By, Maria Thomas & Anna Woods, Managing Editor & Editor-in-Chief
“This couch just showed up last night. Sometimes people drop this stuff off for us.”
Ra McCray was talking about the brown leather couch we were sitting on. It is parked outside of a storefront on 238th, which would soon house an indoor microgreens farm. The space was previously designed to be a cycling studio, called “iLiv,” which was also started by Ra and her husband, Khensu McCray, both Bronx natives. Unfortunately, the studio was being set up just as the pandemic hit, halting all plans. The couple soon went in a different direction when they saw the community had a dire need for something more than cycling: a “one-stop-shop” for health and wellness.
Next door to the soon-to-be microgreens studio is the couple’s more developed project. It goes by many names, all beginning with the initials V.B.: Vegan Botanika, Vegan Bodeguita (or Bodega) and Vintage Boutique.
The space is a creative hodgepodge of entrepreneurship, spirituality and health. On the weekends, VB opens its doors to sell clothing that is donated by the surrounding community. There is often a clothing rack with a “free” sign taped to it, situated outside the shop.
Throughout the different shapes this space has taken on, one thing has remained consistent: Ra and Khensu’s desire to unite and heal people using traditional, plant-based medicines. Ra noted how at the be- ginning of the pandemic, there was a great deal of misinformation about the virus. When the couple realized a cycling studio would not fare well in a pandemic, they opened their doors to the neighborhood for a different purpose.
“We turned into, almost like a wellness center. People were coming here to have cacao ceremonies, they were coming here to meditate during the pandemic, they were using alternative medicines to Western approach that would allow them to edify their immune systems and be able to cope with the climate that we were in at the time,” said Ra.
This was the birth of the original VB concept, the Vegan Botanika. Traditional botanicas are commonly found in Latinx communities, and typically sell religious goods and apothecaries, with items such as medicinal herbs, lotions, saint candles, statues, books and more.
“It doesn’t have the most positive perspective in certain cultures. So we wanted to change that, and we wanted to support people with the truth of it, which is an apothecary, which is a place where you can come get your medicinal applications,” Ra said.
As the shop became a popular spot for members of the community, the couple began making and selling their own juices and elixirs. In a time where little was known about COVID-19 and its spread, Ra and Khensu decided to stick to what they knew worked.
“We were like, ‘let’s keep it simple. Let’s go back to nature. Let’s do the lemon, the turmeric, ginger,’” said Ra.
After creating and selling their own brand of juices and elixirs, the idea of turning the space into a vegan bodeguita was born. “The concept was to create a deli with vegan treats and vegan food around the concept of a belly,” said Ra.
“It’s almost impossible to get vegan food unless, of course, you’re going into the city, or into the peripheral outskirts of the tri-state in general,” said Khensu.
According to National Geographic, “The South Bronx has the highest rate of food insecurity in the country, 37 percent, compared with 16.6 for New York City as a whole.”
“That was something that we were focused on. Why is it that we have to go out of our community to go get the things that we need? So the past few years, we’ve just been committed to creating that for ourselves and sharing it with everybody else,” said Ra.
The Vegan Bodeguita acted as a pop-up for different vegan chefs to come sell food to the community. The Blackrican Vegan, who has 44.3K followers on Instagram, amassed a line down the block of 238th and Greystone when the neighborhood discovered she would be at the Vegan Bodeguita pop- up, cooking her beloved Puerto Rican vegan dishes.
“We tapped into another part of the vision, which is the communal aspect of it. We started to bring in other vendors. I mean, we were part of the vision and we had the space, so we were like, ‘let’s pull in some more pieces of the puzzle,’” said Ra.
So not only was the couple bringing healthy and delicious food to the community, but they were giving a chance to fellow small-business owners.
“We were able to really edify other people who are business entrepreneurs, with tactics and skill sets that they other wise wouldn’t have been exposed to, in regards to scaling up their own personal businesses and eventually being able to acquire a space of their own,” said Khensu.
Vegan Bodega became the first vegan food expo in the Bronx. Once the Vegan Bodega gained traction, it transformed into a new iteration of the space known as the Vintage Boutique.
Like the initial Vegan Bodega, the Vintage Boutique also features vegan chefs who visit on weekends, selling different treats. Currently, Chef Millan’s Organics visits every Saturday, offering a different menus. One of their recent menus featured a vegan take on traditional Latin American and Caribbean food, offering dishes like pastelitos with “cheeze” and rice and beans.
One factor Khensu and Ra attribute to the success of these ventures is the surrounding community of businesses, as well as V.B. being situated next to Manhattan College. In discussing their location next to An Beal Bocht Cafe, Ra said, “Whenever we need anything, they’ve been really supportive. So being integrated within this community as Black people has been really welcoming.”
The couple hopes that Manhattan College students will help to further their mission of holistic healing for the community.
Jana Clark, a senior communication major, shared her excitement regarding the new business.
“I am honestly so excited that a new vegan space is in the community,” Clark wrote in an email to The Quadrangle. “I believe it’s a great way to expose people to what veganism is and all the good it can do, not only for your health but for the environment too!”
Clark, who is a vegan herself, discussed how veganism is a great tool to help the environment and live sustainably. She also emphasized the importance of businesses like these and encouraged fellow jaspers to support this new space.
“I believe spaces like this are needed in all communities. It’s a chance to be exposed to something new … If anything, you’d be supporting a small business and in my opinion, that’s something everyone could do more of,” Clark wrote.
“I really hope the Jaspers are just as excited to welcome this new business to the community as I am! It’s a great way to not only meet new people but to support those who are not only doing good for the community but for the environment as well.”
“Our vision for VB is to franchise it, and to be able to bring this concept anywhere that community is needed. And honestly, we travel to different places and we see the same vibe happening in other places,” Ra said.
In the future, Ra and Khen- su hope to establish a work study program, in which people can take on regular shifts and operating hours can be extended.
VB is located on 453 West 238th Street, Bronx, New York 10463.