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Ongoing Oakland pop-up Don’t Be Chick’n specializes in vegan “chicken” feasts. Credit: Don’t Be Chick’n

When Nkoyo Adakama went vegan four years ago, the thing she missed most was fried chicken. The Sacramento native ate a lot of it growing up, mainly from chains like Wing Stop or Chick-Fil-A. So when dreaming up a plant-based fast-food operation that could grow and eventually be franchised, fried chicken was the obvious choice.

Adakama and her restaurant, Don’t Be Chick’n, arrived in Oakland in December 2020 as a pop-up, most recently serving customers at the New Parkway movie theater. This week, Adakama will announce an expansion for the business, with a food truck that will stop at Lake Merritt and other Bay Area locations starting on July 3, when it will be parked at Lake Merritt. From her new truck, Adakama will serve up completely plant-based meals, including her popular platters of fried chicken, served in a number of ways: a crispy sandwich, a Nashville spicy hot sandwich, crispy fried strips and a boneless wings platter. The chicken is made from pea protein and soy, and then is battered and deep fried. 

Her “cluck sauce” is a secret sauce of her own invention – with Cajun spices – and she makes numerous other sauces, like Thai chili, honey-BBQ (made with agave so as to be vegan) mango-habanero and ranch, so one can dip their chicken in a variety of sauces, McNuggets-style. She also has a soy-based shrimp that’s deep-fried and served popcorn-shrimp-style.

Don’t Be Chick’n’s ample chicken strip platter. Credit: Alix Wall

Sides include collard greens with vegan bacon (spicy, smoky, sweet), mac and cheese (made with Daiya vegan cheese) and potato salad. And crinkle-cut fries, lots of them. Milkshakes are also on offer, using the Berkeley-based, non-dairy and plant-based ice cream Eclipse.

I tried the popular chicken strip platter. The coating has all the nooks and crannies one expects with fried chicken, though the flavor and texture of the chicken tastes like … a meat substitute. But given that the flavor of real chicken itself is quite bland and it really all depends on the preparation, this derivation of fried chicken will most likely satisfy the same craving; it could also act as a substitute for fish and chips. Where I really noticed her chef’s chops were in her sauces. While some used a base of Vegenaise, she told me, she made the mango-habanero one with fresh mango; each one was unique and delicious enough that it didn’t matter what I was dipping into it.

One looking to get their fried fix on will be satisfied and then some; the platter’s portion is more than generous. I could only eat one of the strips and half the fries in one sitting, especially with a shake (which I couldn’t finish, either), especially since it comes with a soft barbecue-style roll.

Adakama said when she first turned vegan, she noticed a real lack of flavor in a lot of the food she was consuming; she’s trying to make up for that with Don’t Be Chick’n. But health food it isn’t. While many people like to think that if it’s plant-based, it’s better for you, in this case, the calorie count is equivalent to the real thing.

“It’s an indulgence, a treat, for sure, “ said Adakama. She plans to add some salads and wraps to give some lighter options.

Working through her trauma with veganism

Before opening Don’t Be Chick’n, Adakama, 27, was working at a Sacramento MAC makeup store, while doing modeling on the side. As a plus-size woman, her plan was to work her way up the modeling ranks, while encouraging women to feel good about their bodies, no matter their size. That goal was sidelined, she said, when she was sexually assaulted.

Adakama said that she didn’t talk about the attack for two years and channeled her pain into overeating. She said that it became harder for her to feel the confidence necessary to model, and then the #MeToo movement happened.

“I had been silenced for two years,” she said. Noting she had always felt a deep connection to animals, she suddenly realized her feeling voiceless was akin to animals having no say in determining their fate. She saw veganism as a way to express that and work through her trauma. “I went vegan overnight and never looked back,” she said. “I knew nothing about veganism, but I suddenly didn’t have a passion for modeling anymore. I wanted to be a vegan chef.”

Don’t Be Chick’n founder Nkoyo Adakama once dreamed of being a model, before falling in love with vegan cooking. Credit: Don’t Be Chick’n

Adakama had loved to cook since she was a child; the daughter of a white mother and a Nigerian-born father, cooking was “near and dear to my heart,” she said, especially since her father died when she was 12, and it was he who taught her how to cook. But she certainly didn’t learn anything from him about veganism.

She started experimenting with recipes and bringing food to share with her fellow employees at the MAC store. When one of them said “you should sell your food,” she realized they were right, and she started a vegan meal delivery service called Compassion Meals.

Compassion Meals was healthy and satisfying, she said, but she missed the flavors she remembered from conventional meat. She started veganizing fast food-style dishes, and said that she saw “a lot of vegan burgers out there or vegan ribs,” and realized that “not a lot are doing vegan fried chicken. … It’s harder to master, maybe because of the batter. It’s also more time consuming and a labor of love.”

Once she hit upon the fast food fried chicken concept, she then needed a name. When she came up with Don’t Be Chick’n, she knew that was it; it was the perfect double entendre expressing that her chicken isn’t chicken, and that no one should be afraid to speak their mind.

She developed a loyal following in her hometown, but all was not well. In September 2020, she posted a video on Don’t Be Chick’n’s Instagram account, in which she said that a group of white women had made false and racist claims about her business to Sacramento’s health department and Better Business Bureau in an effort to shut her down.

In the video, Adakama referred to the false claims as “the dark side of veganism” and said that the women created profiles where they pretended to be Black people, then posted negative reviews about her business on social media. The alleged harassment was enough to prompt her to move Don’t Be Chick’n from Sacramento to Oakland, she said in a follow-up post. Asked about the conflict, Adakama grew visibly emotional and declined to comment, saying that she’d prefer to focus on the future.

By the end of 2020, Don’t Be Chick’n had started popping up again, starting with an event at Broadway’s Au Lounge. It’s been doing a steady business ever since, attracting repeat customers that Adakama greets by name as they pick up their orders.

That personal touch is important to her, she said, and won’t go away when her food truck makes its debut next week. “I feel like everyone I shared my food with in the beginning is now a vegan or at least loves vegan food,” she said, “and that I was able to help those people around me.”

Follow Don’t Be Chick’n on Instagram for food truck locations as of July 3, when the truck will launch at Lake Merritt.

Alix Wall

Alix Wall is an Oakland-based freelance writer. She is a contributing editor of J., The Jewish News of Northern California, for which she has a food column and writes other features. In addition to Berkeleyside’s Nosh, her writing can be found in The San Francisco Chronicle, Edible East Bay, and more. Alix is also the founder of The Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is producer/writer of a documentary in progress called “The Lonely Child.”