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Stephanie Linton - Senses Vegan Comfort Food

By Glenda M. Lassiter

It is the worst of times for small restaurants. Walking the COVID-19 tightrope has been a balancing act for Stephanie Linton, chef and owner of Senses Vegan Comfort Food, LLC, a two-person operation in Norfolk, VA.

In March 2020, the swift spread of the coronavirus led Virginia to cease dine-in restaurant service. That month, the National Restaurant Association published metrics stating the pandemic forced layoffs and reduced hours for more than half of 5,000 restaurants polled. Linton felt that pressure and hurriedly concocted a recipe for her business' survival. She opted to open two days a week versus five and cut a third employee.

"I was trying to stay open normal hours, but was having a problem even finding gloves, or bread," she said. "This week, I'm having a problem finding vegan mayonnaise." Food suppliers limited production because they also were hard hit, impacting whether Linton can find cake flour and certain extracts for the cakes and pies on the menu.

The determined Linton turned scarce resources into a feasible economic model. Senses Vegan operates Friday and Saturday (11:30 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.) - for now, expanded its delivery service geographical area, and has a customized app for direct ordering.

The Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship's Women's Business Center (WBC) at Old Dominion University offers DreamBuilder - a class to teach female entrepreneurs to navigate a multitude of programs and resources available in the commonwealth. Tosha Sanders, Entrepreneurship Education Consultant, taught the class of 2019 in which Linton was a student. Senses Vegan was young, but its meatless twists on cheesesteaks, chicken, barbecue and seafood were growing in popularity, and Linton was hungry to enhance her business.

"She's a fighter," Sanders said. "She's taken steps forward, only to have people try to push her backward, but she's always found a w­ay around that."

The Norfolk Department of Economic Development - a WBC resource partner - awarded Linton a grant in 2019 and suggested the DreamBuilder class where sage, holistic advice and resourceful connections are bountiful. The timing was critical for Linton who was at a crossroads about continuing the choppy dance with bureaucracies. "If I wasn't awarded the grant and connected with some resources," she said, "I might not be open today."

Sanders and Linton avow beneficial rapports amongst DreamBuilder graduates. A former DreamBuilder classmate and friend once walked into Senses Vegan, and saw Linton and her mother, Mildred, shuffling orders during the lunchtime bustle. The friend rolled up her sleeves and began to take food orders. "Before, I didn't have a network," Linton said. "It was just my mom and me. It's always great to have someone on the outside looking in. Sometimes, you're emotionally attached to your business, so it's hard to think logically."

When state, local and federal governments instituted grants and low-interest loans to keep businesses afloat during COVID-19, there was a mad rush to complete required applications online. Websites crashed. Sanders used that time to review Linton's applications for completeness. Additionally, Sanders said, "I was looking everywhere trying to find resources for her business."

With revenue impacted by the health crisis, Linton also turned to the U.S. Small Business Administration Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) funding program for assistance.

Phase 1 of Virginia's three-stage coronavirus economic reopening plan began May 15, keeping most restaurant dining rooms closed, but allowing outdoor seating. Located in the Culinary Loft food incubator, Senses Vegan is permitted to serve on its patio but doesn't have ample space between tables, as currently required. Linton has applied for a grant from Norfolk's Work Program Architects to change her patio to meet social distancing regulations.

As veganism interest has grown, so has community support. "A lot of our regulars are still supporting us" Linton said. "The community has really come together and supported us even in our reduced hours. The community is the reason our doors are open."

Website: https://www.sensesvegan.com/
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/senses_vegan/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/SensesVegan