It’s not uncommon to find Charlotte Velvet chef “Vel” Kelty-Jacobs spending an entire Sunday in the kitchen, testing, tasting and reinventing recipes passed down from her grandmothers.
Vel grew up in the kitchen, watching his grandmother and mother as they taught him how to make comforting soul dishes like fried chicken and gravy or savory mac and cheese. The main ingredients, says Vel, are “the love and energy that goes into the food.”
“Everything I create stems from the way my grandmothers cooked – their spice mix, their recipes, the homemade sauces. I cook to honor them and keep their memory alive,” said Vel, owner VelTree, the vegan experience with his wife, Treona “Tree” Kelty-Jacobs.
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VelTree, which opened in 2018 as a take-out-only store, moved in December from University City to Ballantyne Village and is now a full-service restaurant. In setting up their new location, the restaurateurs recognized the importance of serving delicious cuisine in an eclectic and warm atmosphere.
“Food, fun and family are what you’ll find here,” Vel said. “We serve plant-based comfort food that feels like a hug from grandma or a kiss from an aunt. The atmosphere is so relaxing and laid back, and the music is such a part of the vibe.
The couple have big plans in store – we’ll share them in a bit – but before discussing the future of the business with CharlotteFive, Vel and Tree took a walk down memory lane to share their journey to where they are now. .
To have an impact
The women met in Maryland at a vegan restaurant that Vel once owned with his sister. Tree came for soul food, loved what she had, and the women struck up a friendship. Soon they launched a business partnership, creating a nonprofit to help underserved communities understand the value of plant-based foods.
Tree and Vel made the ultimate commitment to each other on May 17, 2015 – their wedding date.
“As Black, LGBTQ+ business owners — and women of faith — we recognize that we represent many communities and can positively impact their lives just by being here,” Vel said. “People walk into our restaurant and say, ‘I see myself in you.’ Or a parent will come in and say, “My daughter is gay and I want to support your business. It’s very emotional sometimes.”
Their forever bliss finally brought them to Charlotte. During a visit to Queen City, they went in search of vegan food for the soul and quickly discovered that the city was running out of options. The wheels started turning and in October 2018 they opened the city’s first black female-owned vegan soul food cafe, combining their first names to create VelTree, the vegan experience.
Celebrity endorsements from Erykah Badu, Nick Cannon and Anthony Hamilton
The restaurant is known for its eclectic mix of vegan dishes which have been raved about by celebrities such as Erykah Badu, Nick Cannon and Anthony Hamilton, who shouted out the business during an interview after being given the keys to the city .
In a video provided exclusively to CharlotteFive, Hamilton said he was “here to celebrate VelTree” and its expansion, and all the positive things women are doing in the community with good food and healthy alternatives.
“I’ve been a fan for years. When I first tasted it, I knew it would be special and the world had to be able to experience it,” Hamilton said, noting that it was “VelTree certified.”
Badu, who struck up a friendship with Vel after the chef cooked him a meal at a BET event in Maryland, shared a video on social media shortly after the original VelTree opened.
“If you are vegetarian, vegan, vegan, alkaline foodie or just want to experience what vegetarianism is – soul vegetarianism – that’s it, please come and visit,” Badu said before admitting she broke her raw diet to eat Vel’s food. “Because I deserve it!”
And what do people expect most from VelTree?
The plant-based crab cakes, topped with a vegan shrimp and crab sauce and served with chickpeas and hearts of palm, are a fan favorite — which seems appropriate coming from Maryland transplants. Meatless options also include bourbon-baked ribs, barbecue drums, meatless bread, and country-fried chic’n. VelTree also offers soul burgers, po boys and wraps. Some people come just for the sides such as mac and cheese, yams, chef’s greens, black-eyed peas and more.
They also created a “deliciously refreshing” vegan lemonade with kale and ginger, with no artificial colors or flavors.
“Huge” plans on the radar
The move to Ballantyne was just the beginning for VelTree. The new site allows the restaurant to continue hosting open-mic nights, karaoke, yoga workshops and other special programs, but with food. And now, with more space, homeowners can have an even bigger impact on their community.
Restaurateurs are planning networking events for professionals to share leads and connect with each other. They will also open on Sunday mornings for a community worship group – something that has been close to their hearts for a while now.
“We were called to do it,” Tree said. “We are fortunate to have such a supportive community and we want to give back in the areas that matter most.”
Even bigger projects are on the horizon.
“We’re shooting a TV show, but we can’t talk about it right now,” Vel teased, promising to share more details with CharlotteFive once the producers give them the go-ahead. “We’ll also have something huge in October around Halloween. We are transforming the restaurant into something completely new and different.
More immediately, the VelTree team plans to open a shadow kitchen in another part of Charlotte to give customers better access to their food. And for those who can’t get enough, the restaurant is installing extra freezer space for frozen pick-up selections.
“We’re really doing what we can to innovate and think outside the box to reach customers and provide them with the best possible experiences,” Tree said. “It’s so amazing to see people come in and rave about the food. A little boy recently said, ‘this place is a 10 out of 10’. You know, kids tell the truth. They love cooking and flavors. And we are here for that.
Hours: Open Tuesday to Sunday; closed on Mondays
This story was originally published July 18, 2022 06:00.