Natural Selections Cafe
Meeting the owner behind Savannah’s healthiest new restaurant
As a newbie anthropologist, new to the very term ‘field work’, I had a hard time figuring out how to go about snooping through someone’s life and learning or even observing what they know and how they think. I turned to the popular Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind Humans of New York, who also happened to be from a neighboring county of mine near Atlanta. A common practice he uses when approaching a new subject is simply asking them, “What is your greatest struggle right now?” Often he gets long answers of people’s most personal struggles and tribulations that gets written out into beautiful blog posts. He allows himself to make amazing connections with people which is something I tend to struggle with. So, I took baby steps. I had my first question ready to give the hopefully willing subject I had in mind, half expecting a similar long, deep answer that would somehow unlock the key to life.
A few months ago, I was walking on Bull St. and noticed a new shop being renovated with a sign that said, “Natural Selections Café, 100% vegan cuisine, coming soon” my heart nearly sprung out of my chest. Savannah was getting its first all vegan restaurant, and I couldn’t wait to try it. I was there the first week it opened in March. I’ve brought visiting friends and my parents there. All impressed by the wonderful food and all very surprised at the impressive ‘100, A’ health code rating. For this field work project, I decided to find out who could have started this smart little restaurant, hoping to possibly introduce new customers and further discover a new piece in the complicated and ever growing puzzle of Savannah.
As I approached the café on a sun shining afternoon in May, I was ready with my Stanton question, preparing to write down a fascinating answer. I met the owner, Davida Harris. A sweet woman from the Virgin Islands with a soft-spoken voice and a welcoming smile. I was surprised to learn she’s 55, while she still looks as healthy and vibrant as someone in their 30s. She agreed to let me in on her life for ten minutes to ask some questions.
“What is your greatest struggle right now?”
She thought for a moment and smiled, “Acceptance.”
That was it, one word but I knew I couldn’t ask why or with what. That one word answer alone could have been its own novel. I knew this interview was quickly going to go in its own direction that I hadn’t planned. I then asked her what brought her to Savannah. She taught sociology at Savannah State as a professor. An odd background that I wasn’t expecting from her.
“I assume you are vegan”
“What brought you to being vegan?”
“I was always raised towards a more vegetarian lifestyle, but I had never made the ethical connection to animals until I watched some… underground documentaries like ‘Dangers in our Food’ and ‘Beautiful Truth’. I’ve also enjoyed the many health benefits.”
“What inspired you to open this restaurant?”
“Not being able to find healthy vegan food other than cooking for myself at home. I have some friends who own a few restaurants, and they’ll make some vegan food for me but I had some vegetables with MSG once and made me sick for days. My food has no MSG, no preservatives, it’s all natural and organic and I cook it with little or no oil.”
She started to open up when she got to talk about her food and spoke with more confidence.
“How is your relationship with your customers?”
She smiled wide and leaned back, “I love all my customers, they’re my family. I know them all by name and everyone gets a hug when they come in.”
I could tell see in her eyes, her pure joy and love for the community of people who come to her restaurant. She exuded happiness and love, it reminded me of a child, free from worldly burdens. Genuine happiness.
“Have you ever had a customer, skeptical of veganism, question you or an employee about it?”
“Oh yes. My food dispels the myth about what vegan food is and can be. People think being vegan is eating grass.”
We laughed and I shared with her my experienced with people joking about ‘weird vegan food’, we take it lightly and move on. Growing up in the south, with southern food, I was pleasantly surprised to see that a majority of menu is ‘veganized soul food’. Which is definitely better than un-veganized soul food.
“Have you ever had a negative response towards you being vegan?”
She smiled and laughed to my surprise and said, “Yes, my grandson. He likes chicken nuggets and once he said, ‘oh she’s vegan’ with a little attitude, ‘if she likes the animals so much, why does she eat the cow’s food?’” and laughed.
I still wanted my deep, world unlocking key answer to the universe, so I asked her a more personal question.
“From a vegan perspective, do you have any personal philosophical or spiritual views that you feel have bettered yourself as a person?”
She leaned in, I could tell this took a burden on her but it was something she took seriously. The idea that out of so much pain, something good could still come out of it.
“My mind is more clear, I think so much clearer, not consuming the animal products, making the ethical connection and changing my lifestyle, experiencing the benefits have changed my thought process with everything and my outlook on the world. I learned to disconnect with material processions. Material things don’t last, their temporary. I care about everything in nature and understand that everything is connected. We’re connected to animals, and plants, and water, and everything. Everything is equal. When you feel that and understand it, it’s beautiful. It’s allowed me to enjoy the simple things and appreciate everything that nature gives us. I do really believe that the eyes are the windows to the soul and you can see it in the animals, in their eyes, when the suffer, it’s heartbreaking.”
She went on with a few more comments that I wasn’t able to write down fast enough. I was so captivated with what she was saying and understood completely. It was like every word she said, was taken out of my mind and spoken in a way I’ve never been able to explain to people. I’ve never been one for believing in ‘vibes’ but finally being able to speak with a like-minded person, we were vibing. She spoke every word with a smile.
“I like this interview” she said with a laugh.
I wanted to end it on a lighter note, “What’s the happiest moment of your life?”
She didn’t hesitate, “When I got my bachelor’s degree,” laughing, “I was so proud of myself. I had worked for something and finished what I had started. Then I went back and got my masters, my PHD, and then associates.”
“Wow that’s very impressive, that’s a lot of degrees”
“It’s something that I love and put a lot of work into. I’m proud of that.”
My last question, another popular question inspired by Stanton,
“What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?” seeing that I, myself am 20.
After thinking a moment, she said, “I would love myself more. Love my body more. Spend less time with self-indulgence. Not care so much about material things. Be more a more giving person than receiving.”
I thanked her for her time and left with the biggest smile on my face. It’s important to support and learn about new small businesses in our community. They house beautiful people full of wisdom and love. Letting yourself wonder into a new place, unfamiliar, can lead you to meeting a new friend and discover a new food you’ve never tried. Through meeting Davida, and continuing to visit her lovely cafe, I find my day is brighter and healthier. She’s already made such a positive impact on the Savannah community.