Staff photo by Emily Crisman / Willow St. Deli, at left, is holding a soft opening Nov. 23.

A new restaurant in Highland Park seeks to improve the neighborhood's access to fresh, healthy food.

Willow St. Deli, a new vegan restaurant, is located in what's known as a food desert, meaning the area has limited access to affordable and nutritious food.

"We want to focus on accessible food with high integrity," said owner Linley Hollywood, aka "The Local Seitanist."

Food deserts impact an estimated one out of every five Tennesseans' access to fresh and affordable food, especially in inner-city areas.

Hollywood studied the menus of other local restaurants serving vegan foods and aimed to offer different options. She decided on Southern comfort foods, vegan style.

A big supporter of local food, Hollywood sources all her veggies from Big Sycamore Farm in Meigs County. She also plans to hire a staff of eight employees from the neighborhood around the new deli.

If you go

Willow St. Deli is at 1306 S. Willow St.

Hollywood hasn't always focused on healthy foods. She previously owned a coffee and doughnut shop in Melbourne, Florida.

She was among the nearly 7 million Floridians who evacuated the state for Hurricane Irma in 2017. She decided to head to Chattanooga after hearing from friends that it was a beautiful place. When she arrived, she agreed and never left.

Hollywood began making her own seitan — a meat substitute made from wheat — and sold it at local farmers markets. It would sell out in the first hour, and eventually people started lining up before she'd even set up her booth.

She was happy with simply selling her seitan at farmers markets, but decided to open the deli when the owner of the building on Willow Street contacted Corey Evatt, the founder of ChattaVegans, a nonprofit promoting veganism. Evatt told Hollywood about the space and she decided to make a go of it.

"I just thought of myself as the weird girl who made fake meat," said Hollywood, who launched a Kickstarter campaign to cover startup costs and exceeded her $9,800 goal, garnering $10,182 from 140 backers.

Before long, she was hearing about the new vegan deli opening in Highland Park from friends who didn't who know she was the one opening it.

One aspect of the business that's important to Hollywood is feeding the homeless in the community. She offers a buy-one-get-one program in which patrons can purchase a meal and provide another to put in a case to give to people who can't afford to pay.

"No one will leave here hungry," she said.

Reducing waste is also a focus for the business, where everything but the food coolers is either repurposed, recycled or secondhand.

Willow St. Deli's soft opening is set for Nov. 23. Prior to that, Hollywood said she plans to hide gift cards throughout the city for some lucky folks to find.

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