Plant-Based
Possibilities

Trezel Brown's CC's Vegan Spot in Alton, Illinois has become a destination for local vegans and is converting more folks to try plant-based dishes.

Culture

Story By Cheryl Baehr
Visuals By Michael Thomas

Trezel Brown will never forget the day she realized she was destined to cook for others. Though she was just eighteen years-old, her extended family had asked her to make the mac and cheese for a big reunion. It was a major responsibility – the mac and cheese was always one of the more popular dishes on the spread – but she was up to the task, enlisting her uncle to help buy the pan, cheese, pasta and other ingredients she’d need to make the dish. She didn’t realize it would be only his first trip of the day.

“Before the serving pan was able to cool, it was gone,” Brown says. “My uncle was back at the store buying three more pans so I could make more. And that went quickly, too.”

Brown updates her menu frequently, continuing to experiment with plant-based meat alternates from seitan to jackfruit.

For Brown, who owns CC’s Vegan Spot in Alton, Illinois, the validation she received at that family reunion was heartwarming, but it wasn’t necessarily surprising. From an early age, she had a passion for cooking and became so proficient that she would make meals for her family so often that her father would tease her mother that she never cooked.

However, food was not always a source of pleasure for Brown. A longtime allergy sufferer, she was not able to enjoy everything she prepared, at least without paying a price. About six years ago, her daughter challenged her to go vegan, insisting that it would help with her dietary issues. Brown balked at first; dairy was so integral to everything she made, and she couldn’t imagine giving up her beloved salmon. Still, she was intrigued and took her daughter up on the suggestion, not realizing how much it would change her life.

“I played around with it, and it was a hard transition because of how much I love cheese,” Brown admits. “But as I did it more and more, I began to figure it out. I’d invite friends over and make vegan dishes without telling them, and they loved it.”

Loaded fries.

While her vegan cooking skills were flourishing, Brown had no plans to open a restaurant. Even though she’d spent her life cooking, and earned a stellar reputation for her prowess in the kitchen from family and friends, she never considered it more than a hobby. Instead, she spent her adult years focused on raising her family, and eventually, a home daycare business. When she decided to pursue work outside of the home, the restaurant business didn’t cross her mind. Instead, she went to school, where she pursued degrees in psychology and criminal justice.

Then a couple of years ago, a trip with her grandchildren to her hometown of Harlem, New York changed her trajectory. There, she visited her favorite Italian ice spot and had an epiphany about bringing the frozen treat to the Midwest. Though she had no professional culinary experience, she came back to Alton determined to make it happen. It wasn’t long before her plans included more than just icees.

What started it all: the icees.

“The plan was to open CC’s Icees Galore,” says Brown, “but my daughter said, ‘Mom, you make the best broccoli ‘cheddar’ soup and the best chili. Why don’t you put those on the menu when you open?’ Six weeks in, we were a full vegan restaurant.”

Out of a 600 square-foot storefront with just a hot plate and a tabletop fryer, Brown launched CC’s Icees Galore in May of 2019. Though she was confident in her cooking abilities, she was shocked by the warm response she received to her completely plant-based menu. From near and far, people traveled for a taste of her food; 80 percent of her customers are from Missouri, and she’s even had folks travel in excess of two hours to visit her restaurant. By the following winter, this success made her realize she needed a larger spot to become the restaurant she wanted to be. After searching throughout Alton and north St. Louis County, Brown settled on a space and readied to open the doors to the rebranded CC’s Vegan Spot on March 6. Just a week later, everything shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving her reliant on the help of friends and family to keep the lights on.

It hasn’t been easy. Though she’s maintained a positive outlook throughout the year, there was a point last winter when she thought she had no other choice but to close CC’s. However, her luck would change this winter when she was awarded a grant by Discover that was aimed at helping Black-owned businesses weather the challenges the pandemic created. Buoyed by that additional funding, Brown feels like CC’s has turned the corner, and she’s even considering opening a second location on the Missouri side of the river.

Though the financial support she’s received over the past year has been instrumental in keeping her afloat, Brown would not be where she is today without her undeniable talent for cooking. She is consistently commended for how flavorful her food is, a skill she’s cultivated over the years. Completely self-taught, Brown insists her recipes just come to her; sometimes, she’ll wake up in the middle of the night with a recipe idea and feel compelled to write it down before she’s able to go back to sleep. It’s given her ideas for everything from eggplant Parmesan to fried “chicken” – dishes she insists taste just as good as their meat and dairy-based counterparts.

“I consider CC’s to be a transitional place,” Brown says. “If you want to go vegan, I suggest you come here first, because I’m going to make all of your food taste the way you are used to it tasting. The fried chicken will taste like what you are used to; the same with the lasagna and the mac and cheese. I’ve done it all, and I try to make the transition easy for people.”

The "ish" bites are Brown's alternative to fried fish.

Brown is thrilled when people come to experience CC’s for the food, but she hopes that the restaurant will become much more as soon as that’s possible. Her current location has a stage and area set aside for music, comedy and a variety of other entertainment, and she hopes to do family game nights and other activities that will bring people together around the table once it’s safe to do so. Between that ambitious vision and what’s coming out of her kitchen, it’s no wonder she’s bullish on the future.

“I told one customer I was looking for a spot in St. Louis for a second location, and they told me to be careful because there is a lot of competition,” Brown says. “I’m not afraid. I know how to stay in my lane and do my own thing. Like my daughter said, ‘I am the competition.’”

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