The butcher shop on First Avenue in Minneapolis is not currently fit for customer eyes. Although it’s finally on the brink of reopening after 15 pandemic months of curbside pickup, at the moment, this meatopia is set up for utility, not presentation. Even so, the controlled chaos of the display case is still overwhelming. Plump steaks rub up against spice-speckled stalks of pepperoni and Flintstones-size slabs of maple-glazed bacon, all of it loosely stacked in plastic buckets for easy grabbing. Tins of meatloaf glint with pooling red oil, staining the corners, right near towering tubs of juicy shredded chicken and brown paper-wrapped cylinders of Italian cold-cut sandwich. For the average herbivore, walking into America’s first vegan butcher shop, with its bizarro-world banquet of forbidden meats and cheeses—magically rendered not only edible but delightful—is like walking into a kitchen made of dreams.
It’s an experience that meat-agnostics are almost wholly deprived of. It shouldn’t be.
Just as The Herbivorous Butcher is in a transitional state between pandemic mode and its next phase, the entire plant-based meat industry is also presently in flux. The quality of vegan and vegetarian meat options has skyrocketed in the past five years, ushering in a tasty wave of plant-based products that might pass a culinary Turing test. Video-game graphic designers spent decades working up to their current level of photorealism, while synthetic meat manufacturers seem to have achieved a similar feat practically overnight.
What vegetarians really want, though—what they crave deep in their hearts and the pit of their stomachs—is everything. They’ve had a taste of just how moreish veggie burgers can get; now they want more of all the other meats they’ve been missing: Korean ribs, Cajun jerky, porterhouses, and porchetta, with flavors and textures leaps and bounds beyond the pink, brittle bookmarks of traditional “facon.” When Guy Fieri visited the shop five years ago for a segment on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and tried a homemade vegan turkey and havarti dill sandwich, he declared, “I’d eat this all day long.” So why, in 2021, can’t he—and everyone else? If Minneapolis’ Herbivorous Butcher can produce veggie alternatives to a butcher shop’s entire inventory, and deliciously so, why can’t the major brands? Is it creativity and small-batch artistry that’s missing, or something else entirely?
Birth of a vegan butcher
Located, ironically, right next door to Red Stag Supper Club—with its giant buck mascot perched high above the street, a monument to venison—The Herbivorous Butcher opened in 2016, the same year that the Impossible Burger first defied credulity. Cutting the ribbon on its brick-and-mortar boutique marked the culmination of a long food journey for sibling cofounders Aubry and Kale Walch.
The two moved to Minnesota from Guam decades ago, when Aubry was 13 and Kale was just an infant. Although they were raised in a household heavy on meat and seafood cooking, within a year of arriving in America, teenage Aubry decided to go vegan in order to avoid consuming just for her own pleasure anything that had once been alive. Kale wouldn’t follow suit until many years later, and when he did, it was very different reasons: to help lose some baby fat in the year before college. Eventually, the pair decided to try their hand at creating substitutes for the foods they’d grown up on.
“We first started making stuff because we weren’t satisfied with what was out there,” says Kale Walch. “There just weren’t a lot of options, and the ones available besides Tofurkey were not really that good yet, because they didn’t really need to be. There was no real competition, and there was nothing driving the vegan and vegetarian brands to get any better.”
Innovation = relentless experimentation
The pair’s initial batch of offerings—bologna, pepperoni, Italian sausage, smoky house ribs, and Teriyaki jerky—were chosen partly in an effort to win over the Walches’ father, who used to go out of his way to find the best ribs while traveling the country with Kale, eating bologna sandwiches and jerky as roadside sustenance along the way. Aside from the sausage, a longtime mock-meat staple, neither sibling had ever seen any of these items in vegan form before. All that the pair had to do to spark the change they wished to see in the food world was start experimenting.
“The most fun thing for us was to try to imagine something new that we didn’t think was possible and figure out a way to make it,” Kale Walch says.
The research and development process for each item involved making hundreds of failed batches, each miss guiding the Walches closer to a hit. Start with vital wheat gluten, the basis for many fake meats (including seitan), mix it with nutritional yeast flakes, and test out any number of juices, vinegars, seasonings, and other flours to mimic the various textures and flavors of the meat spectrum. Who knew, for instance, that pineapple juice could make wheat gluten taste more like deli ham? Gradually, this throwing-it-all-at-the-wall-and-seeing-what-sticks approach helped the pair learn the principles behind how their ingredients interact, like the impact of tapioca flour on a batch’s consistency. (It helps with moisture retention.) Once they got an initial grasp on what they were capable of creating, they served up a feast for some friends one night. Those friends found their meal so delectable, they encouraged the Walches to put their products on the market.
What followed was three years of relentless trial batches in community kitchens and booths at local farmers markets. Kale, who had dropped out of college by this point but was supporting himself as a server, and Aubry, who had a full-time job as a bookkeeper, tested all their items on several groups of people over a period of weeks. They enlisted friends, strangers, carnivores, vegetarians—essentially anyone willing to give plant-based corned beef a shot. Surveys from these sessions helped the two shape their farmers market selections, and gave them an inkling of what kind of response to expect. They were still stunned to sell out of stock entirely the first day at their inaugural booth. Then they did so again the next day.
From there, the pair became fixtures at farmers markets near and far, including a stint selling their version of the KFC Double Down at the Coachella music festival. One successful Kickstarter campaign later, in 2016, The Herbivorous Butcher opened up as a brick-and-mortar shop in Minneapolis. The Walches’ new venture proved so popular so quickly, it earned that Guy Fieri seal of approval within its first year of business.
Long after the shop was up and running, and with a thriving wholesale division, the R&D continued. The Walches kept reverse-engineering just about any meat they were interested in tasting—pastrami, Cuban pork, bulgogi, deli ham—while trying to accommodate requests from wholesale clients with specifications like more shreddable cheddar.
Not all of these efforts are successful. Kale Walch is still haunted by the time, years ago, when he tried to make vegan salmon and ended up with a foul-smelling pile of what he says looked “like something a swamp creature threw up.” Still, the drive for ongoing exploration led him to a breakthrough last fall on a better version of the company’s chicken—one that more fully replicates the stringy texture of actual chicken. In my own experience, the Italian cold cut sandwich is a work of wonder. Rather than tasting like well-dressed seitan on a bread roll, the three distinct mock-meats all vie for dominance in each bite—the pepperoni with its muscular chew, the pastrami with a subtle smokiness, and capicola ham with its delicate tang. The steaks may not have the exact fatty toughness of a well-marbled ribeye, and the pulled pork may indeed simply be sauce-soaked jackfruit trying its best, but the variety and inventiveness of the brand’s overall offerings tastes nothing short of miraculous.
“There’s always a lot of fun puzzles to solve,” he says. “Part of the fun of having a small business is bending things to make it fit.”
Big Plant-Based Meat’s narrow focus
While the greater plant-based meatscape shares the Walches’ zeal for experimentation, its focus seems mostly limited to a handful of products, and the goal of getting them as indistinguishable from the real thing as possible.
The burger-forward mandate of the alternative meat market takes its cues from the actual meat market, where ground beef makes up 60% of beef sales. As a result, burgers were 2020’s top-selling product type in the plant-based meat category, which generated $1.4 billion in U.S. retail sales, a whopping 45% increase over the previous year.
Plant-based burgers, chicken sandwiches, and sausages have started selling better in the years since they’ve come closer to simulating the taste and texture of actual animal flesh. This fact certainly hasn’t been lost on the people determined to drive that likeness even further, to the point of jumping an ethically questionable ramp across the culinary uncanny valley.
Is the future of meat in the lab, not the kitchen?
American vegans may soon have to wrestle with the question of whether they feel comfortable eating meat made from the cultured cells of animals. Last year, Eat Just (best known for starting as a vegan mayo company, and then moving into scrambled eggs) began selling chicken nuggets made from a hybrid mix of cultured cells and plant protein in Singapore. That launch triggered a $200 million round of funding back in March for its next phase of R&D, as the company seeks regulatory approval in America. (A competitor, LiveKindly, also received $200 million in venture capital a year earlier.)
While the market is clearly excited about lab-grown chicken, it remains to be seen whether principled vegans will flock to it.
“I’ve got several problems with cultured meats that outweigh the positives for me,” Kale Walch says. “I worry that the duplication of cells from a single source over a prolonged period of time can lead to mutations and complications that we can’t even imagine yet, perhaps making new food-borne illnesses. I also highly doubt that if this chicken is widely distributed that restaurants will be honest in serving it; that is, if I ordered a bucket of cell-cultured fried chicken, can I trust the restaurant enough to believe it’s not just regular chicken?”
Variety is the secret spice for a rich vegan life
Whether stateside vegans share Walch’s suspicions toward the immaculately chicken-like future, or instead prefer Herbie Butcher’s Fried Chicken, the extra-crispy spinoff spot he and Aubry just launched in Minneapolis, most will still inevitably crave a greater variety of alternative meats.
“When it comes to plant-based food, consumers are now looking for diversity in product types, formats, flavors, and unit sizes,” said Kyle Gaan, a research analyst at Gourmet Foods International.
As yet, the major brands in this space seem hesitant to deliver the kind of variety that makes up The Herbivorous Butcher’s galaxy of products. Too often, one of them will announce the latest innovation from their “protein platform”—and it turns out to be a meatball, a new nugget, or a more burger-y burger.
“Their lack of imagination is sometimes frustrating and one dimensional,” Kale Walch says. “Instead of pouring billions into the same nuggets again and again, they could put R&D dollars into entirely new foods and healthier and more efficient proteins and products.”
Indeed, the bigger brands may be leaving unexplored an entire universe of possibilities that don’t involve Island of Dr. Moreau-like embryo splicing. The goal seems to be more to create a customer base of meat-eaters who now have incentive to switch teams once a week or so, rather than servicing the already-existent market of vegans dying of boredom.
If a greater breadth of products has not yet proven scalable—or worth attempting to scale—for any of these companies, could a leaner operation artisanally craft its wares for a mass audience?
The Walches were about to find out, just before the pandemic hit.
Meet the new colonel
In the spring of 2020, the Herbivorous Butcher’s founders were in the late stages of opening a massive production facility, when economic and safety concerns took precedence. Had they been able to follow through, perhaps some of their bestselling items would have landed on shelves nationwide by now. Instead, COVID-era uncertainty put the idea on hold, as the Walches hunkered down and converted to curbside pickup only.
“I think it was a blessing in disguise,” Kale says, “because we took a hard look at ourselves during the pandemic and we figured out what are the things that really excite us. And one of those things is crafting these experiences for people, beyond just feeding them.”
It was this experience-based mandate last fall that set he and Aubry Walch on the path to the spring launch of Herbie Butcher’s Fried Chicken, with its KFC-like buckets, maple butter biscuits, and shakes and malts made with coconut milk ice cream. As the pandemic becomes less of an inhibitor in the United States, the Walches are considering replicating the fried chicken concept (and originating other concepts) around the country. In order to follow through with this plan, they would need to get that mass production facility after all, but the siblings are confident they would be able to open one with more workers making small batches—and no automation.
The Walches have no plans they can share at this time on further concepts, other than that they won’t necessarily be as revolutionary as some of the items in their butcher shop. In other words, don’t expect Herbie Butcher’s Pastrami Emporium just yet.
Whatever form they take, however, these concepts would be gateway drugs pointing toward the euphoric high herbivores get when walking into the Walches’ flagship store. If these vegan fried chicken sliders taste this scrumptious, future customers may wonder, what else is possible?