My taste buds are tingling in anticipation. The inaugural Taste of Black Austin (TOBA) opening reception is set for Jan. 31, from 6-9 p.m. at the Peached Social House.
Hosted by the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce, “Taste of Black Austin is a culinary event that explores the narrative of economic development through the historical context of food.”
The event’s theme is Exploring the Cultural Food Ways of Central Texas, spotlighting select savory Hors d’Oeuvres. The purpose is “to chronicle Black food history in Central Texas from 1870 to present.”
Among Austin’s chefs to be featured at TOBA is Sharon Mays, the sole proprietor of Baby Greens, an affordable fast food healthy salad restaurant. Mays relaunched Baby Greens in November 2016, after closing two locations in 2009.
soulciti (sc): Let’s talk about the origins and evolution of Baby Greens. What’s your impetus for such a concept?
Sharon Mays (Mays): I opened Baby Greens in 2004. I got the idea for a few years prior to that, after a brief stint as a vegetarian. I was a vegetarian for about two years. (I’ve gone back to eating meat.) I immediately noticed that there were no real fast food options for people who didn’t eat meat or who wanted a healthy meal. My background is in marketing, and I believe in the power of consumer buying patterns. It really annoyed me that a handful of fast food restaurants were dictating what we would be able to eat. I felt that if healthy food was easy to access, affordable, familiar, and delicious that people would go for it. I like burgers and fries. I just thought that there was plenty of room in the marketplace for another option. So, I played around with the idea for a few months, and the more I worked on it the more I felt that the world was ready for a drive thru salad restaurant.
It really annoyed me that a handful of fast food restaurants were dictating what we would be able to eat.
sc: It’s been rumored that you’re collaborating with the folks at Amy’s Ice Cream. Who approached whom to collaborate in this joint venture? Please share your vision for Baby Green’s expansion.
Mays: That’s not completely accurate. We are not collaborating. The owners of Amy’s Ice Creams (Steve & Amy Simmons) are dear friends of mine and very big Baby Greens supporters. They own the building that houses Baby Greens. When they purchased the property, they called me and asked if I would consider reopening Baby Greens there. Steve and Amy are my mentors, my allies, and biggest fans. They were an integral part of Baby Greens reopening, but our business concepts/operations are separate.
sc: Do you prepare meals with your chefs/staff in the restaurant? What’s on the menu? What are some of your favorites?
Mays: We have seven made-to-order salads that can be served as a salad or wrap. I have gone back to eating meat, but I never forgot about my vegetarian compadres. So, there is a meat version and a vegetarian version of everything that we serve, including our soup of the day. We have many vegan options as well.
I prepare the salad dressings and some of the soups. If I’m in the building, there’s a very good chance that I’ll jump on the line and lend a hand if we are busy. But the majority of the food is prepared by my amazing staff. Of course, they still use my recipes.
I love everything on our menu, so it’s hard to pick a “favorite.” I’m really into our Asian salad and the Spicy Peanut dressing. It’s one of the new menu items, so it’s all shiny and new for me. I really love our Curried Coconut Pumpkin soup. I made it up on a whim one day. I’m not typically a huge fan of pumpkin, but I saw some pumpkin puree at the store and I got a wild hair to try to make a soup with it. I really love the flavor. It’s so warm and cozy. It tastes really rich, but it’s vegan. And truly delicious.
I really love our Curried Coconut Pumpkin soup. I made it up on a whim one day.
sc: Other than the items on the Baby Green’s menu, what are your favorite foods?
Mays: I pretty much like food … end of sentence. I especially love spicy food, so I’m all about Indian food, Tex-Mex, Thai food. I love pizza, especially cheese pizza. It combines two of my favorite foods: bread and cheese. And of course, I love vegetables. Being a vegetarian for two years changed my eating habits. No matter what I’m eating, if there are vegetables on the plate I will eat them first. I have a garden, and I enjoy growing (and cooking) fresh collard greens and kale. I am crazy for greens. I eat them twice a day, every day.
sc: Who or what inspires/motivates you?
Mays: I am inspired and motivated by other people who follow their dreams. I really love being in the company of people who are passionate about what they are doing. Whether the contribution impacts one person or the community or the world, I think it’s all relevant.
sc: Have you served as a mentor to anyone else?
Mays: I have a company called Embark Coaching & Consulting, and I work with entrepreneurs to help them get themselves or their business to the next level in their respective development. I have also been a mentor many times. I have primarily mentored new or soon-to-be entrepreneurs. I am also a commercial realtor, and I have mentored other realtors through their first couple of attempts at commercial real estate.
It’s a feeling of complete freedom and self-reliance.
sc: How important is economic empowerment via entrepreneurship?
Mays: I think it’s incredibly important. The personal gains I experienced when I opened Baby Greens changed my life. Not in the sense that I was rolling in dough. More the feeling that I was able to provide for myself with money I made from my own company and that my company was a unique idea that I had and worked hard to make a reality. It’s a feeling of complete freedom and self-reliance.
sc: What leverage/influence does Baby Greens have or hope to have in the community?
Mays: By serving salads in a fast food format, Baby Greens helps people have access to healthy food. I think “Healthy Eating” can seem like a major lifestyle change. And I think that’s what can make it seem like a difficult commitment to keep. Baby Greens is quick and easy and our menu items are familiar. So, I think we can influence people to be a little bit healthier. I am a big believer in supporting the neighborhood and community when possible. We recently had a benefit day to help raise money for the park in our neighborhood. I don’t know how much influence Baby Greens will have on our community. I was appointed to the Austin Travis County Food Policy board [ATCFPB] by Mayor [Steve] Adler. In that role, I advocate to improve our community’s access to food and support of our local food system and economy. I chair the Codes & Ordinances workgroup of the ATCFPB, which has been tasked with including improvements to ‘Our Food System’ in the Code Next/land code rewrite.
Small business owners are working day and night to be a part of the community. And they need the community to show them some love.
sc: What other information would you like to share?
Mays: I would just encourage people to get out and support local businesses as often as possible. Lots of innovations are born at a local business, and local businesses make our marketplace more interesting and robust. Also, small business owners are working day and night to be a part of the community. And they need the community to show them some love.
Baby Greens is located at 1508 West Anderson Lane in Austin. Sample the yummy bites prepared by Baby Greens and more delicious dishes created by other local African American chefs at Taste of Black Austin on Jan. 31. The Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce states, “All of the bites prepared for the evening will be inspired by African American dishes found through recipe books and menu selections archived by the Austin History Center and Black churches in the community.”
YUM’s! the word.