Covid-19 could have been the end of Shanna Dean and Dawn Dickson's new business, Lifestyle Cafe. Instead, it let them refocus.

Shanna Dean grew up in the kitchen. She learned to cook from her grandmother, who taught her to make pork chops, greens and macaroni and cheese. Today, the dishes Dean prepares looks a little different, but her love of cooking remains.

In January, Dean and her longtime friend Dawn Dickson opened Lifestyle Cafe, a vegan restaurant in Olde Towne East in a space previously occupied by Angry Baker. It was a perfect fit for a diverse and growing neighborhood in need of plant-based options. But opening a restaurant was never part of Dean’s career plan.

After getting a degree in vocal performance, Dean took over her grandfather’s business, Right Now Courier, in 2006, which she continues to run today. Then in 2013, she decided to attend culinary school at age 34. At the time, Dean was new to veganism, but she had been a vegetarian for years.

“I was cooking a lot of food at home, and I would always entertain people, but in 2013 I decided that I wanted to go to culinary school so I could learn some tricks of the trade,” Dean says. 

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“I didn’t want to go into the restaurant industry at first, because I was not interested in the angry chef yelling at me and telling me what to do. I wasn’t interested in that fast-paced kitchen life,” Dean says. However, that changed when Dickson approached her with the idea for Lifestyle Cafe.

“It’s always been my vision to help bring to life a vegan restaurant in Columbus,” says Dickson, who also owns PopCom, an automated retail technology company. “I’m not a chef, and I didn’t have any restaurant experience, but it’s something that I knew that I would put my money into, because I felt like it was really a need.”

Dean was hesitant, but after thinking on it for a couple of days, she was in. Dickson put together a team of investors, many of whom also invested in PopCom, and Lifestyle Cafe opened Jan. 20.

For Mo Wright, it was an easy decision to invest in Lifestyle Cafe. “One of the things that compelled me was just a growing vegan, plant-based population in America,” says Wright, president and CEO of Rama Consulting. “There’s a growing opportunity to change how we eat and what we eat, and at the same time not feel like you’re always eating just a salad. That got me engaged.”

For the first two months, things went well for Lifestyle Cafe. Then came March and the coronavirus. With dine-in no longer an option, the owners reduced hours and added delivery. They received funding from the Paycheck Protection Program and the CARES Act, which allowed them to stay open even as sales fell 80 percent.

“It’s not all bad news, because we got a good two-month run in validating the market, validating the product. It’s something that people want. People definitely support it,” Dean says. “Of course, we would like to have it booming, [but the pause] gave us a chance to regroup.”

One thing that put Lifestyle Cafe ahead in terms of adapting to Covid-19 was the restaurant has always conducted its transactions without cash. Customers order and pay for their food at kiosks. “Me coming from a tech background and having PopCom, which is an automated retail technology company, my position was always that we want the restaurant to be a new kind of model where it’s cashless and contactless,” Dickson says.

Today, Lifestyle Cafe offers online ordering for pickup and delivery through DoorDash and UberEats. Dean and Wright say sales are good and show signs of returning to pre-Covid numbers. 

“They’ve been strong the last month, and I think that’s been fueled by the resurgence of people coming back out and with everything going on with local social justice stuff,” Wright says. “I think folks have been really intentional about supporting Black-owned businesses.” 

Dean wants people to remember that buying Black is not a fad.

“Buying Black, it’s a lifestyle. It’s something that should continue,” Dean says. “For the Black community, on an economic level, it’s empowering. It helps to build better relationships, stronger community. My message is, continue to do that.”

Brittany Moseley is assistant digital editor for Dispatch Magazines.