3645 Martin Luther King Jr. Way (at 37th Street), Oakland
Owners Mieko Scott, and her daughter, Kami Quiñones, change the menu at Hella Nuts every day based on what’s in season. This practice keeps customers at their West Oakland plant-based restaurant intrigued and guessing what’s going to be on the menu next.
Some days they’ll offer Phish and Grits, with the “fish” made out of fried banana blossom; other days they’ll serve Ikuko soba noodle soup, chock full of mushrooms, ginger and kelp in a chickpea miso broth; or maybe there’ll have shepherd’s pie, featuring Hella Nut’s signature ground walnut meat.
Neither Scott nor Quiñones went to culinary school. Hella Nuts is pure trial and error, school of YouTube and love for their community.
“Our menu represents us. We both are multiracial. Mieko is Japanese and Black. I’m Puerto Rican, Japanese and Black,” said Quiñones. “Our heritage and the Bay Area diversity. We want to appeal to everyone by offering different, relatable foods. Most of our customers aren’t vegans. They are coming because they know we have good food.”
Both women eat plant-based diets, but how they got there took two different paths.
In 2016, Quiñones was preparing to attend Louisiana State University when she suffered a workplace accident. Her doctor prescribed a variety of medications for her recovery, but the pharmaceuticals also took a toll on her health.
“I ended up having weird side effects. The only thing that I could do was cleanse out my system, so I went raw vegan, eating fruits and vegetables for about six to seven months. After that, I ended up staying vegan,” recalled Quiñones.
Scott, who is allergic to soy, ate primarily a pescatarian diet. She would joke with her daughter about her raw food choice. “I was kind of making fun of her — ‘What are you going to eat? Just salad and fruit, what is that?’”
But Scott eventually changed her tune — and her diet. “I prepared to cook a great fish I picked from the market. I went back in the kitchen about an hour later, and parasites were crawling out of it. I couldn’t see myself eating anything where parasites were crawling out of it,” divulged Scott.
Soon, mother and daughter were collaborating on creating plant-based recipes via Facetime or by phone. “What should I make tonight? What ingredients do we have?” Scott would ask her daughter. Together, they created nut-based milks, cheeses, gravies, sauces and their now-famous ground walnut meat.
Scott endeavored to develop an alternative to beef that resembles taco meat. She manipulated whole-food combinations using the nutrient powerhouse walnut and perfected the right blend of seasonings. The pair featured the walnut meat in their Hella Loaded Tacos. It was a hit and became a signature dish.
“We posted on our personal Instagram pages. People would ask, how can I buy it?”
The guiding philosophy of Hella Nuts is “no soy, no science,” meaning that none of the foods the restaurant makes contain soy, chemicals, fillers or genetically modified ingredients. Quiñones studied Agriculture Business at LSU, with a focus on creating better access to fresher, healthier and organic foods for communities of color. Hella Nuts gets its whole food ingredients from a community garden in West Oakland and farms in Stockton and Lodi. A no-waste restaurant, Hella Nuts uses every single piece of produce and grain until it is gone.
“We are getting away from plant-based food created in a lab,” Quiñones explained.
“Our community suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes,” added Scott, referring to communities of color across the nation. “If there are things we can change within our menu to help people eat plant-based or just eat healthy, we’re definitely down to help. We gladly change our menu to have additional options based on conversations with customers.”
Changes the mother-daughter team have made to their menu include switching to monk fruit sugar and agave for sweeteners, and offering gluten-free and keto diet options. Hella Nuts’ menu offers a variety of beverages, including drinks made with nut milks, coconut filtered alkaline water, lavender lemonade and alcoholic beverages like wine and beer.
When coming up with the restaurant, the two wanted a business name that represented the Bay Area, specifically Oakland. “I’ll never forget when I was younger, traveling to Miami. I was on an elevator and said, ‘I’m hella hot,’ and everybody like, ‘You’ve got to be from the Bay Area.’ That word embodies everything about the Bay Area,” Scott said.
In early 2018, the duo sold their food and products in local grocery store pop-ups, Oakland’s Art and Soul Festival and corporate events. When people started asking to buy their walnut meat, Scott noticed it was a hot ticket item. The demand exceeded their expectations. They filed for a patent and trademarked “Hella Nuts” and “No soy, no science.”
As Scott contemplated venturing into the food truck business, a friend contacted her with a storefront offer. Instead of building a commercial kitchen in a vehicle, Scott and Quiñones invested in owning their own restaurant. In March 2019, they helmed a full remodel. The restaurant was slated to open in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit.
While they couldn’t open their doors to customers, they had an opportunity to pivot their business model.
“We stuck the visuals for our walnut meat packaging online and opened for pre-sales through our website. It went completely crazy,” Quiñones said. “We got more than 200 orders in one day.” The restaurant’s kitchen became a manufacturing facility for about eight months.
Hella Nuts’ packaging features Oakland rap artist Champ Green. Scott and Green are good friends. Green is not a vegan, but he’s a fan of eating plant-based food. “We wanted to change the perception of what veganism looks like,” Quiñones said.
Being a mother and daughter team is not without its challenges, mainly because the two share a similar temperament. But neither would change a thing.
“It’s definitely a dream come true because I see my child’s passions come to fruition. It’s great to be able to be alongside [her], said Scott. “Our success is based on each other. I wouldn’t do it with somebody else,” added Quiñones.
Hella Nuts is open for pickup from 4-6 p.m.; 7-11 p.m., Monday (but closed on Mondays after Sunday brunch), Tuesday and Thursday; 6 p.m. to midnight, Friday; 2:30-5 p.m.; 7-11 p.m., Saturday; 1-5 p.m. every other Sunday (next brunch is April 11). Orders must be made online for contact-free pickup. The menu goes live at 5 a.m. daily.