Admittedly, I only happened upon VelTree while I was looking for a different vegan restaurant that I used to frequent, but it turned out to be a happy surprise.
Unbeknownst to me, ZiZi’s had recently left the space where it once hosted its takeout service on North Tryon Street in the University City area, but I found VelTree there in its place. Pleasantly surprised that I could still support a Black-owned business while eating vegan, I gave them a try.
On that trip, we indulged in a fan favorite “box of chic’n” and I became a fan from there on out.
Co-owner and chef Velvet Kelty-Jacobs comes from a rich history of restaurant leadership. Her family owns and operates a vegan restaurant in the DC/Maryland area, and though she grew up eating meat, she didn’t enjoy it.
“I never liked meat; every night at the dinner table I would excuse myself three or four times to throw the meat away,” Velvet recalls. “My family is vegan. My sister converted us all around 25 years ago. All of the kids of the family were born vegan.”
Velvet’s wife and business partner, Treona, aka Tree, had only recently become vegan when they met.
“When we met at my restaurant in Maryland, Tree had just transitioned to a vegan lifestyle,” Velvet says. The couple partnered up to start a nonprofit called Vegan in the Hood, through which they’ve carried out lots of food-centered community work. The couple has been married for almost eight years now and within that time created numerous businesses.
They said they were looking for vegan soul food during a visit to Charlotte some years ago, but were unable to satisfy their taste. Shortly after the trip, they decided to bring what they were missing to the city and launched VelTree.
A combination of both owners’ names, VelTree opened in 2018. While their first location in University was a relatively small take-out spot, a new location in Ballantyne, which they moved to in December, boasts plenty of seating and room for an expansive menu.
I sat down with Velvet to chat about VelTree’s expansion and multiple other endeavors the couple is undertaking around the city.
Queen City Nerve: Tell me about the inspiration behind VelTree.
Velvet Kelty-Jacobs: VelTree started in Charlotte out of a personal need to see vegan soul food in an area where there wasn’t any available. I believed that a city like Charlotte should have a soulful vegan food presence and we decided to create that road.
What is your personal relationship and philosophy around veganism?
I believe that it is important to bring awareness to the African American community around our eating habits and food choices because our community suffers most from treatable health disparities.
I believe that having soulful vegan food options creates an opportunity to expose our community to a familiar food flavor without the ingredients that are most harmful to our bodies. When I think of veganism there are three things that come to mind: my people, the animals and our planet.
What has your experience been as a queer Black woman in veganism?
Representation is key. It’s so important that we live our truth to show others like us that if we can do this, so can you. We have experienced racism and those who don’t want to support because we’re lesbians, but the love outweighs anything else.
You recently opened a new VelTree location in Ballantyne. What made you choose this location and how does it differ from the previous restaurant?
So, the new location was a divine move. We looked in many areas, but the Ballantyne location opened up to us. We had some customers who traveled from Ballantyne to the old location and always asked us to move closer. In our old location, we always had lines out the door and the parking lot stayed jumping.
We are finding that our old customers think we’re too far away and we don’t see them as much, but they still support us, as we are making a new customer base here in Ballantyne.
With a new location also came a new menu. What’s different?
The new menu is filled with items like country fried chic’n, a meatless loaf with mashed potatoes, BBQ ribz and potato salad, buffalo mushroom bites, tuna melts, shrymp and grits, chic’n and tempeh bacon wraps.
We also have gluten-free items such as crab cake, drums, and Cajun shrymp to name a few. On the fall/winter menu we’ll be adding ste’ak and gravy, and cream chipped beef on our house biscuits.
You have another restaurant in California, which is a far more abundant vegan market than Charlotte. How has that been?
Yes, we have been in LA for two-plus years and [our restaurant] was voted the Best New Vegan Restaurant by VegNews in 2021, which speaks in volume to our products and the love and support of our vegan community. We were also picked as one of the top restaurants to visit while in LA by Eater magazine, and we had an amazing feature done on us by KTLA’s LA Unscripted.
Due to a fire [that occurred] three days from Christmas last year and staff shortages, we decided to close for now, but we will be returning after everything here in Charlotte is set up and doing well.
You’re also launching Soulchella in Charlotte in 2023. What is that?
Soulchella was created to celebrate our third Soulfull Vegan Fest. Soulchella is going to be a celebration of everything we love: good vegan food, family fun, and great music. It will be the third-year anniversary of our annual vegan fest and the 50th anniversary of hip-hop music.
With that in mind, it was a no-brainer to do an event like Charlotte has never seen in the vegan community. We will be bringing in the best of the best to throw down at Soulchella.
Before that takes place, you have a separate music and food festival coming up on Sept. 18. Tell me about it.
Yes, we are so excited to bring this first ever vegan jazz and wine event. It’s called the Charlotte Vegan Jazz and Wine Festival. I have such a love for food, fun and great music. I’m a fan of jazz artists like Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Al Jarreau, John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson, Charlie Parker, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, and George Benson; I grew up listening to these great legends.
Is there a VelTree patron encounter that sticks with you?
I have had so many memorable encounters its hard to choose just one. I have had several customers that have cried while telling me how something on the menu reminded them of lost love ones like their mothers or grandmas and aunties who had passed. I have had little girls and boys look in amazement as their parent tells them that I own the restaurant. I’ve had elders come in with newspaper clippings that are as old as the restaurant. I even had a woman sit on the church pew in the restaurant and just start crying because of memories.
What’s the one dish that people should order from VelTree and why?
The soul plate. Because you can choose different options when you can’t make up your mind!
What sets VelTree apart from other Charlotte restaurants?
We offer an experience when you come to VelTree. It’s not just about the food, it’s the vibe, the music and the people. We just like to have a good time.
What can we expect from VelTree next?
Honestly … we have many things planned but we’re taking it one day at a time. The pandemic really did a number to our industry along with the great resignation. We’re just blessed to still be here!