Have the Twin Cities entered a “golden age” of plant-based dining? It certainly seems that way. After taking a hit during the pandemic, our reopening restaurant scene is welcoming new plant-based concepts. While Minneapolis has long been a vegan-friendly force, we might be on the cusp of a supercharged era of plant-based, fast casual experiences.
Laura Matanah, director of local nonprofit Compassionate Action for Animals, follows the emerging vegan food scene closely. As a 30-year Twin Cities resident, she witnessed early plant-based dining here (like Ecopolitan, which closed in 2016) evolve to a current “explosion” of vegan restaurants.
“For a while, we would do a blog post about every new vegan place,” she says. “Now we can’t even keep up.”
How much has the vegan community grown? Matanah says about 1,500 people came to the first Compassionate Action for Animals’ annual Twin Cities Veg Fest in 2012. By 2019, that number had risen all the way to 10,000.
In addition, many Twin Cities restaurants have adopted plant-based menu items over the past decade. Siblings Aubry and Kale Walch are vegan scene veterans often credited with putting the Twin Cities on the map as a plant-based hub. Their vegan butcher shop, Herbivorous Butcher, opened in 2016, and they just debuted a fast casual fried chicken restaurant, dubbed Herbie Butcher’s.
As for the menu? The siblings keep it simple. Herbie Butcher’s serves up vegan fried chicken by the bucket with surprise tater tots at the bottom; biscuits and maple butter; a handful of house-made sauces; rotating sides, including mac and cheese and collard greens; plus, milkshakes and malts.
“It’s a brave new world right now,” says Aubry, speaking to takeout’s uptick in 2020. The siblings piloted their fried chicken via take-home hot meals and soon appreciated the nostalgic value of classic comfort food. “We ate a lot of Kentucky Fried Chicken when we were little little,” Aubry notes.
After that preliminary hot meal run, they spent months perfecting the vegan chicken recipe, which is made from seitan—also known as wheat gluten. Now, Kale says they’ve mastered a fully vegan chicken recipe that pulls apart and tastes like the real thing.
“It was our biggest culinary challenge in a while—getting it perfect,” he says. “The breading took so many tries.”
Herbie Butcher’s launched as takeout-only and is working toward welcoming about 16 diners at a time to the small restaurant space.
Local entrepreneur and Crisp & Green salad chain owner Steele Smiley has also jumped head first into the plant-based fast food scene. Smiley’s new endeavor, Stalk & Spade, is a plant-based burger joint serving up an original vegan patty, fried chicken sandwiches, and shakes.
Like the process at Herbie Butcher’s, finalizing Stalk & Spade’s menu took “about a million hours,” Smiley says. The restaurant’s signature burger—which they finally got right after 400 tries, according to Smiley—is made from mainly brown rice and pea protein. Many local spots serve plant-based burger brands Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger (including Burger King), but Smiley was set on crafting a patty to set Stalk & Spade apart.
“I’ve been telling people, ‘Call me two hours after you eat your [Stalk & Spade] burger,’” he says. “You’re gonna feel great, you’re gonna have energy—you’re not going to have that hangover effect. The reality is, that’s getting more people in the door than the idea of, ‘Hey, try this plant.’”
Stalk & Spade’s flagship restaurant is in Wayzata, but Smiley has big plans to expand—with an end goal of becoming the next “plant-based McDonalds.” As soon as late summer 2021 and into the fall, he is planning to expand the franchise “in every major suburb that will welcome us,” plus at least one location out of state.
Not every new offering is jumping on the fast food train. Local chef Michael Shaughnessy just launched Advellum Vegetable Eatery, a new casual restaurant in the highly anticipated Malcolm Yards food hall in Minneapolis. He’s quick to not label it vegan or plant-based, yet his veggie-focused menu still speaks to broader audiences with a flexible menu.
Shaughnessy trained at Le Cordon Bleu and was a sous chef at Wolfgang Puck restaurants. His local dining scene past includes the Windsong Farm golf course, Young Joni, and Mill Valley Kitchen, but Advellum is his first solo venture.
“Advellum is about the vegetables and keeping them the star of the dish. We do use [animal] proteins here and there to accentuate them, but really, for me, it’s about cooking vegetables with intention,” Shaughnessy says. “Everything on our menu is adaptable and can be made vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free.”
The restaurant was a longtime dream of Shaughnessy and his wife, Viorica Pierce, who will be managing front of house. The menu features local, seasonal ingredients and out-of-the-box flavor combinations—all with the goal of showing the power and versatility of vegetables. One dish combines roasted brussels sprouts with zhoug (a Yemeni hot sauce), kumquats, purple radish, and white bean hummus.
“More guests have been showing up at restaurants with dietary restrictions,” Shaughnessy says. “I have a quote on my wall that I wrote during the pandemic that says, ‘Give them what they want.’ As a chef, you’re not just cooking for yourself—you’re cooking for hundreds of people. So I wanted to create a way where everyone could enjoy the food.”
All of these new concepts in the Twin Cities are headed toward a more inclusive way of eating plant-based—one they hope will appeal to all of the masses.
Speaking about the vegan movement, Kale says, “If you’re looking out at the ocean, you can see the waves coming. I don’t think people really realized that this would come so soon or be so large.”
It’s clear that vegans want options, and Twin Cities chefs are listening.
“Broadly, we’re waking up,” Matanah says. “Some of it is people really realizing how climate change affecting us. It’s happening now, and really changing the lives of every being on the planet. Moving towards plant-based eating is huge in terms of the difference it can make and in terms of what we can do as individuals.”