A random discussion (so it seemed) with one of my graduating high school students landed Rhonda and I with a rare find. Rare Variety Cafe that is. The vegan restaurant is located on North Main near Columbia College campus, and has been in business 6 months. The area is known for having one of the lowest per capita income in the city, and a plethora of health disparities that are of major concern in the primarily black community, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. What the business partners have done within the span of less than 4 years is remarkable indeed.
Using their own personal funds to open the restaurant, Ronnie Willingham and Keith Alexander are rarities themselves. Ronnie has been a vegan for over 22 years and an auto detailer by trade. Keith is a former 5th grade teacher turned multi social entrepreneur. Together, they not only opened Rare Variety Cafe, but are one of only 3 HUBs designated in the state of South Carolina with a special grant from the USDA to aid local farmers with distribution of their surplus fruits and vegetables to the underserved populations in the state.
With their own personal funds and money from the grant, they have been able to source produce from local farmers, and create their own garden on the premises of the restaurant. In addition, they will operate a summer feeding program supplemented with the produce from local farmers; open their own grocery store next door; and with a recent purchase of a bus, they will be able to educate and train people to set up their own community gardens. Their platform is all about "Farm to Fork"...growing your own produce, and eating it at your own table.
The pair have hired local teens to assist them in the kitchen. The teens will also have a hand in setting up community gardens all across the state. There are also personnel to help in the garden adjacent to the restaurant. The garden is loaded with a variety of herbs, tomatoes, and greens. Rhonda has taken on a consulting role with the business partners, and will aid in establishing their business strategies so that they can operate all aspects of their business seamlessly.
Oh.... and can we say the food is DELISH!! The southern fried cauliflower taste just like fried chicken. The curry-jackfruit stew is better than any pulled pork I've ever tasted. Both are pictured below. We also tasted Ronnie's newest creation, the E-Burger, which is made with chickpeas and mushrooms. We would show you a picture, but we both ate our burgers so fast, the camera couldn't keep up. Additional menu items can be seen in an image captured below. It's definitely a place to visit. You'll thank us later.
Rare Variety Cafe hours are Wednesday - Saturday, from 11:30am-8PM. They are located at 4622 N. Main in Columbia near the Columbia College campus main entrance. You'll see a beautiful mural with a picture of George Washington Carver and one of his infamous quotes "Where There Is No Vision, There Is No Hope". Parking is near the mural.
Travel Chops (TC): Where are you from?
Courtney: I'm from Atlanta, Georgia.
TC: Where do you attend college and your career goals?
Courtney: I am a graduating senior at NC A&T State University. My career goal is to be an entrepreneur. Exactly what kind of business I'd end up running- I'm still figuring that part out.
TC: You are moving to Japan after graduation. How did that decision come about?
Courtney: My decision to move to Japan was made over 14 years ago, when I was just a child. I could've moved sooner but I didn't know how to. All of the information that's currently easily accessible on the internet either wasn't around when I was younger, or I was unable to find it (because I was so young and didn't know where to look).
TC: What was your perception of Japan prior to your first experience traveling there?
Courtney: My perception of Japan, before I went, was that it was a normal place like America. I did expect it to be different culturally, though. As I interacted with Japanese people and watched YouTube videos, I had a good understanding of what Japan would be like.
TC: What was the reality of your first experience in Japan?
Courtney: My first experience in Japan was everything I imagined and more. All of the things that I had seen on the internet, (most) of my experiences with Japanese people, and the career opportunities I'd hoped would be available to me were there.
TC: What do you do for fun?
Courtney: I enjoy writing, drawing, and running in my free time.
TC: Name 2 of your favorite travel destinations?
Courtney: My favorite two travel destinations have been Okinawa and Fukuoka. Both are in Japan.
TC: What are 2 destinations you have yet to visit?
Courtney: I would really like to visit Busan, Korea and Cebu, Philippines.
TC: What is your advice to persons contemplating living abroad?
Courtney: Do it. Especially if you're Black. I can only speak for my experience in America, but traveling and living abroad is not encouraged in the Black community. To some degree, I understand people's concerns with going abroad, but I think you will learn a lot about your own identity and how to be comfortable in your own skin. Going to a place like Japan would've had a seriously negative impact on me (because I stuck out) if I didn't learn to be more confident. The upside to it is that you appreciate your own people more after being in a place where no one looks like you. Lastly, in some countries, including Japan, there are communities of Black people that are very close-knit because they're such a small minority there. It's like having a family (if you don't come from a close-knit family) or a family away from home.
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Rhonda & Sharee Washington