Some kids get kitchen playsets for Christmas or birthdays and practice make-believe cooking methods. Meredith Coleman, owner and solo operator of the vegan restaurant MeMe’s Twisted Potato, was baking real cakes at age 4.
“I always stayed in the kitchen with my mom and grandmother,” she said.
Coleman can still often be found in the kitchen, creating aromas that make people wonder, “What’s that smell? Who’s cooking?” she said.
Coleman’s grandmother was a vegetarian who, like many vegans, didn’t cook with honey or refined sugar; she sweetened food with molasses. Coleman’s grandmother also taught her about jackfruit, an exotic fruit native to tropical Asia. The fruit was a staple at Coleman’s house in the ’80s. It’s now a popular meat substitute in vegan cooking. Coleman also used to eat jackfruit at her aunt’s bakery, Mickey’s Special Affairs in West Little Rock. Coleman’s aunt Dorothy Coleman decorated cakes there for decades alongside her friend Mickey Young — the store’s previous owner, an Asian woman who would often bring jackfruit to the bakery. The bakery’s label features an illustration of her aunt Dorothy and Young. Coleman’s aunt Dorothy and her family have owned Mickey’s for 25-plus years. It has since moved to the Market Place Shopping Center on North Rodney Parham Road and been renamed Mickey’s Cakes and Sweets.
Before vegan cooking became Coleman’s passion, she was a dental assistant for 13 years. She got a commercial driver’s license and left that job for one driving Mack Trucks across the country. “That was interesting,” she said. “I learned a lot. It was fun to be able to travel the world for that period and see different things.”
Coleman started gardening at age 5 at the family farm off of state Highway 365 behind the old Coleman’s Auto Salvage about 10 miles south of Little Rock. As an adult she co-owned the farm with her father (she now owns it outright), and the plan was to raise animals.
“Then once I found out that I would have to kill the chickens — my grandaddy had a slaughterhouse, too — I was like, ‘I’m not about to be killing chickens or wringing necks … none of that.’ So I told my dad, ‘We gotta change the plans. Let’s do vegan.’ So I went down to the USDA [US Department of Agriculture] and filed for the soil to be tested on our land. And we were already growing things and had a garden, so that wasn’t a problem. Then I started cooking vegan and started having free taste tests and inviting friends and family over to taste my vegan food, and it took off from there,” she said.
Coleman said that sometimes when she feeds her family, she’ll hear one of them say “Oh, I don’t eat that,” to which she responds, “Yes you do.”
“When I feed them, they don’t even know what they’re eating, you know,” she said.
Coleman’s father died in 2016. It wasn’t until then, she said, that she fully realized her dream.
“I was like, ‘It’s time for me to do a storefront instead of just cooking and selling cakes and selling my vegan sausage and vegan meats to friends and family. … My father was a staple in the community,” she said. “I’m trying to keep that legacy going by providing good, affordable vegan food.” Coleman’s father, Charles E. Coleman, owned the state fairgrounds Esso [later Exxon] gas station at 2115 W. Roosevelt Road. He was also a drag racer, and Coleman has several trophies he won representing the state fairground Exxon. He opened Coleman’s Auto Parts and ran it for 40-plus years. It still remains in the family, Coleman said. Coleman said some of her father’s customers were well known political figures such as former Little Rock Mayor Lottie Shackelford, civil rights activist Robert “Say” McIntosh and former state Sen. Jerry Jewell.
The building Coleman operates MeMe’s out of at 3005 Asher Ave. belongs to her mother; it served as her beauty salon for decades. “My mother’s was one of the first major African American beauty shops in the 1980s offering services that have paved the way for other African American beauty salon owners,” Coleman said. “She has a lifetime cosmetology license. This building raised me,” she said. “This was her retirement. She was going to sell this and be able to go off and travel, but she went back to work for me to make sure MeMe’s flourished.”
Coleman hopes to purchase the building from her mother. “I want this whole place to be a big restaurant with an Airbnb, so I do have plans,” she said. “Then I want to build another community kitchen right across the hall. I just have to get the funding and find some investors to help me out.”
Coleman’s vegan menu items are named after family members, and it’s hard to read it and look at the pictures without wanting to try everything. Along with the twisted potato — also known as a tornado potato, a popular street food that originated in South Korea, it’s a deep fried spiral cut potato on a skewer — she has cauliflower wings, the Lolita Rueben, Quana’s Vegan Meatloaf served with stir-fried potatoes, the Uncle Goober BBQ Jackfruit Sandwich, the Boss Hookem Burger (the sandwich is named after the moniker her father gave his 1970 El Dorado Cadillac. Coleman has framed photos of the car displayed in the restaurant), a kale salad with cajun spiced chickpeas. Some of her sides are macaroni, smoked black eyed peas, zucchini fries and fried green tomatoes. She also offers fresh juice, a fresh lavender lemonade and hibiscus tea. Orders can take up to 45 minutes because Coleman is doing everything on her own.
Coleman said the pandemic hasn’t negatively affected business because she’s operating with such low overhead. For that, she’s extremely grateful to her mother and recognizes how hard it is right now for restaurants to survive the challenges of operating through the pandemic. It also affords her the ability to “put back more love into my food” and serve large portions at fair prices. She credits her parents for giving her the foundation to start a business. “There wouldn’t be a MeMe’s without the sacrifices of my parents,” she said.
Because of remodeling, MeMe’s is strictly online ordering and meals are served via curbside. There are a couple of small two-tops located behind the store.
“As soon as everything subsides [with COVID], I have a grant for a hydroponic hoop house through the USDA,” she said. Coleman said she’s still growing things on the farm and most of the fruits and vegetables she cultivates are used in the restaurant. Once the 3,500-square-foot hoop house is in place, she hopes to offer affordable vegetable baskets to the community.
Coleman gives a lot of credit to some of the local vegan restaurants that were open before MeMe’s. She said that one of her mentors is Elnora Wesley, who owns and operates the vegan restaurant House of Mental on Chester Street. “She has great vegan food and good options and really was a good mentor to me,” Coleman said. She also credits Phoebe Glass from Blue Sage Vegan Bistro, which, along with all the other restaurants in the River Market’s Ottenheimer Market Hall, remain closed.
“I really appreciate them for setting the major Southern comfort vegan staples in Arkansas,” Coleman said. “We all have different options. I try to make sure mine are a little different from everybody else’s. I like to add a twist. The quantity that I give you for your money — one meal here you’re going to be surprised at what you get. You get your money’s worth. And that’s one thing about vegan restaurants: Most places you go they serve these small quantities and then they charge you an arm and a leg. I want the community to be able to eat my food,” Coleman said. MeMe’s has $10 lunch specials and a daily $7 “Ballin on a Budget” menu.
“My philosophy is eating healthy shouldn’t break your pockets, it shouldn’t be limited to one class of person. Healthy food should be available for everyone,” she said. “I like cooking vegan too, she said, “because I like being able to take things that people say, ‘Oh, you can’t change that to a vegan dish.’ I’m like, ‘Yes I can.’ ”
MeMe’s Twisted Potato
3005 Asher Ave.
Lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner 4-7 p.m. Wed.-Fri.
Noon-7 p.m. Sat-Sun. only on the 2nd and 4th weekends of the month.