- Between the restaurant’s oyster mushroom wing baskets, beer-battered cauliflower chicken sandwiches and avocado bites, Community Vegan has become one of the most popular food spots in East Austin
- Co-Owners Marlon Rison and Ericka Dotson have shaped the restaurant’s flavorful dishes to satisfy their patrons’ inesapable cravings for nachos, milkshakes, fried chicken and other appetizing items
- Dotson and Rison will open a second food truck in the fall that is drivable and can directly serve patrons from all corners of the city.
On the corner of East 11th and Lydia streets, the sweet aroma of Community Vegan’s savory bites draws onlookers and customers to the bustling food truck.
The micro-eatery has become a popular food spot in the East Austin Cultural District with dishes such as oyster mushroom wing baskets, beer-battered cauliflower chicken sandwiches, avocado bites and the truck’s signature Vegan Lickin’ Good Buckets.
Nearly every meal is crafted by co-owners and vegan cooks Marlon Rison and Ericka Dotson, who shape the restaurant’s flavorful dishes to satisfy cravings for nachos, chocolate milkshakes, southern fried chicken pieces and other popular items.
“It’s all about flavor, right? I know we’re bringing that to the block,” Rison said.
As the Community Vegan name spreads through the city’s dining scene, Rison’s face grows more familiar, too. Inspired by the logos of KFC, Wendys and other food chains, his radiant smile is at the center of the food truck’s sign and its branded products. But beyond the logo, Rison’s magnetic energy is the heart and soul of the East Austin operation that opened in September 2021.
Along with its brunch and main menu items, Community Vegan also offers raw, wildcrafted sea moss packages from Dotson’s company, Lott’s Herbs & Remedies; Dotson is a certified herbalist. Sea moss is a species of red algae that grows on coastlines across North America, the British Isles and continental Europe. Advocates say when it’s consumed in supplement form, it can help improve heart and gut health and strengthen the immune system.
After seeing an advertisement for Community Vegan, North Austin resident Jai’Sun Alexander stopped by the food trailer in March and since has become a loyal customer because of the eatery’s variety and Rison’s personal touch.
“(Rison) does a really amazing job at engaging with all of his customers, whether they’re first-timers, regulars or whoever,” Alexander said. “He makes sure everybody’s enjoying themselves or enjoying the food and enjoying the atmosphere. He does a really great job at making great food and making an even greater experience out of it.”
Success is still a surprise for Rison.
“We didn’t expect to create a product and service that could grow into this,” he said. “Like yo, let’s pay these bills and have some fun and be responsible. But fortunately, we’ve been able to do more than that.”
Despite the focus on vegan and herbal options, Rison said they are not trying to convert non-vegans to a meat-free lifestyle with Community Vegan. Only about a third of their customers are vegan, Rison said, and the goal is to broaden the minds of patrons by introducing a veggie-based substitute for the foods they already enjoy, including menu items such as Crab Cake Totchos, “I Used To Eat Fish” Filet Sandwich and Chilli Cheeze Fries.
“By no means are we ‘diet food’ and we don’t even put it out there,” Rison said. “For us, what we want to do is expose as many people as possible to vegetables, and if that means making it comfortable, we’ll make it easier to digest.”
Community Vegan co-owners wants to inspire others
Before opening Community Vegan, Rison was a radio host in Dallas and weighed upwards of 360 pounds. As a former powerlifter, he ate chicken, fish and turkey constantly throughout the week and consumed 350-400 grams of protein daily. He quit eating beef in 2004 and pork over 30 years ago, and he decided to make a complete switch to veganism after watching the documentary “What The Health” on Netflix in 2017.
The film, which focuses on the role of food in health, inspired Rison to take his health into his own hands. He altered his diet – cutting out all meats and processed foods – and dropped 140 pounds in the process.
Under the “Plantbased G” name, Rison started to share his health journey at speaking engagements and posted vegan recipes and cooking demos on his Instagram page. After seeing his audience grow on social media, Dotson encouraged Rison to write a digital cookbook filled with his top recipes.
In 2020, Rison released “The Quarantine 15,” an e-book filled with 15 (plus one bonus) vegan recipes curated by the Victoria-native.
Rison said he was driven to share his passion for plant-based foods and to encourage other people of color to pursue healthier diets, especially people susceptible to high cholesterol, heart disease and other serious health issues.
“We’ve got some of the worst health out of any of the groups that are out there, and it’s because of what we eat and we’re trying to change that tradition in terms of what we eat and how we eat it,” Rison said. “We want to make sure we give (patrons) options that are veggie-based and healthier for you, and hopefully, that will kind of change the way they approach food.”
Months after the release of the ebook, Dotson and Rison started thinking about opening their own restaurant.
Rethinking his life’s path during the pandemic
While Rison enjoyed a career in radio, he said time spent in lockdown made him re-evaluate his life’s purpose. Instead of working for a corporate brand, he wanted to pursue something that added to his family’s legacy, and establishing a restaurant was at the top of his list.
“For me, I said I have to be more responsible for taking care of myself, my family and my loved ones,” Rison said. “(Dotson) was still hitting me with the idea of the food truck thing, and then I said to myself, you know what, that might be the move for me to take control of my future, my destiny and build something that I can pass down to my kids and grandkids.”
Rison didn’t know whether it would be a traditional brick and mortar space or food trailer, and the only commercial dining experience he had before Community Vegan was as a cook at Popeyes at age 16. Dotson, a native Austinite, saw the potential in a mobile vegan restaurant in the central Texas city.
The couple scoured the web and saw a listing on Craigslist for a 1973 Winnebago Chieftain in San Angelo. They drove three hours out to the seller, who was willing to lower the price of the rugged 27-foot-long RV once he heard their plans to open a restaurant.
They towed the RV to Austin and spent 10 months and thousands of dollars to gut the worn trailer and replace decades-old appliances. Once the kitchen and other items were installed, Rison and Dotson commissioned local artist Andrew Horner, known as APSE, of the ColorCartelto give the food truck its signature coat and began taking their first orders for food.
To find a home for Community Vegan, Rison and Dotson also reached out to Stuart King, president of King-Tears Mortuary on East 12th Street, who referred them to Austin Revitalization Authority President and CEO Gregory Smith. He directed the two co-owners to the Lydia food truck park.
“We knew we could thrive in the East Austin Cultural District while securing the presence of a Black business on the block,” Rison said.
Sharing East Austin’s history, reclaiming the district’s influence
Dotson, the great-granddaughter of Ira Lott and Viola Madison Lott, who built a thriving lumber and housing business in the area, said there’s no better corner for the food truck.
Growing up in East Austin and Round Rock, Dotson said it was an area she used to speed past, as crime was an all too familiar occurrence during the 1970s and 1980s. But she said East Austin also was a community filled with Black and Latino-owned businesses and cultural happenings that reflect the area’s rich history.
Over the decades, the character of East Austin has transformed dramatically as high dollar residential and commercial real estate companies razed old buildings, priced out longtime residents and crippled the traditionally Black community’s past influence.
With Community Vegan’s placement, Dotson said she wants to reclaim the district’s cultural roots and remind folks of the area’s origins.
“With us being planted here, we can share the story about what was here,” Dotson said. “At one time, it was a happy time. My mom would talk about the time there was a theater down here, and they would all take the bus down and go shopping and all sorts of things. But it’s turned into something very different. So, it’s time to turn over the lead, but with us included. It’s important our faces are here.”
Plans to open second food truck, vegan grocery store
After a year in business with the food truck, Dotson and Rison said the next step is to expand. The duo is working on putting together a second food truck in the fall that is drivable and can directly serve patrons in all corners of the city.
As far as big picture goals, Rison said he’s thinking about building a Community Vegan grocery store somewhere in the East Austin Cultural District. That way, more people of color will have access to vegan ingredients and herbal supplies.
Rison’s hope is that Community Vegan becomes a national brand. But right now, he said his focus is to continue advocating for healthier lifestyles and continue putting smiles on the faces of the customers and community members who support the business.
“We got to represent the block and say thank you,” Rison said. “This is our opportunity to say thank you every day. With every meal, we show our appreciation.”