Vegetarian Action

“Just Cook,” He Said

Skai Davis: An Enterprising Vegan Restauranteur

By Ben A. Shaberman

Skai Davis admits that she became a vegetarian at the age of 14 to be cool. Little did she imagine that her desire to be a hip herbivore would some day lead to owning and operating Empress Catering and The Yabba Pot café in Baltimore. And this 30-year-old mother of four is by no means finished with her entrepreneurial pursuits; she’s establishing a natural food cooperative called The Village, opening a market in the back of her café, and working on a cookbook.

Born in New York City, Skai moved to St. Croix when she was eight years old. There, her mother ran a restaurant, a delicatessen, two video stores, and a real estate operation—all at the same time. Skai was hanging out in restaurants at a young age and spent most of her life working in and around the retail food business.

Her interest in vegetarianism began in the ninth grade when her girlfriend brought a veggie burger to school. Skai recalls, “This veggie burger smelled very good, but it looked strange. I took a bite, and I loved it. The whole concept of being a vegetarian at that age was cool to me. I started reading about vegetarianism and learning how to cook. I even learned how to make veggie burgers from scratch.”

Skai left the Virgin Islands when she was about 20, because of what she calls “island fever.” “It was beautiful there, but I wanted more,” she says. After studying cultural anthropology at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, Skai moved to Baltimore to be near her uncle.

It was the loss of her job as an office manager that led to her catering and restaurant ventures. While she was trying to figure out what kind of work to do next, her boyfriend, Adé, told her, “Cook. Just cook. You already have a job.” Skai had been selling food at events—parties, festivals, and poetry readings—while she worked her administrative job. Plus, she had extensive preparation and cooking experience from previous restaurant work. So began Empress Catering in 2001.

Using money from a tax refund and a 150-person wedding catering job, Skai opened the Yabba Pot in 2003. “We went the thrifty way,” she comments. Skai and Adé got the Yabba Pot going by picking up equipment from local restaurants that had gone out of business. They recently expanded into space next door to the original café; they’ve grown from two tables to about 10, plus they’ve added the market. Their staff has grown to seven.

The all-vegan Yabba Pot menu varies from day to day and features entrées such as: Citrus Spare Ribs, Vegan Mac and Cheese, and Queens Greens. The Rastafarian-influenced cuisine is called “Ital,” which means “vital” in Jamaican. The main concept behind Ital cooking is that food should come straight from the garden to the table—no processing and no preservatives.

Skai says that her eclectic offerings attract a diverse clientele. “There are all these people with many different ‘can’t do’s’—can’t do sugar, can’t do wheat. And, there are people who want to try new things. We have doctors sending people in here to eat. We get many vegetarians and vegans who know they don’t have to ask too many questions.”

Though Skai’s daily regimen seems daunting—she is raising four young children as well as juggling the businesses—it doesn’t diminish her enthusiasm for expansion. She wants to franchise, and someday make her Ital cooking as popular as McDonald’s fare. However, she says, “I still want it to have a community vibe... I don’t want it to be too trendy.”

Ben A. Shaberman is a health care writer and a frequent volunteer for VRG outreach activities.