As James Bloodsaw watched his father’s health deteriorate, he knew he had to make a change.
“He told me not to end up like him,” Bloodsaw said of his father, who passed away after suffering from heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Bloodsaw made a radical change in his own diet and went entirely vegan – and was quickly frustrated by the lack of easy, convenient vegan meals and snacks.
Bloodsaw had already been cooking professionally for nearly 30 years, following in the footsteps of his father, who was the head dietary chef at the VA hospital in Madison. While working as a chef at Upstairs Downstairs Catering, Bloodsaw started creating his own vegan delicacies.
“I was just making stuff and then bringing it to work and having my coworkers try it. I was experimenting on them,” he said.
That experiment was successful enough that he took another step, hosting a booth at the Madison Makers’ Fair as a bigger test.
“If people like it, I’ll start a business,” he thought at the time.
Five years later, that business – Just Veggiez – has been honored by the Small Business Administration as Wisconsin Emerging Business of the Year.
“I’m always thinking of new things”
Once he had the validation of his peers at work, and success at the Madison Makers’ Fair, Bloodsaw took the show on the road, setting up shop at vegan-specific food festivals from Minneapolis to Atlanta.
It coincided with a time that business at Upstairs Downstairs was slow, so he had some free time.
At his first food festival, his booth was open for five hours, and he brought in $4,000.
“I was like, ‘Okay! Let me get my calendar. When’s the next one?’” he said in an interview Thursday. “I really didn’t want to open up a restaurant. I could just do vegan festivals on the weekends and be set.”
But then the COVID-19 pandemic put a sudden end to almost all such events, forcing Bloodsaw to pivot to deliveries.
Operating out of a kitchen on East Washington Avenue in Madison, Bloodsaw and his team of 12 – mostly family – now run out roughly 20 deliveries a day through services like DoorDash and Grubhub, while preparing for some of the food festivals that have come back.
They also offer a monthly meal plan, with three meals per week delivered for four weeks for $150. They’re also catering an Easter dinner that’s open to the public at the Goodman Community Center on the East Side.
There are big things coming, too: Bloodsaw said he’s secured a prime location in the 500 block of State Street to open a sit-down restaurant, which he hopes to have open next month. He plans on moving the entire operation to that location.
And he’s already looking beyond that.
“Everybody who knows me knows I’m always thinking of new things,” he said.
Some of those new things include aspirations to put products on grocery store shelves, convenient vegan snacks in gas stations, and food stands in NBA arenas.
But even with all the business growth plans and everything that comes along with that, it all comes back to Bloodsaw’s passion for cooking.
“Just seeing the smile … when you create something and then people enjoy it … just gives me goosebumps,” he said.
“Passion and determination”
It was that passion that caught the attention of Krista Bleich, Bloodsaw’s mentor at Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation (WWBIC). The community development financial institution provides small business loans along with mentoring and other support.
Bleich, who worked with Bloodsaw for 18 months, said what stood out was “his commitment to the community and his commitment to his family. He’s just got a very big heart, and a good work ethic. And he also wanted to grow and expand and really think about his business as a business. He’s an inspiring person.”
She has a lot of confidence that Bloodsaw can achieve all of his expansion goals.
“Passion and determination I would say are two words that could sum it up,” she said.
Bleich nominated Bloodsaw and Just Veggiez for an SBA award, writing in the nomination, “of the over 100 businesses in my portfolio, James was the first who came to mind as being deserving of this award.”
Just Veggiez was named 2023 SBA Wisconsin Emerging Small Business of the Year. It’s one of 11 Wisconsin businesses recognized in a variety of categories by the SBA Wisconsin District Office to celebrate National Small Business Week, May 2-5.
“Wisconsin’s 2023 National Small Business Week winners are not only exceptional business people and organizations, they make significant contributions to their communities,” District Director Eric Ness said in a statement. “They represent the outstanding and multi-faceted nature of Wisconsin itself.”
“I was shocked,” Bloodsaw said of the moment he learned he’d won. “Just blew me away. They liked my story. I’m still at a loss for words.”
Now 52, Bloodsaw said the key to entrepreneurship is to do what you love.
“I knew cooking was my passion. Just follow your passion. And for me, it was faith. I stepped out on faith. And he’d been lining everything up along the way,” he said. “Stick with your passion. Step out on faith. You will never know until you try.”