At 5:30 p.m. on a wintry Friday evening, five men stand in the vestibule next door to Coy Dunston’s storefront on the 3900 block of South Capitol Street SW. Dunston scowls at them, but they don’t notice. They’re too busy drinking brown-bagged booze purchased from a local liquor store and puffing on smokes.

The neighboring liquor store, which sells lottery tickets and “washpot type” pork rinds, is rarely vacant. Neither is the Yum’s carryout next to it. Dunston’s shop, a health-food store and vegetarian eatery called Secrets of Nature, is empty.

“That’s the community,” says the owner of the natural-goods emporium, eyes ablaze. “That’s where they are. You gotta get them out of the pits. That’s why I’m here.”

Selling organic vegetarian dishes in this Ward 8 strip mall—laden with liquor stores, beauty shops, and carryouts is no mean feat. For the 51-year-old Dunston, who has been toughing it out on South Capitol Street for six years, it has less to do with business calculations than with missionary zeal: The former North Carolina sharecropper is on a crusade to convert a community laden with steak-and-cheese joints to the healthy-eating true path.

“If I was motivated by anything other than trying to change the health situation of the people, then I wouldn’t [be here],” says Dunston, who owned two downtown health-food stores before Secrets of Nature. “I could be in Georgetown, Bethesda, Arlington, where people are much more receptive to this. But they don’t need it. They can make it without me. Their community is served. This community is not served.”

Even though Secrets of Nature is the only eatery with tables and chairs on this entire strip of 20-plus businesses, its alternative fare hasn’t managed to lure many customers. During the weekdays, about two people drop by hourly. Despite the only combination health-food store and vegetarian eatery east of the Anacostia’s offering its 100,000-plus potential customers a meatless menu of barbecued twists of whole-wheat gluten and chickenless salad, some carnivores refuse to place their taste buds in Dunston’s care even on lunch hour.

“A lot of people don’t even believe [there’s] a health-food store here,” says Dunston. “I mean, it’s Ward 8. Who would put a health-food store in Ward 8? That’s the mentality of most people.”

James Holmes Jr.’s first visit didn’t make him a convert. “I looked at the menu and saw vegetable this and vegetable that, and I just walked out,” says Holmes, still noticeably shocked by the selection. Holmes was looking for soul food: “Everybody in my family eats red meat. Everybody I know eats red meat.”

Holmes is in pretty good company. According to a poll commissioned by the Baltimore-based Vegetarian Resource Group, just 5 percent of Americans don’t eat red meat, and only 2 million Americans are strict vegetarians. Yet according to Debra Wasserman, co-director of the organization, the number of people who aren’t vegetarians but are trying to eat more vegetarian meals is “skyrocketing.”

But in a neighborhood nearly devoid of restaurants, it’s the food and chairs—as much as the herbal teas, coffee substitutes, and blue tortilla chips lining his walls—that stand out. Dunston estimates that prepared food accounts for almost 50 percent of his sales. Around 4:15 one afternoon, Dimone Muhammad walks into the store. He heads straight to the fridge, pulls out a bean pie, sits at a table, and digs in. “I’m gonna go ahead and eat this,” Muhammad tells Dunston. “Then I’m gonna pick up some more.”

“OK,” Dunston replies, disappearing briefly behind a wall to restock herbs. Elsewhere, the disappearance might be unremarkable, but on this strip characterized by inch-thick Plexiglas partitions, getting the benefit of the doubt is sublime.

Dunston’s supporters who preach the New Age culinary bible as fervently as he does—say neighborliness is just one of his assets. Mikal Abdul-Muhaimin teaches a Saturday morning tai chi class in Dunston’s now-defunct Sip and Read Bookstore, which adjoins Secrets of Nature, and sounds as zealous as Dunston in extolling the virtues of a meatless life. “Other people get colds,” he says, munching on a tiny tangerine after class. “I don’t get colds. Other people get tired. I don’t get tired.”

“It was a godsend that [Dunston] made a decision to come and settle in the community,” says Abdul-Muhaimin. “Unfortunately, a lot of brothers and sisters don’t understand that.”

Ward 8’s icy economy has felled vegetarians and meat lovers alike. The ward’s McDonald’s bit the dust in 1996, and last summer, Safeway split as well. Other large retail tenants, including CVS and Care Drug Center, have left the area in recent years, along with 13,331 residents.

And quality-of-life issues trouble those who remain. A putrid aroma from Ward 8’s sewage treatment facility has been known to arrest residents’ breath on random summer days. Outpatients from Saint Elizabeths Hospital linger on certain sections of its sidewalks. And the debate over whether 1999 will bring the District’s first privately run prison to the area is scheduled to resume in two months. Look for basic amenities found in most commercial and residential communities, and you’re sure to draw a blank.

“Where’s the hardware shop? Where’s the flower store? Where’s the bookstore? Where’s the restaurant?” asks Nigel Collie, director of economic development for the East of the River Community Development Corp. “A well-run restaurant would make money anywhere in Ward 8, but people are afraid. There’s the perception of crime and security.”

Like its neighborhood, Secrets of Nature is at the borderline. Four months ago, a break-in left Dunston with $5,000 in damages. Burglars descended on the store for two consecutive days. The first night, they cut out the window casing and took Dunston’s computer, and the next night they cut through the roof, snipped the wires to the alarm system, and took his cash register and credit card machine. Dunston says he’s just “getting over” this second of two major break-ins, and District police have never found the culprits. He hasn’t heard back from them since filing the initial report.

And malice is only a small part of Dunston’s economic malaise. Sales are down, and weekday foot traffic at Secrets of Nature is scattered and erratic. In response to frequent slow days, Dunston recently began closing the store an hour earlier. And after four years of employing at least two people at a time, Dunston laid off all his help at the end of September.

Right now, he’s a one-man show, bouncing back and forth around the 3,000-square-foot store. He climbs a ladder to replace a security light in front of the store. He prepares a hot dish in the kitchen. Wiping sweat from his brow, he walks to the register to sell a box of bean-pod tea. Still, Dunston knows he can’t wear the apron solo forever. “By the middle of January, I’ll have to get someone to help me in the kitchen. It’s just getting to be a bit much,” he says, with traces of a Southern drawl.

And yet Dunston concedes he could be doing a little more from the other side of the counter to sell himself. Other than the urine and feces loiterers sometimes deposit in the foyer next door, nothing’s particularly distinctive about Secrets of Nature’s façade. There isn’t even a sign in front of the store. Collie says the East of the River Community Development Corp. is working with the South Capitol Street Merchants Association to develop a grant proposal for facade improvements to the shopping center.

“I feel better about the business than I did a month ago, but it’s still nip and go,” Dunston says. The winter months after the holidays promise to be his most lucrative time, when people are trying to get over cold and flu symptoms. He expects that 1999 will be a good year. “I’m not going to go out of business,” he says. “I’m not going to close my doors.”

If Dunston’s a missionary, his conversions start in a pretty unusual place. “Death begins in the colon,” says Dunston. At a carryout fish store three doors away, customers are breathing in the scent of reusable grease that billows from behind bulletproof glass dividers, but Secrets of Nature regulars get used to a rather different set of stimuli. Whether he’s serving up buckwheat pancakes or doling out Ginseng Up, Dunston is able to launch into discussions of bowel movement the way others chat about the day’s weather.

“Because the food we eat is cooked and there’s no life in it, our bowel gets lazy…and [the food] just kind of lays there and rots. We want a quick fix, but you got to start with first things first. Everything starts in the bowel.”

Dunston says his customers stomach the bowel discussion just fine. “When they come through that door, they’ve been beaten up pretty much by the world,” he says. “I tell them: ‘Give me your body for 30 days, and you’ll never be the same.’”

James Cassell, however, isn’t buying any of it. “I don’t eat health food. I need something that’s gonna stick to my stomach,” he says. The owner of the dry cleaner right next door limits his Secrets of Nature purchase to a single banana bunch, and he has never even tasted the prepared organic food. “I figure if something’s not broke, don’t fix it. I’m in good shape,” he says, patting his chest.

People of color have disproportionately high rates of diet-related diseases. According to Dr. Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, becoming a vegetarian can decrease the risk of prostate cancer, diabetes, and hypertension, and even reverse heart disease. Cassell, 67, recently had “a growth” removed from his inner thigh, and he had ulcers for 17 years, but he’s still not convinced. “My wife talks smack about health food all the time, but I don’t see it.”

For those who do see it, and don’t want to have to travel too far to buy their alternative health gear, Secrets of Nature, Dunston maintains, has been a long-awaited breath of fresh air. One Virginia customer purchasing a bottle of apple cider vinegar calls Secrets of Nature’s offerings “soul vegetarian food.”

Of course, some menu items, like a raw seaweed salad called Tree Fish, defy the soul-food categorization. “[Selling Tree Fish is] a way to get people to eat more minerals and vitamins for more natural energy,” says Dunston. He admits the item rarely sells at this location.

His colon-cleansing advice, however, has at least one adherent today. A tall, slender Ward 8 resident drops in, picks up packages of pumpkin seeds and cookies, and orders Golden Super Cleanse from behind the counter. The immunity-builder and cleanser is a 25-day regimen, and the customer says she’s there every three weeks to get it. She hands over the cash and walks toward the door in praise. “My liver thanks you,” she says. “My intestines thank you. My colon thanks you.”

More from WCP