12oh7 Herban Eatery owners talk ups and downs of growing their plant-based business in St. Louis
Diners from all backgrounds are loving plant-based pop-up 12oh7 Herban Eatery’s soulful and globally inspired menu. But it’s going to take more than a legion of hungry fans to help co-owners Brandy Dixon and Jasmine Yandell achieve their dreams.
A perfectly squared, Japanese-style sandwich is splayed precisely, its midsection turned up, showing off perfect layers of white bread, shredded cabbage and what appears to be a breaded cutlet. An unsuspecting viewer would likely assume the cutlet, which features a crisp, rough exterior clinging to a tender, pale interior, was chicken – after all, we are currently living through a veritable chicken sandwich renaissance. However, this sandwich is from 12oh7 Herban Eatery, the plant-based food business owned and operated by partners Jasmine Yandell and Brandy Dixon. And at 12oh7, culinary sleight-of-hand with a soulful, globally inspired flair is the name of the game.
While it’s easy to be seduced by what Dixon and Yandell describe as the “wow factor” of their food – the magical feeling one gets from seeing and tasting something intimately familiar made with unfamiliar materials – it’s not the rabbit-in-a-hat trick of meat replication that sends you back for another bite or second order. It’s the deft spice blend of their Indian-style Aloo burger, the sweet-and-spicy kick of their jerk “chick-un,” the crisp-yet-flaky fry on their fruit-filled hand pies. The “wow” might get diners through 12oh7’s proverbial door (despite a sizeable customer base that includes diners from out-of-state, they don’t yet have their own brick-and-mortar). Rather, it’s the flavors and textures that bring eaters of all dietary backgrounds back again and again.
12oh7’s menu is largely the brainchild of Yandell, who attended culinary school and has spent most of her career in kitchens like Copia Restaurant and Wine Garden and Sunset 44 Bistro & Banquet as well as national chains like The Cheesecake Factory and Five Guys. “I worked in all kinds of restaurants because I had a goal to teach myself how to be able to run my own restaurant and what kind of restaurant I wanted to run,” Yandell explained. Her resume even includes a stint at Disney World, where on her first day, Yandell was assigned to the theme park’s largest kitchen and tasked with operating 22 fryers at once.
While Yandell brings the restaurant experience to 12oh7, Dixon provides crucial kitchen and business support. Part sous-chef, part taste-tester and part general manager, she helps Yandell prep all of 12oh7’s meals and serves as the face of the business, communicating with customers and running orders out for pickup. If Yandell’s primary perspective on their work is that of a chef, Dixon brings a natural knack for hospitality: “I look at everything from the customer’s point-of-view,” she said.
As Yandell was working her way through St. Louis’ restaurant scene and dreaming of opening her own spot, Dixon was building her customer service experience through retail positions and nursing similar goals of going into business for herself. The two crossed paths at a job in 2015, where Yandell recognized Dixon’s business savvy and approached her for help writing a business plan for her dream restaurant. When Dixon specified how much she would charge for her services, Yandell offered her half ownership of the business in lieu of payment. Dixon accepted, and a partnership was formed.
The two launched 12oh7 in 2015 at an art and food event in downtown St. Louis and decided to take the date they formalized their business partnership, Dec. 7, as their new project’s name. Though a plant-based menu was not part of their initial model, it wasn’t long before they shifted to meat-free cuisine; both partners follow a plant-based diet and featuring meat “just didn’t feel like us,” explained Yandell. Each had their own reasons for giving up meat: Growing up, Yandell never developed a strong taste for it and first went meat-free as a teenager, while Dixon went vegan later in life (with Yandell’s help) in an effort to combat her adult acne.
Despite their different reasons for going plant-based, Yandell and Dixon are part of a growing group of Black Americans who are embracing meat-free diets. According to the BBC, Black Americans are three times as likely to follow a plant-based diet as other Americans. Similarly, a recent story on Eater pointed out the role of prominent Black artists, athletes and other celebrities, like tennis star Venus Williams and politician Cory Booker, in promoting plant-based eating. “The thing with Black people, what we forget, is we’ve always eaten off the land,” Yandell reflected. “When we geared away from that, we caused a lot of health conditions, a lot of other problems, and a lot things that now people are trying to reverse.”
While many of 12oh7’s dishes are meant to appeal to eaters who identify as vegan, the majority of the business’ clientele are not strictly meat-free; and furthermore, Yandell and Dixon don’t themselves identify as vegan or feel comfortable applying the term to their food. “The reason we don’t say veganism is, first of all, it’s a very white term, and it doesn’t exactly describe us,” Yandell said. “We are plant-based, but to me, when I think ‘vegan,’ I think of all the processed junk food that’s in modern day veganism. And that’s not what we want to do.”
In the years following their 2015 launch, Dixon and Yandell slowly but surely built 12oh7’s following through farmers markets, local and out-of-town vegetarian food festivals, catering gigs and pop-up events. During this period, Yandell took a job as a prep cook at Retreat Gastropub, working at the restaurant part-time while she and Dixon focused on growing 12oh7. At Retreat, Yandell quickly gained the confidence of co-owner Travis Howard and then-general manager Jack McGinn; both were impressed by her work ethic, positive attitude and, above all, her skill and creativity in the kitchen. “A lot of people who aren’t in management roles are good at executing things, but they’re not always creative or trying to develop new things,” Howard explained. “But Jasmine was the sort of person who was taking recipes that we already had and giving feedback on them and finding little ways to tweak them and make them better.”
McGinn remembered Yandell’s time at Retreat in the same way. “There wasn’t really a situation that came up that she didn’t have some idea or foundational knowledge about how to improve,” he said. Because a restaurant kitchen can be, as McGinn put it, “a very weirdly hierarchical place,” it’s easy for such critiques to spark conflict, but Yandell was able to offer feedback without ruffling feathers. “She always was just like, ‘Well, here’s something I’ve done in the past that works, take it or leave it.’ And we almost always took it, because it was almost always good,” McGinn continued.
The team at Retreat knew Yandell had her own project she was working on, but it wasn’t until McGinn happened across 12oh7’s booth at the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market that he realized just how successful the business had become. “It was a slow, rainy-ish Tuesday afternoon, so not the busiest market ever,” McGinn recalled. As soon as Dixon and Yandell opened, though, he was amazed to see a crowd appear seemingly from nowhere to descend on them. “All these people – it was like they popped up from behind the bushes and swarmed on their little tent setup, and they were just immediately busy. So I knew they had a good following.”
The pandemic’s onset last March forced the cancellation of the farmers market and festivals that had been key to 12oh7’s success. But thanks to their flexible business model, they were able to pivot seamlessly to a regular carryout schedule using their house in Jennings as the initial pickup location. As a result, Dixon and Yandell found themselves busier than ever. “The pandemic literally quadrupled our business – we have never done so well,” said Yandell. Having organically grown a customer base accustomed to using social media to track 12oh7’s menu and availability at markets and events, their followers didn’t bat an eye at driving to Jennings to pick up meals. “When we were cooking from our house, the streets were packed,” Yandell recalled, laughing. “People were trying to figure out like, “What are you guys doing? Why are you guys in Jennings and Audi A8s and Teslas are pulling up into your driveway?’”
Soon they added Retreat as an additional pickup location; Yandell’s former employers are happy to let her and Dixon use the kitchen to prep for events and catering jobs whenever they’re closed, so it made sense to add the restaurant’s off day of Tuesday to their carryout calendar. The ordering process is simple: Each week, Dixon posts the menu to 12oh7’s social media accounts and website; customers place orders through the website. On the pickup day, customers text their arrival time and identifying details for their vehicle and then text again once they’ve arrived, and Dixon runs their food out to their car.
Even before the pandemic, Dixon and Yandell knew it was time for them to move into a brick-and-mortar of their own. The unexpected and explosive growth they’ve experienced during the pandemic has only made obtaining a space more urgent. “We have definitely outgrown what we’ve done, and we are no longer able to meet our demand,” Yandell explained. “We can only sell so much. We can only do so much, and we can’t really grow from it because of that.” Howard confirmed the duo’s need to move into their own facility. “I’m really hoping that they can find a place to call home before too long and see how much more they can develop it from there,” he said. “Because now, I’m sure that they’re somewhat limited in what they can offer, basically not having their own space and having very limited time in a kitchen.” Their goal is to secure their own space by the end of 2021 or spring 2022 at the latest.
For most businesses, this sort of runaway success story would auger a smooth path to transitioning to a permanent setup. But like so many Black women seeking to build their own enterprises, Dixon and Yandell have struggled to be taken seriously as business owners and to find the financial support necessary to fund their dreams. “Without having backing and without having a network behind you, you’re just kind of on your own,” Yandell lamented. “And then on top of that, being Black women inside of the [restaurant] industry really plays a big factor as far as people even just taking us seriously. When people see the food – it’s one thing for a social media presence. But then when you get out there in front of people, people are like ‘OK, so where are the owners?’ I’m like, ‘I’m right here! I’m cooking the food, but I’m right here!’
“Even the banks taking us seriously – even crowd-funding or angel investors – there’s just so many people. … This has taught me one thing. There are a lot of people out there that can help us. They don’t believe in us. And then there are a lot of people out there that believe in us that can’t help us at all. It’s a catch-22, and it leaves us in a position to do it for ourselves and try to figure out how to get us from point A to point B.”
The hurdles Yandell describes are what motivated podiatrist Dr. Annessa Blackmun, a 12oh7 regular, to launch a GoFundMe campaign to help Dixon and Yandell raise the funds to secure a space. Blackmun recalled trying 12oh7 for the first time at the beginning of the pandemic. “I ordered, I picked it up, it was fantastic, and when I tell you that I have been a loyal customer – six months straight, I went every single week,” Blackmun said. “I just fell in love with the both of them.”
Blackmun knows from personal experience how difficult it is to be a Black female entrepreneur, especially in St. Louis, where she was born and raised. After completing her professional training in New York City and New Orleans, she returned home to start her own practice. Here, she found folks who were interested in her services but couldn’t afford them. After struggling for a while to make ends meet, Blackmun closed shop. “I ended up going out of business because I just couldn’t get enough people. [There are people] who have a lot of interest in you but maybe can’t afford it or that sort of thing. I just saw that happening with them,” she explained.
Blackmun said she knows that 12oh7 can succeed based on her experience as a longtime customer of Lona’s Lil Eats, which similarly started out as a stand at the Soulard Farmers Market before transitioning to a brick-and-mortar location. “I was one of those customers that was at Lona’s Lil Eats when they were at Soulard, and they were there hustling for four years, husband and wife, beautiful people,” she recollected. “12oh7 gives me that same feeling of these people who love to cook, who love to give quality food to people, who love people, who learned their names, who want to feel something that’s lasting.”
Blackmun sees this urge to create something lasting that helps provide people with a sense of belonging as one of St. Louis’ positive distinguishing traits – one that helps counter-balance some of the city’s more challenging aspects. In this sense, her GoFundMe on behalf of Yandell and Dixon is as much an act of civic consciousness as it is an investment in food she finds delicious. She describes having seen many of her fellow Black professionals leave St. Louis, drawn by higher pay rates and job titles they’re unable to attain in this city. So when Dixon shared with Blackmun one day that she and Yandell had been offered an opportunity in Atlanta but turned it down, Blackmun knew she needed to do something to provide the pair with some support, to help make their effort to grow a little easier.
Yandell and Dixon confirm their commitment not just to the St. Louis region but also to the city specifically. When asked where their ideal location for a restaurant would be, they describe customers begging them to open all over the metro area, from O’Fallon, Missouri, to Illinois. And while they see benefits to many different locations, “We really want to stay in the city,” Yandell explained. “We really love our city. We want to be a part of something that can help, that can be a part of the better picture.” Making their plant-based food accessible to people from all backgrounds – including those living in the city’s food deserts – is a top priority for Yandell and Dixon. “Everybody can’t go out to such and such to get one burger for a day,” Yandell pointed out. “So, if someone has to catch the Metrolink, we just want everybody to be able to reach us.”
Yandell’s former bosses at Retreat have no doubts about her and Dixon’s chances of success. “I don’t want to understate how difficult the [restaurant] business is, because it is often difficult,” McGinn said. But he also believes that statistics regarding the high rate of restaurant closures in the first years of business fail to account for many first-time restaurateurs’ lack of prior experience in the industry. “I think that for Jasmine and Brandy, being as skilled as they are and being as hands-on as they are and already having the following that they have – I think they’re going to be very successful,” he stated confidently.
Howard concurs. “They are the sort of people who are hustling very hard and are grinding very hard right now, and people who are willing to do that, they find a way to get there.”
For more information about the GoFundMe campaign to help Dixon and Yandell obtain a brick-and-mortar, visit https://gofund.me/43a1d67d.
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