Have you ever met someone you thought was an angel on earth? That’s how you’ll feel around LaRayia Gaston. I promise.
On any given day you’ll find her floating around her micro-market, LaRayia’s Bodega—the perfect convergence of spirituality, health, wellness, and Blackness. It’s also the only Afro-Latina woman owned vegan bodega in Atlanta, Ga. That’s where I up met with her on a sunny Saturday afternoon in the bustling Ponce City Market, a popular food hall in downtown ATL, to learn more of her story. It’s one straight out of a 1960s civil rights documentary.
“Hey, sis” she greeted smilingly. The familial greeting was familiar despite us never meeting in person before. After a quick hug, I looked around and realized her space had the inviting warmth of a lived in home. I wasn’t the only one that felt that way.
“People just make a seat anywhere and stay for hours,” she told me after noticing a customer was comfortably perched atop a deep freezer that held the Bodega’s ingredients for its all-natural smoothies. “They really come and don’t leave—I love it.”
Initially launched in LA four years ago, the bodega was an answer to address food access and waste. It was also inspired by her time directing a documentary, in which she spent 43 days living on LA’s Skid Row, and running her non-profit Lunch On Me, an organization that provides meals to Skid Row inhabitants.
“I honestly didn’t ever see myself doing something like this,” she told me, sharing that her background was entrenched in the arts after moving to New York City in her young adult years to pursue fashion design.
What was most inspiring about what she set out to do was provide high-quality, usually exorbitantly priced vegan meals all for under $5. The concept was such a success she decided to pilot it in another part of the country that was lightyears ahead of Black business advancement but stuck in the past when it came to nutrition.
“I knew I needed to come Atlanta because a lot of our people here just didn’t understand the power of nutrient-rich foods,” she says. Listening to her impassioned explanation, you’d never know that she sort of fell into launching the Bodega.
“I never thought I would have pivoted in this way, but honestly, it all played an integral part in everything that we do because I always liked to give food away. I became vegan at 19, before it was a buzzword. I’m 35 now, so I went plant-based because it really did help with my health, especially growing up, not having access to healthy food and things like that in the neighborhood I was in as a kid,” the New York native tells me. “It definitely played a part. So when I was able to give out free food, that was my form of tithing.”
A child of the church, she often attended services with her family and learned early the importance of charity—thus stoking her generous spirit.
Now, at 35, she’s bringing the of sum of all her parts together in the Bodega.
If you take a look around, Gaston’s imprint is on everything.
From the menus that double as hip-hop album covers that serve as a nod to Gaston’s deep love for music, to the names of the drinks (see: Thug Passion Fruit Juice), to the stylish merch items with her signature love without reason mantra emblazoned on them.
“I’m so passionate about loving on my people in tangible ways—by feeding them from the inside out.” she tells me. “I’ve had so many Black Panthers come into our shop in LA because our logo is their old logo. I’m carrying on their mission to nourish the body so the mind will get stronger.”
In less than five years, Gaston is already talking expansion.
“Our next steps is owning a building,” she says, explaining that she’s raising money through the sales of deli food items. “We have an initiative called the Garden Project that will serve as a communal space where people can gather and comfortably convene for as long as they like. We aren’t working with investors to do this. We’re fundraising. It’s about people supporting people. This is literally our team and we’re doing the work from the heart.”
She adds: “If it’s only about money, God leaves the room.”
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.