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Memphis Vegan Brunch yields story of healthy living and a celebrity friend

Social media, for some, is best utilized for watching trendy videos and posting a photo or two of weekend fun.

For others, sites such as Facebook and Instagram also are a place where friendships are formed. And, if they’re lucky, those friendships will bring one of the most popular, most loved celebrities to town to help promote healthy living.

Six years ago, Ralph “RJ Groove” Johnson found himself in a “social media friendship” with Tabitha Brown, celebrity content creator, author, and entrepreneur.

Ralph “RJ Groove” Johnson envisions the Memphis Vegan Brunch as an annual affair. (Photo: Nicole R. Harris/The New Tri-State Defender)

Brown, who rose to fame in 2017 after posting a viral video of a sandwich review, was known and embraced for her warmth and kindness.

“She’s friendly with everybody, so everybody personally thinks she’s their auntie, friend, sister, or vegan mom or whatever,” said Johnson.

So, when he began speaking to her about his desire to co-host events to showcase plant-based — also known as vegan — foods, Brown was all in.

But in March 2020, the world came to a halt because of the COVID pandemic.

“When the pandemic hit and I started doing posts about vegan food on my social media and that process, I started doing pop ups to build the brand of Plant Based Heat,” said Johnson. “I ended up moving back to Memphis and opening up the Plant Based Heat restaurant.”

Located on South Highland near the University of Memphis, Plant Based Heat sells meals free of meat, or meat byproducts. Although not everyone who patronizes the restaurant adheres to a plant-based lifestyle, they all partake in the benefits of healthier food, something Johnson said is important in the African-American community.

“We grew up eating whatever we can eat, so we have some underlying issues because of that. And a lot of us lost relatives who had underlying health issues throughout the pandemic,”  he said. “All of that was a big part of me bringing it to Memphis, but to land this location in the heart of Orange Mound and have the response that we have is more than I can ask for.”

When the time came to celebrate his personal, three-year vegan anniversary, Johnson wanted to find a way to introduce healthier living to the community.

He circled back to his pre-pandemic conversation with Brown, who agreed to be the celebrity guest at the inaugural Memphis Vegan Brunch (last Sunday).

Sharika Hollingsworth brought her daughters, Allison and Amber Lane, and her niece, Kayla Ross, to enjoy a vegan experience and walk the runway during the fashion show. (Photo: Nicole R. Harris/The New Tri-State Defender)

With nearly 1,000 attendees — many dressed in colorful outfits from the Tabitha Brown clothing line at Target — Memphis Vegan Brunch featured a plant-based spread from nearly a dozen vegan chefs from Memphis and other cities.  For Johnson, the vision and decision to host the event was an easy one.

“You always have brunch. You can go to brunch seven days a week … but we [the Memphis area] don’t have a 100 percent vegan brunch,” he said. “And I was like, how awesome would it be to bring in my sister, Tabitha Brown to do this brunch with us as a special guest.”

Complete with a fashion show and giveaways from corporate sponsor Kroger, guests dined on vegan fare that, unless otherwise noted, might have passed for a regular meal.

Although brunch was the main event, people of all ages crossed state lines for another reason — to meet Tabitha Brown.

Tabitha Brown poses for a selfie with Memphis Vegan Brunch attendees. Around 1,000 people from near and far gathered for the event. (Nicole R. Harris/The New Tri-State Defender)

As guests lined up to fill their plates, Brown floated from table to table greeting each person; some overcome with tears at the opportunity.

“I’ve been wanting to see her live for so long. She encourages me all the time, said Jacquelyn Smith of Memphis. “It’s bringing everyone together and it’s just a positive vibe.”

Cece Watson has been a vegetarian for four years and said events like Memphis Vegan Brunch are important because they showcase healthier eating options in a city known for BBQ. Watson credits her mother, a 30-year vegetarian, with inspiring her to live healthier. Her advice to those who want to give plant-based diets a try?

“Take it slow, don’t try to go cold turkey,” she said.

Tabitha Brown made her way to nearly every table at the sold-out Memphis Vegan Brunch. (Photo: Nicole R. Harris/The New Tri-State Defender)

Brown, a three-time author, wasn’t the only wordsmith in the room. Tanika Prowell, 10, traveled from St. Louis with her mom, Takiayah, to give Tabitha a copy of the children’s book she wrote, “Re-Re The Reader.”

“I was excited,” she said, still bubbling from the joy of meeting Brown.

Johnson plans to make Memphis Vegan Brunch an annual affair and hopes to host additional events throughout the year. A second Plant Based Heat location is scheduled to open in Downtown Memphis in May.

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