It’s all about roots for Rodney Perry.
That’s partly why the Houston entrepreneur and his wife and business partner Matti Merrell decided to plant their vegan restaurant green seed in Third Ward, where Perry’s family goes back three generations.
“A lot of prominent people live here and come from here,” he said. “I have pride in Third Ward.”
About 19 years ago, after countless emergency room visits related to an overactive gallbladder and gastritis, Merrell, already a vegan, suggested Perry switch to a whole foods-based vegan diet, free of processed flours, sugars, and meat alternatives. The diet healed his gallbladder and led to a new way of life. Perry and Merrell opened green seed vegan, Houston’s first vegan food truck, in 2011. It has since become a staple of Houston’s culinary scene, named among the best vegan restaurants in the country by Food & Wine Magazine and the Food Network. The pair recently opened another restaurant, called mantra, and are starting a community garden in Fifth Ward as an educational tool for the community.
We caught up with Perry to talk about the legacy of his father and Grammy-winning grandfather, the importance of nurturing community, and being a dad.
Do you think there’s such a thing as entrepreneurial spirit? And if so, where does yours come from?
Absolutely. I think I get that from my dad. My dad and his friend had a successful shoe shine business that generated press and notoriety, back in the early 80’s. At the time, my dad was battling addiction and substance abuse, which led to mismanagement of their money and lack of focus on how to properly run a business. When I came back to Houston in ‘96, he still maintained that entrepreneurial spirit. He briefly revisited the shoe shine business again, then graduated from a rehabilitation program, and found a passion for helping others live sober. Now he owns a couple of rehab facilities for people with substance abuse issues. I think around the same time, we opened up the food truck.
I always wanted to control my own destiny, and not have anybody have control over me in that respect.
My grandfather was also always his own boss, being a musician. He used to work for Maxwell House. One day he came home and told my grandmother, ‘That’s not for me. I ain’t no 9-to-5 brother.’ That was the last time he ever had a real job. From then on he supported himself and his family with his trumpet.
Speaking of your grandfather, Calvin Owens, he is a blues legend. Not only was he a bandleader for B.B. King, he also made his own music and worked with some of the greats, including Ray Charles, at Peacock Recording Studios. Can you tell us more about him?
That’s part of why we put the restaurant in Third Ward — because of the history that our family has there. My whole family is Third Ward — they went to either Yates or Lamar. My great grandfather, grandmother, uncles, and dad all grew up in Third Ward. My grandfather actually grew up in Fifth Ward, but kind of laid his roots in Third Ward. He went to TSU, was part of the Ocean of Soul. Then he moved to Southmore.
He was B.B. King’s band director in two different instances. The first one was in the ‘70s and then in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, he came back around again. B.B. King sought him out to run his band again. That’s when they won a Grammy together.
That’s incredible. Where is the Grammy now?
I don’t know, to be honest with you! We have his trumpets, but a lot of the other stuff, I don’t even know.
Listen to some of Calvin Owens’ albums here.
Why else was it so important for you to open a vegan restaurant in the Third Ward?
Scarcity. We opened up the restaurant in the Third Ward primarily because it was a food desert. It is a primarily Black community, and there really weren’t many healthy options before we opened.
Third Ward is like — a lot of people say this and I’ve experienced it for years — Third Ward is what Harlem is to New York. During segregation, it’s where all the famous musicians would come to perform at places like the Eldorado Ballroom. Where Rowhouses is, that’s where they were able to stay because they couldn’t stay in the nice hotels. They would rent them out for a few dollars a night where it was kind of safe. Third Ward is that historical Black community. A lot of prominent people live here and come from here. I think it was the perfect place to plant our roots for green seed.
And we’re centrally located. We’re in the middle of Downtown, the universities, the museums, the medical center — everything that people travel all over the world for is right at our doorstep and backyard. I used to work at this high-rise in the Galleria area and saw people from Saudi Arabia come for cancer treatment at the medical center, not knowing that one day we would have visitors from all over the world dine at green seed while receiving cancer treatments locally. We also have a number of local doctors who refer their patients to our restaurant because of their health issues.
Is your dad proud of what you’ve been able to create with green seed and mantra?
He’s elated. He’s excited any time he gets to tell anybody about us, or if he’s just randomly talking with somebody and they bring us up to him without knowing who he is. We have had our share of trials and tribulations, so he’s seen the growth in me. He never forgets to tell me how proud he is of the man I’ve become. They might not always agree with what you’re doing, but at the end of the day you always want to make your parents proud. I had to take my own path to get to where I’m at and do what we’re doing.
Well, that must be a lesson you’ve now learned as a dad. Tell us about your daughter.
I have an amazing, super intelligent 15-month-old daughter.
She’s usually at the restaurant on prep days, eager to help in the kitchen, or often when I am opening or closing. So even though she doesn’t understand right now, at some point she’ll connect the dots, like ‘Oh, that’s what Daddy was doing!’ She’ll get it.
And she’s a vegan! She must have a pretty elevated palette.
She’s eating everything. Today we were eating Indian food. She tries different flavors. She loves okra; eats her favorite, cherry tomatoes, like candy; and she loves cucumbers. She walks around with a raw baby cucumber.
That brings us to the essential CoolxDad question: Top underrated — but totally necessary — Dad skill?
Availability. With what I do, it’s kind of like I’m always on call. Early mornings I’m setting up and then late evenings right before she goes to bed, I’m closing up. So I try to make myself available in the middle to spend as much time as I can with her. That’s one thing I don’t want to deprive her of or shortchange her on, that quality time.
Looking to the future, you and Kevin have big plans for collaboration.
When he actually came and laid eyes on mantra, he really loved what he saw. He got a burst of inspiration and was like ‘Wow we could do a lot with this space.’ So we have plans moving forward this year. We’re going to do one-off art shows with independent artists and we have a dinner series in the works with [florist Hannah Lowery from Edges Wild Studio].
The possibilities are endless and the sky is the limit.
Written by Elizabeth Lepro
Photography by Fred Agho