How Zachary ‘Big Zak’ Wallace made Local Green an oasis in an Atlanta food desert — Andscape
When Zachary Wallace, affectionately known as “Big Zak,” opened the doors to his first Local Green location in Atlanta’s Vine City community on the West Side in January 2019, you could find him doing everything from running the cash register to cooking the food himself. Four-plus years later, you’ll likely see the life-size image of him on the wall more often than you’ll see him there in person. That’s because he’s still doing the less glamorous parts of running the business.
“This is a contact sport,” Wallace said, sitting in his SUV in Local Green’s parking lot, taking phone calls, keeping laptops open, and ordering eco-friendly disposables and other supplies to keep the restaurant’s inventory intact. “The restaurant business is a business of 10,000 little small things.”
Multitasking isn’t entirely new to Wallace, though. Before his dive into the food industry, he was known as a rapper and songwriter who helped build Sho’Nuff Records with rapper Jazze Pha, where his pen game contributed to hit songs such as “Goodies” by Ciara, “Get It Shawty” by Lloyd, and tracks for Nelly, CeeLo Green, Too $hort and Jeezy. His voice has also been on Atlanta radio every weekday since 2005 as the man behind the “It’s 6 O’Clock” intro for hip-hop DJ and radio host Greg Street’s long-running evening slot on V-103.
His connection to hip-hop inspires most of the food on Local Green’s menu. You’ll find tacos named after rapper Andre 3000, smoothies, and sandwiches named after Goodie Mob songs and T.I. albums. But beef is one hip-hop byproduct you won’t find at Local Green — 80% of the menu is plant-based and geared to a pescatarian and vegetarian diet.
“Nutrition is our first inspiration,” Wallace said, noting that every offering is created with the recommended daily nutritional value in mind, and all of the sauces are made in-house. “We start out with that and say, ‘OK, now how can we make this taste the best?’ It’s just like music, it’s a very spiritual process.”
Living and working in Atlanta’s prosperous entertainment industry often makes for poor eating habits. Late nights in the studio or club usually lead to eating at whatever 24-hour diner or drive-thru is still open when the party’s over. So, as Big Zak was collecting publishing checks and platinum plaques, he was also packing on the pounds. At his largest, he weighed 315 pounds, wore 4XL-size clothing, and battled sleep apnea.
“You couldn’t tell me nothing, though,” he said. “I was still fresh, still a playa, so I didn’t care. I didn’t see myself like that. I didn’t know I was carrying that much. I didn’t know I was that close to death.”
The Office of Minority Health, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, reports that as of 2019, African Americans were 30% more likely to die from heart disease than non-Hispanic white people and twice as likely to die from diabetes. The American Heart Association also reports that Black adults had the highest rates of obesity-related cardiovascular disease deaths from 1999 to 2020 and tripled in that time, especially in urban communities. These numbers affect a lot of people, and Wallace was no different.
“Death inspired me to eat better,” he said. “Losing my mother-in-law before I got to meet her. I lost my younger brother before he turned 35. Losing my other older brother at 51. Losing village mothers in their 60s. Ladies who raised us, living very safe lives, dying over food.”
Wallace, now 47, started by exercising and giving up fried foods. That led to changing what he bought at the grocery store and eventually having to suddenly answer his wife and kids about what he was putting in the fridge.
“Initially, he came home and he said, ‘Look, I want y’all to drink almond milk,’ ” Robyn Wallace said. Besides being her husband’s business partner, she also handles strategy and operations for Local Green. “Then he just started making tacos, using avocados and he bought a juicer. Over time, he literally transitioned our house.”
The new health habits also forced him to find new places to dine. Today, you can find plenty of health-conscious restaurants and eateries in Atlanta. But that wasn’t necessarily the case just five or ten years ago.
“You’re always looking for new spots, so I typed in ‘healthy restaurants near me’ and R. Thomas came up,” he explained. “I was shocked because we always go to R. Thomas, but I never looked at R. Thomas as healthy.”
R. Thomas Deluxe Grill has been in Atlanta’s affluent Buckhead community since 1985, so you won’t hear a shout-out on rap songs as you would soul food spots such as Chantrelle’s or The Beautiful. But in the 2000s, its neon sign eventually started attracting clubgoers like Wallace, who didn’t feel like waiting in line at the Waffle House or IHOP down the street. R. Thomas served the usual after-party favorites such as wings, scrambled eggs, omelets and burgers. However, the menu also had words like “baked” and “organic” that probably didn’t even register with the inebriated.
After Wallace became a regular daytime customer, he eventually met and developed a rapport with the founder and owner Richard Thomas, and discovered that he was a former fast-food franchiser who co-founded the Bojangles chain of restaurants before he sold his businesses and opened R. Thomas.
“We had a lot of similarities,” Wallace said. Both men were inspired to bring healthy eating options to Atlanta after trips to San Francisco, even though they knew getting Southerners to hear them out would be challenging. “Talking to him prepared me for this journey knowing that this is a labor of love, not just some quick fix. It’s something that you’re gonna have to get in and grind it out.”
While Thomas started his restaurant with $12 million, Wallace initially put up $5,000 of his own money to start Local Green. Before opening the brick-and-mortar location, he operated out of his mother’s kitchen, serving dishes to friends and family as he tested recipes. From there he secured a spot at the Good Samaritan Health Center that allowed him to cook his meals in its kitchen that he delivered to his growing customer base through word of mouth. In 2017, he secured a food truck that allowed him to be even more mobile and visible.
The final step was finding a place of his own. He heard through a customer that there was a space with a kitchen available in the historic Bronner Brothers building on the West Side, owned by local community organizer and real estate developer Precious Muhammad. After a couple of phone calls, Wallace met the elusive figure in person. He brought his proposed menu and some samples to convince her to allow him to operate there.
“I looked at what he was going to offer people and said, well, this will help me help the people try to change their dietary law and he’ll make it fun and creative to eat the right foods, just like our parents made it fun and creative for us to eat the wrong foods,” Muhammad said. “He’s a young Black entrepreneur that’s offering a healthy choice for our community, which we have not had. We have soul food in our community, but really a lot of the soul food actually robs us of our soul.”
Wallace got the keys to the space in September 2018 and officially opened in January 2019.
When Wallace walks into Local Green, employees don’t suddenly pick up a broom and find things to reorder because the place is already as clean as his outfit: a Local Green Atlanta T-shirt and hat combo (created with local artists and designers Chilly-O and Melissa A. Mitchell, respectively) and crispy white Nike Air Force 1 sneakers.
There is a 30-foot “Affirmation Wall” covered with handwritten sticky notes left by customers who write everything from their Instagram handles to positive messages such as “Love yourself today.” Today’s playlist is classic soul, with Teddy Pendergrass’ “Love TKO” flowing into Aretha Franklin’s “Until You Come Back To Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do).” With this kind of vibe, even the slightly impatient customer at the register isn’t stressing about the wait time for their order, because who’s going to raise their voice over the Queen of Soul footsteps away from a posted quote by former first lady Michelle Obama?
“You’re not gonna have a Popeyes Chicken-type energy coming in Local Green,” Wallace said behind a grin.
“Having Local Green here gives me a beacon that I can point to in that someone that grew up in the neighborhood with the same lack of that our children now is missing now, has decided to change his life and do a healthy food option,” said lifelong Vine City resident Byron Amos, who represents District 3 on the Atlanta City Council. “How he cleans the front of the store, how he makes sure that the streets around the building are clean, how he pours into his employees. People begin to take ownership of not only the store but the community around it as well.”
Local Green is on the corner of streets named after Joseph E. Lowery and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., pillars of the Civil Rights Movement. It is within walking distance from the original Paschal’s Restaurant, where people like them met to strategize. It is also up the block from the first branch of Citizens Trust Bank, the first Black-owned bank to join the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and Federal Reserve System.
Many still consider this historic intersection to be the heartbeat of the neighborhood. But eating on this corner could easily give you a heart attack. There’s a KFC, Zaxby’s Chicken Fingers & Buffalo Wings and a Chick-fil-A located closer to each other than the Atlanta Braves infield. Surrounding them are a handful of locally-owned spots offering barbecue ribs and fried food. All of this is anchored by a gas station and a convenience store selling plenty of sugary drinks and snacks. Walking past all of this makes the words “Eat Well, Be Well” on Local Green’s windows stand out but still easy to ignore.
“We saw them growing at the beginning, but I was like, I don’t know if people are really gonna take to this,” said Rosario Hernandez, a longtime resident of the neighboring English Avenue community and executive director of the Historic Westside Gardens, which hosts a weekly Westside Growers farmers market. “Some people would say it’s a little bit pricey, which I’ll agree with at times. But, when you eat a slab of ribs that messes up your cholesterol, you don’t consider prices then.”
Vine City and English Avenue are located in one of Atlanta’s most-known food deserts, where it’s common for people ranging from longtime residents to college students to travel miles away by car or public transportation just to get affordable, quality, fresh, nutrient-dense food, let alone find a restaurant that serves it. There have been efforts to build grocery stores in the community, but they’ve been disappointing. A Publix opened in the area in 2002 as a part of a much-ballyhooed development called the Historic Westside Village. But it closed on Christmas Eve 2009, citing poor performance and broken promises from the city government over the development of the surrounding area. A Walmart Supercenter replaced it in 2013, and it lasted until it caught fire in May 2022, and it’s been closed ever since. A smaller Walmart Neighborhood Market will replace it in the summer of 2024.
Driving to the store or finding another one when your favorite is closed is a minor inconvenience to some. But for others, especially in this neighborhood where a car is not a given, that inconvenience can be deadly. Multiple studies have linked a lack of access to nutritious foods to higher rates of health problems ranging from diabetes to high blood pressure, which can eventually lead to higher morbidity rates. When it was reported that almost half of Atlanta’s residents lived in food deserts in 2015, then-Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms enacted a plan to ensure that at least 85% of the city had access to fresh food within a half-mile radius by 2022. In 2021, those efforts increased access to 75% of the city, but according to a Fresh Food Access report from Aglanta.org, the new fresh food spots were primarily located in the expensive Midtown area, not in the south and west sides of town where people were more in need.
“He’s created an awareness to let us know we don’t have to leave our community to get something good to eat,” said Hernandez, who remembers Wallace coming to her farmers market to buy herbs and other ingredients to use at Local Green. “Not everyone will come down from other areas. If I lived in Buckhead and said, ‘let’s go to the corner of MLK and Lowery. There’s this guy that has an amazing little place where we could grab lunch,’ not everyone would come down here. So it’s very important that we as a community support him.”
While Wallace’s mission for bringing healthy food options to his people is ongoing, he still works with his food truck, reaching people at events such as One Music Fest and the PGA Tour championship. Local Green opened its second location in Orlando, Florida, at the Disney Springs shopping complex in 2022,. This is a good look, but Wallace vows never to lose sight of home.
“I have a Robin Hood mentality, so whenever I go somewhere and I discover something, I’m always trying to bring it back to people,” he said before taking a business call from his wife. “We’ve done that in fashion and music. Now it’s time to do that with food.”