ATLANTIC CITY — Two decades ago, the heart of downtown Atlantic City was turned over to a Baltimore-based developer, who transformed blocks of the resort town into a busy outlet mall populated by national chains, known as The Walk.
This summer, Sharonda Harris-Bunton, 44, an entrepreneur/actress/model/chef from Vineland, N.J., was welcomed to Michigan Avenue with a red carpet gala as she opened the second location of her popular restaurant, Vegans Are Us.
As only the second Black-owned independent business to occupy a piece of what is now the Tanger Outlets, and the first owned by a Black woman, Harris-Bunton’s arrival in downtown Atlantic City was definitely red-carpet worthy.
“It’s turned the world upside down in the best way,“ said Kyra Smiley, 24, a Vegans Are Us manager in training, standing happily behind the register on a recent Monday morning as the restaurant prepped for another busy day in Atlantic City, following a weekend crush with three days of Phish fans and others lining up for Harris-Bunton’s creative plant-based cuisine. ”It’s all good energy.”
Like everything Harris-Bunton does, her food is just one reason for the energy. Honestly, the vegan Italian sub could take its place next to the real thing a few blocks away at Atlantic City’s iconic White House Sub Shop, never mind the joy of biting into a juicy, crunchy fried “chicken“ drumette, a citrusy tang thanks to a little hint of lemon-zest-y faux skin, even a little wooden dowel a happy surprise stand-in for the bone. The whole thing is vegan-vérité perfection. .
”She’s getting so much love,” said Jay Lynn Harris, 27, a Vegans Are Us manager who also works at the nearby Starbucks at The Walk. Both are located on a pedestrian island ringed by H&M, just a block from the convention center and train station. “Being a Black woman myself, I just look up to her, and to see this business flourishing the way it is … it makes me feel that she’s part of my family.”
Harris recalled last summer, when Black Lives Matter protests focused on The Walk, with one day’s protest followed by extensive looting throughout the area. Police massed in riot gear, and stores like Brooks Brothers, Vans, and Polo Ralph Lauren were broken into, windows shattered and inventory stolen. More than a hundred people were ultimately arrested.
To have this summer’s buzz at The Walk be focused on Harris-Bunton’s triumphant vegan arrival feels miraculous, she said. Never mind the lines — customers say it’s always worth the wait.
“The reason they were protesting, one of the reasons, is there weren’t many Black-owned businesses,” Harris said. “That gave me chills. And now, it’s just better, bright, a breath of fresh air, honestly, It’s just amazing.”
‘I have to save these people’
Harris-Bunton said her journey began out of personal tragedy, as she watched her mother and father and two siblings all pass away from health-related issues. She was working a full-time job as a mental health counselor in Mount Holly at the time.
“I lost all of my immediate family due to health problems,” Harris-Bunton said in a recent interview in the relative quiet before the restaurant opened its big garage doors following a weekend so busy she’d had to close early. She’d finally found and hired a chef, Tariq Elam, to help her with the cooking.
“I was the youngest, and I have always taken care of my family members that were ill,” she said. She began looking for a way to prevent others from a similar fate. “I’m just like, I have to save these people because I didn’t want anybody to go through what I went through.”
She began her own personal transformation with a vegan and raw diet, and plunged into an exercise regimen that she says bordered on an addiction. She got certified as a personal trainer, began working as a fitness and gym model, and, on the side, began making and sharing videos about her vegan cooking. That led to pop-ups for food, and, ultimately, to the opening of Vegans Are Us in 2019 on Landis Avenue in downtown Vineland.
“I felt so great, to where I said I would never go back to eating meat again,” she said. “And then I dropped weight like crazy and in mind, body, I just did a whole makeover. Because you know, what you put in that’s what you get.”
Her philosophy had evolved to a plant-based menu that mimics some of the guilty cravings that lead people to an unhealthy diet: A spicy crispy chicken sandwich, a Philly V-steak, cashew mac & cheese. She also uses the Just brand vegan egg product to create dishes like French toast, and vegan bacon egg and cheese sandwiches.
The “touch of soul” gives the restaurant a bit of soul food flavor and reflects her passion to remake beloved Black food traditions so they aren’t also contributing to heart disease, high blood pressure and other health conditions prevalent in Black communities, without sacrificing taste or texture.
On her menu are collard greens (seasoned with fresh herbs and spices, not turkey butts or ham hocks, she notes), waffles and tofu-based chicken, and a “Soul Sloppy” served with tater tots and melted vegan cheese. The vast menu includes a mushroom cheesesteak, a ”Bratwurst Banger,” and a shrimp po boy, all plant-based.
“I figured if I can create a menu with a little bit of the taste they’re used to, they will be more susceptible to at least trying,” Harris-Bunton said. “I can cook [dishes] without meat and they taste just as good.”
‘I had so many naysayers’
Harris-Bunton believes a plant-based diet eases stress, and carries the potential to reduce or eliminate the anger and rage that have become so common and led to so much recent violence. “I think it’s just like the tension from the animals, the rage, and people are eating it,” she said.
People doubted the viability of opening up in downtown Vineland, she said, but she proved them wrong, and the restaurant thrived during the pandemic. “I had so many naysayers,” she said. “People didn’t think it would work in Vineland, because Vineland was a small town, and they didn’t think there was a lot of vegans. They’re just like, ‘are you serious, why are you doing this?’ But I had my vision and I knew it was needed.”
She looked to Atlantic City after too many trips to the resort where there were not true vegan options. “You know, I stopped coming to Atlantic City because I got tired of just eating fries and salad,” she said.
With this prime restaurant spot available in the outlets, Harris-Bunton made the jump, despite a relatively pricey rent, she said. She joins SwapzAC as the only Black-owned independent stores in the outlets. Separately, the McDonalds, which predated The Walk on Atlantic Avenue, is owned by Rita Mack, a well-known Black entrepreneur in Atlantic City.
Steven Young, a longtime Black activist in Atlantic City who deliberately led protests through The Walk last year, celebrated Harris-Bunton’s achievement as a step toward “accountability to the Black community,” and posed with her at the red carpet welcome.
In an interview, Young said he and other activists were arrested trying to make the point about economic inequality, about preserving Black-owned businesses, and not setting them up to fail.
He noted the tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks and loans routinely given to corporate and outside owners in Atlantic City, the original engineering of The Walk by the state’s Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, and the high bar to entry in prime spots like the Outlets.
Meanwhile, a longtime idea to bring back a Black entertainment and business district to Kentucky Avenue remains unfunded, he said. Older business districts like nearby Atlantic Avenue remain challenged by crime and illicit drug activity. “Everybody’s making money, everybody’s taking money out of here,” Young said. “That is why we were demonstrating.”
For Harris-Bunton, though, the prime spot in The Walk means a steady stream of shoppers and people coming from the convention center, or entering town from the Atlantic City Expressway, and a revolutionary change in the still-beating heart of a beloved old resort town.
She has her sights set on additional locations: Ocean City, Md., for starters. Harris-Bunton, who has acted in several movies, said she met a vegan chef in Hawaii who cooks for former President Barack Obama and told her his favorite food is nachos. “My goal is to get these celebrities in here and just blow their minds,” she said.