They may not know each others' names or how they spend their days, but they always exchange smiles. Some of them hug.
They are part of a growing network of healthy vegan and vegetarian eaters; and one spot that unites them is a restaurant hand-painted in the colors of nature and planted in the heart of the Historic West End.
Their idyllic, ad hoc assembly forms a line around raw dishes and vegan delights cooked in alkaline water and seasoned for a Caribbean flavor.
They seize upon the dishes and the information of other health-focused events, all the while thankful for the place that continues to bring them together, at 875 York Ave.
Sheriese Nicole enjoys the restaurant’s curry vegetable sauce. One Wednesday, she bought her order to go: soy fish with curry vegetable sauce over greens. Then she stopped to hand out flyers about two upcoming events that serve vegan dishes along with music and healing services.
“It’s a great community meeting place," Nicole said. "We see people we already know because we gravitate towards the same type of food.”
And the same type of events, she said.
“Even if we don’t know each other’s names, we know each other’s faces,” Nicole said. “We are all trying to elevate the way we eat.”
And the way they live, she said.
Carefully clutching her meal, Nicole stopped outside on the sun-baked day to talk to Kim Huynh.
Huynh, 36, had finished her meal and set aside her dish to relax and crochet. She was passing into her second hour and showed no signs that it was her last.
Huynh, who lived in Midtown, said the restaurant's food help her heal.
She suffered back and hip injuries in a car wreck a few months earlier, her second one in two years.
After the first wreck, she would go to the chiropractor and then to Healthful Essence.
“After each appointment, I would come here for lunch. So I’m very grateful to Princess and her restaurant because her food nursed me back to health.” Huynh said. “And it’s doing it again.
“Princess’ food is made with love and you can feel it,” Huynh said. “My body comes alive when I eat her food.”
Princess Dixon, a slender woman in her 60s, started Healthful Essence more than 20 years ago in New York. Then, it was a cart set up by the World Trade Center.
The ex-wife of a Jamaican, Dixon changed her diet about 35 years ago after learning that eating meat ages the body quickly.
“My body is more healthy. My mind is still there,” Dixon said, laughing. “I don’t walk with a stick.
“I feel much better, lighter and you can handle stress better.”
She was working at another restaurant when she decided to start her own with the recipes she created and the menu she developed.
Then, Dixon moved her business to Georgia. And after moving locations three times because of a slouch in the sales or poor sanitary conditions, Dixon settled at York Avenue.
Her faithful customers, like Huynh, followed her every move.
“I love Caribbean food and for it to be Caribbean and vegan and made with love. That’s why I come here.”
Bilal J. said his favorite dish was the curried ungoat. The first time he tasted it, he called a friend in New York to brag. One of his most recent visit to the restaurant included unfish cake, chick pea and ungoat with rice and peas for lunch.
“I’ve never tasted anything that came so close to the real thing,” Bilal J. said. “It’s almost like eating the actual fish cake or the goat. It’s really amazing that they can duplicate that taste.”
The restaurant, which is 17,000 square feet of mostly cream-colored tile floors, provides Wi-Fi, a free meeting place for up to two hours and an annual Customer Appreciation Day with free food for three hours.
The building once housed a recording studio, but only a partially covered wood area at the front of the restaurant provides any hint of the office that was once there.
Dixon was driving by when she came across the building, now painted green and yellow, beside a red staircase that leads to another business upstairs.
By the time Dixon opened at the new location five years ago, she had two partners – her son who makes the nutritional drinks and a longtime friend who makes the raw dishes.
“It’s a family-run business. We don’t borrow no money,” Dixon said.
Dixon’s son started helping her during the summers in New York when he was about 11 or 12 years old.
“I’d rather be here than working somewhere else,” Charles Dixon, 33, said. “It’s good to work for yourself. I was always taught to be self sufficient.”
But Kwadwo Kephera, a raw vegan chef, was just the opposite. Kephera has always worked for someone else and was hesitant about letting go of his two jobs to become a fulltime partner in the restaurant.
Kephera, a slim man with a lean lifestyle, saved his money to help finance the restaurant. But he admitted he wasn’t fully committed to the restaurant, then.
“I was attached to working for someone else, letting myself go was not easy,” Kephera said. “I was trying to dodge it for years. But she needed help.”
After the restaurant was opened for more than a year on York Avenue, Kephera left his other jobs and fully committed to Healthful Essence.
“The first day, I walked with a little more bounce in my step. It felt good, like I had accomplished what I wanted to accomplish.”
Then reality set in. The long hours, the daily rush to serve the patrons and to keep the glass case full with raw dishes of salads, Nori rolls, pizza, quiche and cheese cakes.
Still, Kephera looks at the restaurant like having a child. There will be times of frustration, but there will always be love.
“That love keeps you going.”