By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times
Khalilah Sowell has always had a talent for visiting a restaurant, eating a great meal, and saying “I can make that.” That didn’t change when she began her transition in 2002 to veganism.
According to the Vegan Society, established in 1944, “Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”
Sowell, 37, is the owner and operator of Underground Vegan, a soul food restaurant that opened in Five Points South in June. She now makes the kind of meals that leaves others saying some of the things she once said.
“It’s weird because everybody that comes in here brings their family,” Sowell said of her customers. “It’s so amazing because they’re like, ‘My family thought I was crazy, and then they tried your food.’ [That’s often followed with], ‘Hey, I could do this? I could substitute a meal for this.’ So, it was amazing.”
Underground Vegan serves a variety of plant-based takes on traditionally animal-reliant dishes, including Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, chicken nuggets, Nashville hot chicken sandwiches, and mac and cheese. A standby of Sowell’s cooking has been her Skrimp Po Boy, her take on the classic Louisiana sandwich, which she has served ever since she set up a pop-up shop at a West Homewood Farmer’s Market.
People who tried the dish when she debuted it said, “Vegan shrimp? This is crazy”—a reaction Sowell said patrons still have to this day.
Sowell is a Birmingham native who graduated from the former E.B. Erwin High School in Center Point; she also attended Ramsay High School in Five Points South, as well as Glen Iris Elementary School.
Though Sowell has lived across the U.S., including places like Washington, D.C., Arizona, and North Carolina, she felt it was important to open her restaurant in Alabama, specifically in Birmingham, where vegan dining options were limited.
“I was like, ‘If I’m going to [open this restaurant], even though I’ve been in different states for years, I’m going to bring it home—and I’m going to do it for Alabama,” said Sowell.
Change in Eating Habits
Sowell was first introduced to meat-free eating during her first semester at Howard University, in Washington, D.C., in 2002.
“My freshman roommate in college was actually a vegetarian, [a person who eats no meat, and sometimes no animal products (such as milk or eggs)], from birth. I was like, ‘Oh, you’re a unicorn. Who doesn’t eat meat? [Also, there] was a vegan restaurant across the street from campus, and I fell in love with it,” said Sowell, who was “always cooking” in the dorm, which gave her knowledge of how to be vegan and eat well.
Seitan, a meat substitute common in East and Southeast Asian food, is an ingredient that pushed Sowell closer to veganism in the early days of her transition. Subbing seitan in for meat “actually” tasted good, she said.
Though Sowell was excited about her change in eating habits, her family didn’t feel the same when she came home for Thanksgiving during her freshman year.
“I started out, and I was like, ‘Yes, I’m gonna be vegan.’ Then I came home for Thanksgiving, and my family was like, ‘No, you’re not.’ So, it was kind of like an up-and-down roller coaster,” said Sowell, who said her family has come around to the vegan food she makes, but they aren’t ready to make the transition themselves.
Still, she said, “They ask. ‘Are you going to cook for me every day all day?’”
In addition to her love of vegan fare, Sowell has health and moral reasons for choosing to not eat animal products.
“Studies say that [a plant-based diet is] better for you, even if you change out just one meal a day,” she said. “Also, I learned about how animals [are mistreated.] I feel like I’m a documentary person, and [the documentaries] sealed it.”
After learning what happens to animals, Sowell was “done,” and it sealed her decision to become vegan.
“Meat itself is disgusting. You have to season it with vegetables, so just cut out the middleman, and you’ll be good,” she added.
Prior to establishing Underground Vegan, Sowell had very limited experience in the restaurant industry. She did work as a server at the Hard Rock Café in Washington, D.C., for a few years, but her main focus is homeschooling four of her five children: Isayah, 3, Aliyah, 9, Micah, 10, and Amirah, 13. Her stepdaughter, Zipporah, 20, is currently studying herbal medicine at Tuskegee University and promoting her plant-based-supplement line, Rooted Vybz.
Work balance and homeschooling are not a challenge for Sowell because she and her husband, Antoine, have been doing it for years.
“I have a great partner, my husband, who helps. … We also have a routine,” said Sowell, explaining that Antoine is in banking, so he can work from and homeschool the kids while she’s away during the day.
Homeschooling is important to Sowell, who felt the schools were inadequate when her children attended public school in North Carolina.
“The kids weren’t getting what they needed,” she said. “So, I Googled and researched, connected with some other homeschool moms and co-ops, and it was history from there.”
In addition to educating her children, Sowell also educates herself, especially in regard to her business. She’s learned a lot via the internet, for instance.
“The thing is, information is free for the most part. … If it isn’t free, I’ll pay for it,” she said. “There are so many people that know [more] that can curb your learning curve at this point, so there’s literally no excuse. There’s no excuse for not learning how to run a restaurant—anything. You can literally research and learn whatever you need to.”
The concept for Underground Vegan developed first from comments on Sowell’s personal social media posts, where she introduced friends to appetizing vegan food.
“People were like, ‘Oh, you’re vegan. That looks kind of good. Make me something.’ … I was like, ‘I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna get licensed [to operate a commercial kitchen],’” she said.
After acquiring the license, Sowell prepared vegan meals for whomever would buy from her. Then, in 2019, she set up a pop-up shop at the West Homewood Farmer’s Market.
“I didn’t blow anything up, and I didn’t burn anything down, so that was a plus,” she said. “Then, at the farmers market, it got to a point to where it seemed like most of the people there were there for my vegan food. The wait was like two hours. It was crazy.”
After that point, people “couldn’t tell me anything,” Sowell said.
“I was just like, ‘You know what? I’m gonna keep going forward.’ So many people didn’t think it was accessible at all because when you think vegan food, you think salad. I’m not that type of vegan to just do salad.”
After the overwhelming reception at the farmer’s market, Sowell knew it was time to expand. Starting a new restaurant in the midst of a pandemic would probably take too much time given the impact on construction, so Sowell started looking for food trucks.
“I actually found the food truck online at Facebook Marketplace. [The man I bought the food truck from] wanted to rent the food truck out of Mobile, [Alabama]. So, I’m like, ‘Would you sell it?’ … We drove down to Mobile and picked up a food truck sight unseen. [I’m very much an] I’m-gonna-do-it-and-it-gets-done kind of person,” said Sowell.
Even with the food truck, the demand was so great that it took around two hours to fill orders.
“I’m thinking on the customer side because I am a people person,” said Sowell. “I’m always like, ‘I’m so sorry.’ They’re like, ‘I don’t care. Take your time.’ … We [also] didn’t have the space, so I knew a restaurant would be the smartest move for me.”
With her fixed location, Sowell is still dealing with the aftereffects of the pandemic, such as “the simplest things, like getting boxes, getting paper, getting all those small things we took for granted,” she said.
Sowell knows she’s introducing many to their first vegan experience. “I’m doing hearty, vegan soul food for transitioning people or people who just want to try it out,” she said. “I don’t want your first experience to be horrible. … People coming here and say, ‘Hey, eating at your restaurant allowed me to go fully vegan.’ And that makes a difference.”
Underground Vegan is located at 2012 Magnolia Ave. Suite R3, Birmingham, AL 35205; phone: 205-202-6315.Find out more about the restaurant at www.undergroundv.com.