Akindele Bankole has infectious energy, the warmest smile and an age-less quality that makes you want to say, “I’ll have what he’s having.” Luckily, this is entirely possible since Bankole is at the helm of Veg on the Edge, the newly opened Abbott Square eatery in downtown Santa Cruz.
Originally from Nigeria, Bankole came to the States in 1982 to pursue a music degree at Sacramento State. He went on to have an 11-year career as an opera singer, performing with the Sacramento Opera and Opera San Jose. But the job that influenced him most in starting Veg on the Edge was Bankole’s 25-year career with McDonald’s. “It was a great experience,” he says. “Truly!” The company taught him the value of systems in achieving consistency, cleanliness and customer service. “Many ex-employees,” he explains, “have taken what they learned and applied it to a more health-conscious establishment.”
Veg on the Edge started to take shape more than three years ago when Bankole decided to pursue his entrepreneurial passions with a business that combined healthy food, education and community. Working with partner Eli Cohen (an ex-public defender and ordained rabbi who leads Chadeish Yameinu, the Jewish Renewal Community of Santa Cruz), Bankole’s son Deji (in charge of advertising and marketing with a background in film) and longtime family friends, Lynn LeRose and Edward Garner, they started to put together a business plan.
“We are an international group with multiple languages under our belt,” Bankole reflects. “I think we are a real representation of what it can mean to be an American. We get to honor everyone’s roots and stay true to who everyone is.” For Bankole, this means having West African influences on the menu. For Cohen, this means becoming certified kosher. And for the whole family, this means being a vegan, gluten-free eatery that engages with the holistic community and provides educational outreach.
“We want to be a positive educational statement in the community. People only make changes when they know people care about them. I don’t want to condemn,” Bankole stresses. “For me, a foundational value for Veg on the Edge is compassion. It’s only through compassion that we can enact change.”
“It’s about emphasizing choices,” Cohen further explains, “not about people doing right or wrong. As a vegan, I often feel that my options are limited, so we simply want to provide more options for our community.”
About two years ago Bankole enlisted the help of chef Jonathan Miller to start planning the innovative menu. Miller has worked for more than 15 years mostly as a private chef, with clients ranging from former UCSC chancellor M.R.C. Greenwood to celebrities Charlize Theron and J.J. Abrams. From his base in Santa Cruz County, he now offers his custom services through the website, www.eatrightathome.com.
Far from the bland, colorless dishes often associated with vegan food, Veg on the Edge has a menu built on bold flavors and innovative fusions. Moin Moin, a classic West African dish, is a black-eyed pea loaf that absorbs the spiced broth of a mushroom and carrot stew. Another West African-inspired dish is the raw plantain salad—a vibrant burst of color and crunch with zucchini, bell peppers, summer corn, tempeh crumbles and a tangy mustard dressing to balance the earthy sweetness of the sliced plantains.
Edgier interpretations of more classic vegetarian options include shiitake fried rice, made with “forbidden” black rice that has a rich, nutty flavor. Their signature potato balls, which Bankole confesses took three months to perfect, are the perfect healthy-ish snack of crispy-on- the-outside, soft-on-the-inside red potatoes with onions and mustard seed, held together with chickpea flour and served with chili sauce. Each dish is hearty, but not heavy, with generous portions at a reason- able price (entrées top out at $12.50 and come with a house salad and side of potato balls).
Veg on the Edge helps round out a diverse list of food vendors at the newly opened Abbott Square Market. It shares the space with Santa Cruz favorites like Cat & Cloud Coffee and Companion Bakeshop, as well as newcomers Poke It, Pizzeria La Bufala, oyster bar All Aboard, ice cream bar makers Milk and Wood and two bars (see story page 72).
After developer John McEnery had Bankole and Miller cater an investor party, he was blown away by the complexity of their vegan fare. “I think they’re the perfect fit,” he says. “They’re unique, offering something different to the patrons of Abbott Square as well as the community at large.”
On a thriving First Friday in July at the square, only two days after Veg’s soft opening, Bankole is busy in the kitchen, a contagious smile on his face. “The first day was overwhelming, so much love and support from our community, far and wide. We weren’t expecting everyone to come out that day,” he says with a laugh, acknowledging that this is a good problem to have. “But I decided something,” he says, positivity beaming. “I’m just going to be happy here. is brings me so much joy, so joy is what I should feel. And I hope everyone else feels it too.”
Rosie Parker, a native New Englander, likes to complain of missing home while living the Santa Cruz high-life—surfing, hiking, writing and working for a delicious craft brewery.
Veg on the Edge
Abbott Square Market, Santa Cruz 530.312.0790 • www.vegontheedge.com