Cam MacQueen has a vision for the future of Asheville, and it includes stories, bar drinks and vegan food. Standing amid multicolored stained-glass windows, a hodgepodge of reclaimed furniture and a large heart-pine bar, MacQueen’s eyes sparkle as she talks about her vision for her new gathering space — The Block off biltmore.
“This is an event concept bar,” she says. “We believe that Asheville is ready to support a unique, multicultural, progressive, vegan gathering spot for activists, artists, educators, community organizers and others to come together to socialize, to dream and to dare to create positive social change in Western North Carolina and beyond.”
The space is in the historic YMI building on the corner of Eagle and Market streets downtown. Reminiscent of an Prohibition-era speakeasy with its cream and burgundy walls, vinyl club chairs, old church pews and dark brown circular tables, the bar and event center pays homage to the history of the building and its surrounding neighbors. The YMI, which is believed to be the oldest African-American cultural center in the world, was built in 1893. According to the YMI’s website, it was built “to provide an institution for the black construction workers employed at the Biltmore Estate to improve the moral fiber of the black male through education focusing on social, cultural, business and religious life.”
“This bar is about telling the story of this space, of this block, of bringing people together, of unity through diversity and a place to gather and dialogue,” says MacQueen. She plans to do this by highlighting musicians, artists, authors, activists, thinkers, poets, filmmakers, students, dreamers and others in the space. “The Block off Biltmore’s regular events and welcoming atmosphere will amplify the mission of the YMI while always acknowledging the significance of The Block,” she says.
MacQueen envisions mornings where people are conversing over laptops and enjoying the sunshine next to the large windows overlooking the street. By evening, patrons can expect to find happenings such as poetry slams, art shows, documentary viewings and music events.
The bar, which is slated for a late June opening, will be open six days a week. Fair trade and shade-grown coffee, tea and cold-pressed juices will be available, and the bar will also feature artisan beers, sustainable wines, Buchi and classic craft cocktails. The bar will have its own specialty drinks, says MacQueen, but she is keeping the recipes a secret until opening day.
MacQueen notes that The Block off biltmore will introduce a new concept to Asheville: It will be the city’s first vegan bar. “A vegan bar is a place where there is no flesh, dairy, eggs or honey — it’s animal and cruelty-free. It’s about compassion, and in addition to that, it’s about being as green as possible.”
The all-vegan menu will feature small plates with food from local businesses such as Edible Musings, Elements, Eden Out and Plant restaurant.
“The menu is still a work in progress, but the companies we have partnered with [will] bring the food in, and we’ll plate it here,” she says. “The dishes will be bar food, such as hummus, mock chicken salad, vegan paté, salsa, [vegan] cheese plates and gazpacho.”
And not just the food will be vegan, says MacQueen. The bar will be cruelty-free from its furnishings all the way down to its house-cleaning practices. “The cleaning products that we plan to use will all be biodegradable and haven’t been tested on animals” she says.
MacQueen says the food and drink prices will be comparable with other bars around town. “We plan to keep the prices as low as possible so that everyone will be able to come in,” she says. Because the bar doesn’t have a kitchen, due to N.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission regulations, it will be membership-based, she says.
Nonprofit organizations also hold a place in MacQueen’s heart, so The Block off biltmore will also serve as a fundraising venue for local charities at least one or two nights per week. “A nonprofit will have a night here and will be able to do what they want to do, such as having a special event with music,” she says. “On those nights the nonprofit will receive a percentage of the bar and the door covers.”
Tentative hours will be 8 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, 8 a.m.-midnight Thursday-Friday, 10 a.m.-midnight Saturday and 2-9 p.m. Sunday. It will be closed Mondays. The Block off biltmore is currently hiring bartenders. To apply for a job or check for updates on the opening, visit www.theblockoffbiltmore.com.