On a hot day in late October, the sun shines on Charter Oak Avenue as a fleet of cars sails in and out of the dead-end street picking up breakfast burritos and tea leaf salads from a many-faced ghost kitchen. Dressed in all black with cherry red Yeezy-esque shoes, Toriano Gordon walks out of the establishment and takes a seat at a picnic table, cigarette smoke lilting in the autumn air. The founder and owner of Vegan Mob, the Bay’s go-to for meatless soul food, can’t help but stay busy on his phone. “It all started with faith,” Gordon says quietly. “And, yeah, I’m here now.”
These days, Black-owned vegan restaurants in the Bay Area seem like an endangered species. Fan favorites Casa Borinqueña and Souley both closed in the last half of 2023, though the former will live again on Market Street. However, Gordon, in this fallow season, is seemingly untouchable: His first cookbook — aptly dubbed Vegan Mob: Vegan BBQ & Soul Food — comes out in February through Random House; his food trucks in Oakland and San Francisco, plus a restaurant in Santa Rosa are thriving; and he’s got packaged goods including sodas hitting Whole Foods’ shelves in 2024. Even Roc-A-Fella’s Dame Dash puts clout on Vegan Mob’s name, not to mention Danny Glover. Amidst his peers’ closings, in a city as difficult to access financially as any, Gordon seems to be soaring.
The vegan food mogul comes from humble beginnings. He was born at UCSF Parnassus, just as his brothers and mom were, and grew up in San Francisco’s quaint Cole Valley neighborhood. At the time, he says there were more Black people in not only the neighborhood but also the legendary Fillmore District and city at large. Indeed, San Francisco’s Black and African American population shrunk from 13.4 percent in 1970 to 5.2 percent in 2022, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Growing up, he’d tour the city’s restaurants, as his grandfather owned Rue Lepic and Nob Hill Cafe at the time, and his mom appreciated foods from all cultures. His family took him to Marnee Thai on Ninth Avenue, Bambino’s on Cole Street, Cha Cha Cha on Haight, and more. He says his mom is the one who made soul food a part of his life, but the city’s wide array of restaurants was still crucial in his youth.
As a kid, he dreamt of being a celebrity chef when he wasn’t dreaming of being a famous rapper. Briefly, he studied at Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco but was back on the street as soon as the instructor told him and his classmates that none of them in the room would ever be a well-known chef. “I looked to the girl next to me and said, ‘He must have me fucked up,’” Gordon laughs. Still, it was hustling and grifting that caught his attention most of the time. He found himself prioritizing money over everything. He ended up on the streets from the ’90s to 2010, and his drug use began in 2002. In 2009, Gordon went into septic shock, and his life of addiction and shiftiness on the streets came to a painful halt. He entered a treatment program with the Salvation Army in 2010. His life came back together slowly but surely: he married his wife in 2017 and, together, they decided to give veganism a try. “We watched What The Health,” Gordon says, referencing the once-buzzy food documentary. “I didn’t want to be sick anymore. I was scared.”
In 2018, while driving for Uber, he got the idea to open his own barbecue restaurant in downtown San Francisco — his wife reminded him they’d just decided to go vegan. So, he invited all the family over to try plant-based renditions of brisket. He took his vegan gumbo to Señor Sisig’s Evan Kidera who told Gordon it was excellent. Just like that, Vegan Mob was born, at first just a delivery business and out-the-trunk sales venture like Too Short’s mixtapes in East Oakland once upon a time. Pop-ups and farmers market gigs throughout 2019 led to the food truck, an Oakland location by Lake Merritt (now since closed), and a newly opened Santa Rosa spot. “I just went bananas,” Gordon says.
That doesn’t mean it’s always been easy, or that he thinks things are as they should be in the restaurant industry. He says he’s still pinching pennies, which means expanding or taking new opportunities is risky. Being a non-white business owner means financing and infrastructure more easily available to other entrepreneurs rarely come his way. In his restaurants, he doesn’t just see Black folks eating his po’ boys and mac n’ cheese, but everyone from elderly white people to young mixed kids. With the right backing, he says he’d be as ubiquitous as Nike — and that’s the goal. But he says he’s met with venture capitalists and banks that ask him far more about his identity than his bottom line. “The money is out there. It’s not about if I’m profiting or not,” Gordon says. “They might not want me at the forefront of the game.”
As the light continues to radiate over the Bayview and Hunter’s Point, Gordon remains optimistic about his burgeoning vegan barbecue empire. He says growing up in the Bay meant you didn’t have to be just a Black-owned or just a vegan business. In his experience, San Francisco was and remains a full rainbow of color and vibrancy, which makes the city unlike any other in the country. He says his old squad was made up of people who identified as Filipino, Latino, Black, queer, men, women, rich, and poor. And he wants to see more Bay Area businesses represent those communities — to re-gentrify, as Gordon puts it. That means fewer developer-backed projects that arrive in new buildings and on rooftops like gold-studded chariots. “You need ownership. You need representation. Otherwise the culture ain’t going to be preserved,” Gordon says. “Then the culture’s going to die. Normal looks weird to me. I like artistic, crazy shit, and that’s what I grew up in. That’s what San Francisco is about.”