create a name for this business. My friend posted a motivational quote that began with ‘Next stop…” I was thinking, “Next stop? Oh my god, it’s like New York City. Next stop Kingsbridge Road. Next stop Fordham Road. Next Stop Vegan! I wanted the logo to have a train and an orange line for the D, the green for the 4 train, the brown- and that’s where the colors came about. I then sent my vision to a designer where the logo was created. When I showed it to my family they were like, “Oh this is cool. This is clean.” and it’s been our image ever since.
The next step was registering this business before coming to America. I wanted to make sure this idea was copyrighted and that this name didn’t go anywhere. I knew this name needed to be registered because I didn’t know where I was going to go with it, but I knew I was going to go places. I knew I was going to take this to America, take this to the Bronx, cooking in my friend’s house. So I paid, I got my business, got my tax ID, and got everything ready so by the time I came home in August, I was ready for it.”
After situating herself back in America, Blenlly wasn’t sure she would be able to operate her business out of her mom’s house. She even went on a road trip, scouting areas in Atlanta, Florida, saying she was, “wasting time because she didn’t know what she was going to do with Next Stop Vegan.” After settling once again in The Bronx, her sister reaches out to her saying, “Blenlly, you promised you were going to cook for me!” Her sister encouraged her to just start somewhere, so Blenlly decided to use her mom’s kitchen to create a week’s worth of food.
What was it like working with family and navigating veganism with them?
“I ended up cooking for my sister and that was my first client. Then my aunts called me and they were like, “I heard you’re cooking for your sister. I’m interested in losing weight. What is this whole vegan thing?” I didn’t think they would be interested. I came back home very close-minded. I knew in Korea, they were going to be open-minded because it was new, it was culturally accepted because it’s something fresh, modern, and new."
In America, I thought the Dominicanas were going to be talking shit because people don’t want to steer away from their cultural comfort food. It was the total opposite, my family was so understanding. They were so interested. They really thought that veganism was going to change their life and it has.”
What was just a sister cooking for her sister became much bigger as other family members began inquiring about her services and veganism in general. Soon, more and more family wanted Blenlly’s food. Then friends and co-workers of family. Once again, Blenlly’s customer base was growing, turning her part-time work into a full-time venture.
Drawing from her experience in South Korea, a lot of Blenlly’s initial dishes were inspired by Korean cuisine, which isn’t as easily veganized either. Eventually her sister pulled her aside and said, “You’re doing great, but you really have to tweak it a little bit because we’re Latinas. Maybe I can help you.” Blenlly’s sister, Ana “Loli” Baez, was a great cook who owned restaurants with her husband. Loli helped her tweak her offerings to include vegan Dominican food. Blenlly admitted that she didn’t know how to cook Dominican food and said if they wanted that food, they had to help her make it.
The first meal made with her family was a vegan sancocho. After getting the approval of many family members, they added this dish to their menu rotation. After posting about this meal on social media, the idea of a vegan sancocho blew people away. Receiving messages like, “Vegan Sancocho? What is this? Who’s making this?” After getting so many inquiries for this dish, Blenlly asked Ana to help run this business. The introduction of this Sancocho coupled with the uniqueness of the business drew in a growing curiosity. Customers were coming from Brooklyn, Long Island, and more. When more and more customers started flowing in, Blenlly knew things were getting serious.
What’s it like owning a business?
“As a business owner, there’s a lot of fear. With all the investment that we put in, will this be flourishing? Will this be how we envisioned it to be? At the end of the day, one of the main things that I live by is taking risks. I’m very much into living life on the edge. Life is short. I don’t want to be the person that thinks, “I wish I did it when I was 25.” I want to be that person that can share the story about my experience and tell the younger generation what happened and how they can make it better. For me, there’s fear behind the business and having this establishment and reputation. At the same time, what’s the worst that could happen? I take pride on how many people we’re already helping. How many animals we’re saving. It’s all nerve-wracking, but it’s a good nerve-wracking.”
Soon the business became a family affair as more relatives came on board to help prep the food and along the way, follow the vegan lifestyle. As demand grew, the business had to move out of Blenlly’s mom’s house, into her sisters, then finally in the space established in The Bronx today. When you peak through the storefront of Next Stop Vegan, you’ll see an empty space, for now. Blenlly explained that their location, which open just three months ago, was meant to be their space to continue their meal-prep business. As we discussed the vegan resources available in The Bronx, Blenlly explained that she felt the pressure. “That’s why we’re gonna have to open up. People want this food to-go. So my mom, my sister, and I are thinking we are going to have to open up, because of the lack of options.”
Without the bells and whistle of a typical restaurant, this former Chinese food restaurant turned home for Next Stop Vegan truly felt as such, a home. Blenlly has a natural welcoming aura to her that made all of us feel like old friends catching up. Describing her journey to Next Stop Vegan was mesmerizing. “I still get goosebumps when I share this story.” said Blenlly. “I still get emotional. I have yet to ground myself and recognize that this happened and is still happening. It’s happening so fast! It’s so surreal.”
Watching Blenlly interact with the community as they knocked on her doors, and they knocked often, told me that this is the kind of business founded with community first. Each time, she kindly explained the business, sharing their enthusiasm for veganism and forming connections with the local residents. “Every time I open that door, it’s just like synergy.”
Born out of the persistence of a friend and grown from the unexpected support of family, Next Stop Vegan thrives as a successful vegan meal-prep service in the Bronx. Not only are these meals plant-based and cruelty free, but they are filled with amazing flavors where you can “taste the love” as photographer Evelyn Martinez described after sampling their famous Chimi Burger.
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