Climbing the career ladder had proven lucrative for Kirsten Ussery. But all that success couldn't quiet the thoughts she had at night: a yearning to do more for her community, to find a professional outlet that wouldn't compromise her beliefs.
"There were times that I went to sleep at night and I didn't necessarily feel good," she told The Huffington Post.
That's why Ussery left behind a life as a high-powered public relations executive to open a vegan soul food restaurant in Detroit with her partner, Erika Boyd. They're hoping the down-home Southern tastes of dishes like seitan pepper steak, tofu "catfish" and tempeh smothered in mushroom gravy at Detroit Vegan Soul will introduce residents to healthy eating at an affordable price point.
Kirsten Ussery (right) and her partner, Erika Boyd, opened Detroit Vegan Soul to help teach the city's residents about healthy eating and wellness.
This wasn't a journey Ussery ever expected to take. Her early career was littered with professional and personal achievements that belied a determination to get ahead. After seven years at Japanese auto supplier, plus stints at a PR agency and representing a roundtable of Michigan's top executives, Ussery had landed her biggest job yet: directing communications and community outreach for the Downtown Detroit Partnership's initiative to build the city's first light rail line.
"I thought that going after those things, I would be happy if I could attain a certain level," she remembered thinking. "Then I’d be able to be happy because I’d do more things and I’d have more money."
By then, Ussery had rented an apartment downtown and become one of Detroit's movers and shakers, a well-respected member of the city's LBGTQ community and board president of Detroit's historic Villages neighborhoods.
But she was changing as a person, even as her status in Detroit's corporate circles grew. She and her partner, Erika Boyd, were drawn to veganism after Boyd's father died of prostate cancer. He wasn't a man with many vices, Ussery remembers, but he loved to eat the dishes Ussery grew up on as a Southern girl in Hickory, N.C. -- ribs, chicken and soul food. Ussery was never a cook; she remembers a year of her life where she ate nothing but pizza, chicken and dinners out.
Eating healthier helped inspire some of the balance Ussery thought she was missing during her diligent climb up the professional ladder. But she still felt called to do something more. Veganism made her believe how people eat can change the trajectory of their personal health. In Detroit, where obesity, diabetes and heart disease are prevalent, she and Erika thought a vegan soul food restaurant could make Detroiters more open to plant-based diets, even if they didn't commit to veganism.
"I thought that sharing what we were learning with other people could change other people's lives," she said.
Ussery knew that she had to make a choice. She could stay on the same trajectory, even if it didn't provide the personal satisfaction she was now looking for.
"I was making really good money for my age ... and I could have kept going up the ladder if I chose to stay on the path," she said.
But her heart told her to go another way: "I wanted to do something that was personally fulfilling and maybe change my lifestyle a little bit."
Ussery decided to take a new job, one with a contract that would let her leave when she was ready to turn her newfound commitment to veganism into a business.
But her new position as spokeswoman for the then-president of Detroit City Council, Charles Pugh, also came with a significant pay cut. And after she started, budget cuts forced her to only work part-time, leaving Ussery and her partner with a different standard of living than they had grown accustomed to.
It meant no more traveling, a favorite hobby. It meant buying less of everything. It meant giving up cable.
"When you have cable, you don't know how you're going to live without cable," Ussery said. "It was a little scary, because I didn't know whether I could open a restaurant at this point, and I didn't want to take another job in corporate America."
Still, she and Boyd decided to take the leap. Detroit Vegan Soul signed up their first meal delivery customer before Ussery had even finished writing a business plan. The duo placed in the top four of Detroit's Hatch competition for new entrepreneurs in 2012. When they finally opened their tiny 25-seat restaurant last week, hungry customers lined up down the block.
Detroit Vegan Soul's signature "catfish" tofu is battered in cornmeal. It's just one of many DVP dishes that give vegan proteins like tofu, tempeh and seitan a soul food makeover. Photo courtesy of Detroit Vegan Soul.
Somewhat ironically, stepping off the career ladder only means Ussery is working harder these days -- she's even become the cafe's resident baker.
That being said, this restauranteur doesn't miss having cable -- "because we have so many other things to fill our lives now."
And that new sense of self-assurance also means she's been sleeping better.
"Now that I'm on this side of things, I think it's so sad that anyone has to live a life where they wake up and they dread the day because they dread what they’re going to have to do or what they’re going to face or they just really don’t have the motivation to do it," Ussery said.
"Now, I don't have that," she declared, "because I'm working for myself and caring for my own personal mission."