Big Taste, No Waste

Vegan and plant-based eateries are changing the way Minnesotans eat food.

Illustrator: Lauren Smith

The Herbivorous Butcher: The name itself is an oxymoron, and the small shop in Northeast Minneapolis lives up to it. Customers enter through doors with mock butcher knife handles and are greeted with a rich, meaty aroma.

Except it’s not meat—it’s vegan.

More and more people are abandoning meat and adopting plant-based diets. The percentage of vegans in the United States has increased from 1 percent to 6 percent since 2014, according to a recent report from Global Data. Whether they’re environmentalists, animal rights advocates, or simply health-conscious consumers, their diets emphasize eating whole foods and plants and abstaining from animal products and processed foods.

This rise in demand for vegan products has resulted in an increase in plant-based dietary options. Though many non-vegans associate this food with being plain and unflavorful, the community of plant-based food businesses in the Twin Cities aims to prove them wrong.

That’s where The Herbivorous Butcher comes in.

Siblings Aubry and Kale Walch started small selling five different vegan meat products at the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market. In 2015, their success and shared passion for experimenting with food led them to open The Herbivorous Butcher, the first vegan butcher shop in the country.

“We actually try to make it look and taste and have the same texture as meat,” said Aubry Walch.

“A lot of naysayers think that vegan meat is just cardboard,” she said. “But then they try it and think it’s absolutely great!”

From the freshly made meats and cheeses to a wall of retail products like Bee Free Honee and K’ul chocolate, everything The Herbivorous Butcher sells is 100 percent vegan.

The Herbivorous Butcher uses a high protein wheat flour to make most of its meat-free meats. Nutritional yeast supplies essential B vitamins that vegan diets typically lack, and a wide range of fruit juices break down the flour to give the faux meat an authentic texture. Thirty different kinds of vegan meats fill the shelves, including deli meats, sausages, and even ribs. Their Korean ribs lend a rich barbecue flavor while the teriyaki jerky yields a tough texture and savory taste. The shop also makes about 12 different vegan cheeses daily using organic coconut oil and soymilk bases.

The siblings stand by their #allveganeverything social media staple. From the freshly made meats and cheeses to a wall of retail products like Bee Free Honee and K’ul chocolate, everything The Herbivorous Butcher sells is 100 percent vegan. The shop also supplies over 20 different restaurants throughout Minneapolis with vegan-friendly options.

Walch says even though many people reject plant-based diets, the emergence of their shop at least spurs conversations about the ethics, sustainability, and health of veganism.

“It’s easy to pretend it doesn’t exist,” Walch said of vegan meat. “But when you put a vegan butcher shop in a city, whether you love it or hate it, you want to see what it’s about.”

Since the The Herbivorous Butcher opened in 2015, more plant-based eateries have popped up around the Twin Cities. One of them is Reverie Cafe and Bar, a plant-based restaurant and music venue formerly on Nicollet Avenue that was forced to close in July after another business bought out its lease.

Co-owners Jeffrey Therkelsen and Kirstin Weigmann started the business on a shoestring budget after taking over a coffee shop at the same location and converting it to a plant-based menu. However, Therkelsen and Weigmann took a different approach, and in turn, fostered a community around the restaurant.

Illustrator: Lauren Smith

“We’re really interested in making a space for any kind of eaters to try food we make, and not making it about being vegan or not vegan,” said Weigmann. “It’s just about good food. I think that helped us create an environment where people were willing to try things.”

Though they were worried the switch to plant-based food would deter customers who were regulars at the previous coffee shop, the transition actually attracted more people, says Weigmann.

The pair built Reverie’s menu on creativity, putting plant-based spins on classics and adding some original, exploratory dishes of their own. Many options employed the Indonesian soy-based tempeh or jackfruit, a crop native to India, as meat alternatives. Weigmann deems the berbere barbecue sauce the most unique item, but she says the jackfruit carnitas tacos were the most popular.

“One of the common misconceptions about vegan or plant-based eating is that you don’t get full, and we firmly disagree with that,” Weigmann said. “You eat one of our sandwiches, and you’re going to be super full.”

Reverie added a breakfast menu after the plant-based switch, utilizing both tofu and polenta, a grain made from cornmeal, in many of the dishes. Since it doubled as a music venue, the restaurant was open from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. most days of the week. Music acts ranged from bluegrass to heavy metal and punk.

“It was a place that meant a lot to people for a lot of different reasons, not just because we served plant-based food,” Weigmann said. “I think we actually introduced a lot of people to plant-based eating as a byproduct of them just being there and being hungry.”

“It’s just about good food. I think that helped us create an environment where people were willing to try things.”

Despite regulars’ disappointment in the restaurant’s closure, Weigmann assures them that she and Therkelsen have more in store. They plan to do something “a little bit different” with their next operation as they search for another space to house Reverie.

A little bit of difference goes a long way, especially for Minnesota native Katie Sanchez. A vegetarian and trained pastry chef, Sanchez founded and co-owns Bee Free Honee, a company that makes vegan honey using apples. Sanchez discovered this vegan honey by accident in an attempt to make apple jelly without following a recipe. Sanchez canned the “jelly” and realized the next day it looked and tasted just like honey.

After looking into the maltreatment of bees in the honey industry and learning more about the environmental effects of animal products, Sanchez decided to start her own vegan honey company.

Sanchez says standard retail honey often filters out pollen, which ironically contains all the nutrients. Bee Free’s flower-pollen infused flavor filters out the allergens associated with bee pollen and contains complete nutrients collected from flower pollen without the exploitation of bees.

“We’re able to make something that’s much more diverse in its nutrients and have it be enjoyable and have a smaller impact on the environment,” Sanchez said.

Bee Free Honee has six different flavors on the market, including mint, red curry, and slippery elm, a substance made from tree bark that soothes sore throats.

Just as cooking shows follow the opening of traditional restaurants, plant-based operations have also sprouted up to cater to hungry vegans at home. “Feed Me Vegan,” a local television show sponsored by the Animal Rights Coalition, follows hosts Chelsea Youngquist and Sarah Norine as they serve up vegan dishes weekly on cable and YouTube. The pair uses plant-based foods like seitan and tofu, which Youngquist claims is the “misunderstood” vegan option.

“It’s a way for us to show vegan cooking,” said Youngquist, who is also Program Director at ARC. “It can be affordable, accessible, and easy and fun.”

Youngquist says even the workers at Northwest Community Television have considered plant-based diets because of “Feed Me Vegan.” She attributes the success of the show to the growing number of vegan and plant-based businesses in the Twin Cities.

Among this exponential growth began Sweet Root, a one-woman vegan dessert company run by Sarah Diemel. Sales rep by day, plant-based baker by night, Diemel substitutes natural ingredients like coconut oil for butter and often uses flax meal instead of egg to make her desserts vegan. Sweet Root caters desserts for events around Minneapolis, including several farmer’s markets and the recently celebrated Twin Cities Veg Fest.

Despite their differences, each of these businesses aims to redefine the image of plant-based foods. Advocating for animal rights and sustainability is just a small part of their efforts to erase the stigma around the word “vegan.” As Weigmann says, the plant-based diet is much more than eating kale salad every night.

“It doesn’t have to be like that,” Weigmann said, laughing. “I mean, I haven’t eaten a big pile of kale in a long time.”