It all started with jelly. Not the kind you spread on toast, but the metaphorical kind that Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh created five years ago in preparation for the launch of Downtown Project. New York native and UNLV graduate Kelly Bennett joined the “Green Jelly,” a community group of like-minded members interested in promoting green businesses and ideas in Las Vegas. That jelly changed everything.
Bennett, who was at the time running VeganConsultant.com, which advised vegan and vegan-friendly businesses across the country, joined the Green Jelly and then let the universe take over. Downtown Project connected her with the Health & Wellness Jelly, and the 2012 event, Build a Greener Block, was born. The following day, chef Donald Lemperle of Downtown’s VegeNation (616 Carson Ave., Suite 120, VegeNationLV.com) called Bennett after listening to her speak.
“He was like, ‘I’m going to open up a vegan restaurant, and it’s going to be called VegeNation, and it’s going to have a community table, a green wall and reggae music playing,” she recalls, donning a gruff New York accent. “And, you’re going to help me create it. I was like ‘Who is this?’ Great idea.” A day later, the two met and Lemperle hired Bennett as VegeNation’s creative director. Her first task: write the business concept, which would eventually be pitched to Downtown Project.
“I’m really proud of the impact [VegeNation] has made and how it has connected so many people.” Kelly Bennett, creative director. Two years later, Bennett, who had since returned to the East Coast, got a phone call from Lemperle telling her that VegeNation had been funded. Within weeks, she was back in Las Vegas and preparing to help Lemperle see his vegan vision come to life.
“I’m really proud of the impact [VegeNation] has made and how it has connected so many people.” Kelly Bennett
“He gave me the raw idea and I really felt it,” she says. When the restaurant opened in April 2014, there was indeed a green-living wall, a community table and reggae music playing. But, more than that, there was Lemperle’s vision, pulsing with the life Bennett breathed into it. Eighteen months later, VegeNation is one of the best performing restaurant investments Downtown Project has funded, and has received numerous accolades for its vegan cuisine. But, more than that, it has become a pillar of the community.
“I’m really proud of the impact [VegeNation] has made and how it has connected so many people,” says Bennett, who has implemented numerous community-based programs and created relationships with more than 20 local businesses to provide products to the restaurant. “It’s about really crafting more community partnerships versus just being vendors. [We have] relationships, help tell their stories and share the uniqueness of their products.”
Community initiatives that Bennett has introduced include an art exhibit on VegeNation’s remodeled back patio with work from Recycled Propaganda. Every Monday, a local instructor comes in to offer complimentary yoga classes to guests. The staff composts and recycles. They partner with local organizations to host fundraisers. They purchase produce from Vegas Roots Community Garden and local schools. Bennett’s goal of orchestrating not only a restaurant but a brand has come to fruition. “Having a brand that speaks to so many different communities that is socially conscious, but also a healthy business, is incredible,” she says. “We are able to really be a part of this more conscious economy and be a leader in Las Vegas.”
A former air-guitar champion and underground karaoke sensation in Chengdu, China (a story for another time, she says), Bennett also offers creative direction to entrepreneurs. And she is prepared to grow VegeNation beyond Downtown. “Right now, we are looking at what makes VegeNation ‘VegeNation’ … and deconstructing what we created so we can re-create it for future growth and locations,” Bennett says.
This much we know for certain: There will be a green wall, community table, reggae music and plenty of Bennett’s creativity present in future iterations of the brand.
Three key ingredients vegan Kelly Bennett can’t live without:
Quinoa “It fills you up and is really good for protein and energy. Plus, you can spice it up different ways.”
Organic Veggies “I love eating organic, and I buy from farmers markets or Vegas Roots Community Garden whenever I can. Plus, my girlfriend, Madeline, who is a chef and chocolatier at Evergreen Organix, makes the best Mexican seasoned vegetables, which we save and eat all week.”
Herbs “I got a really good Ethiopian curry mix from a local market, and I love putting it on chickpeas.”