Where's the beef? The Herbivorous Butcher serves up animal-free 'meat'
What started as a joke between two vegan siblings became a lucrative business even meat lovers can sink their teeth into
UPDATE: This article incorrectly stated that The Herbivorous Butcher still sells their products at the Minneapolis Farmers Market. This error has been changed.
Move over, tofu — vegan cuisine is getting meaty.
The once-niche food space is going mainstream, spurred by growing consumer interest in how the meat industry raises its livestock, impacts the environment and affects human health.
Most people aren’t moving away from meat for lack of love, however, and find that kale salads and quinoa don't quite substitute for a rack of ribs.
Enter the Herbivorous Butcher. Created by brother-sister duo Aubry and Kale Walch, the Minneapolis-based butcher shop serves up vegan concoctions that mimic the appearance, flavor, texture and mouthfeel of carnivore classics like hickory smoked bacon, jerk chicken, ribeye steak and more.
The Walch siblings are part of the meat substitutes market space, a trendy, fast-growing food segment expected to hit nearly $6 billion in global sales by 2022, according to research firm MarketsandMarkets.
Both vegan, Aubry and Kale cooked mock meat at home for themselves for years before they began sharing their carnivore-friendly recipes with the Minneapolis community.
“We started a farmer’s market booth just to see if people would actually like the food, and that went really well. We sold out the first weekend, and then we just kept selling out every weekend until we couldn’t possibly make enough,” Aubry told Food Dive.
The siblings considered opening a restaurant centered around their meatless meat, but were wary of the industry’s failure rate. Then, they had an idea.
“It started as sort of a joke, you know, ‘Let’s open a vegan butcher shop,’ " she said. "And we all laughed really hard, but then we stopped laughing and decided it was actually a good idea.”
A delicious oxymoron
Aubry and Kale launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2014 to bring their oxymoron to life. The campaign raked in upwards of $10,000 more than their original goal. With the help of a team of architects, graphic designers and business advisors, the Herbivorous Butcher transformed from inside joke to thriving faux meat phenomenon.
“We were super surprised by the [strong reception],” Aubry said. “We thought that people would like our food, but we didn’t realize the full scale of what this would become.”
About 65% of the Herbivorous Butcher's clientele are omnivores. Some are trying to reduce their own meat consumption, and some are trying to meet the nutritional needs of family members. For example, Aubry said the shop frequently serves parents buying for their vegan or vegetarian children who are home visiting from college.
“[Many customers] have recognized the effect that industrialized farming has on our climate and are trying to cut down. There are some Meatless Monday people. They’re all over the place, really," she said.
The Walch siblings and a team of eight butchers spend nearly 12 hours each day crafting locally sourced, artisan "meats" by hand to keep up with customer demand. Each month, The Herbivorous Butcher sells a hippo's weight in its Korean ribs alone.
“We can’t make them fast enough,” she said.
The Korean ribs and the rest of the shop's mock meat products are based on recipes she and Kale developed at home, experimenting with different flours, beans and juices they bought from their local co-op to create veggie-based meat that could pass for the real thing.
“You can get any of the ingredients in our products at your local co-op. We still stand behind that today,” Aubry said.
The siblings say that there are hundreds of failed formulations behind each of the links, cutlets, jerky and more now lining the Herbivorous Butcher's meat case, and that they continue to innovate with their current recipes.
“That’s the beauty about not having a factory where we’re just pumping this stuff out. We make it day to day, and we can make such small improvements on the products to say, get an Italian sausage to be slightly more tender or to grill up better,” Kale said. “It’s just little adjustments that we can make on the daily to absolutely perfect [the meat].”
Making veggie-based meat even a carnivore would eat
To create a mock meat, Kale said that Herbivorous butchers begin with a mixture of high-protein wheat flour and nutritional yeast to build texture.
“From there it gets interesting,” he said. “You can add garbanzo flour to make the slightly more tender meat you find in our smokehouse ribs, or you can add different beans to get the kind of heft we want in a sausage.”
Wet and dry ingredients like vinegars and spices are then combined in a mixer to create "a mass of muscle." Then, depending on the kind of meat that’s being made, butchers portion the mixture out and roll it into sausages or press it flat to shape into ribs, deli meat or different cutlets.
“Then you can boil it, braise it like you do with our ribs, steam it or bake it,” Kale said. “Different cooking methods yield very different results. For example, meats that are a little more delicate need to be baked before they’re boiled.”
Kale said that of all of the deli meats, sausages and steaks on the Herbivorous Butcher’s menu, chicken is the hardest mock meat to perfect.
“It’s so tough to get the stringiness and the mild flavor just right and still have it hold up in a fryer or on the grill,” he said. “I have a notebook full of chicken recipe ideas. I would go to a coffee shop and think of new exotic flours or something that I could add to the recipe to make it work, but eventually I got it right — and just in time because we were about to ship out for [the Vegan Beer &Food Festival] where we cooked chicken and waffles and chicken sandwiches.”
Meat isn't the only item they're making, either. The Herbivorous Butcher also sells vegan cheese varieties like pepper jack, mozzarella, smoked gouda and more, which Kale personally mixes by hand each day.
“Mozzarella is definitely one of our best sellers, because I think that pizza is something that people miss the most when they can’t eat or choose not to eat dairy anymore,” Aubrey said.
Aubry said that of the meats, the steak is a fan favorite because they grill up so easily. Italian sausage is also prized for its versatility in pasta sauces, pizzas and other dishes.
The Herbivorous Butcher has partnered with a number of festivals over the years, and also supplies its products to 40 different food retailers throughout Minnesota, New York, Colorado, Ohio, Washington and Florida.
Aubry and Kale hope to grow their business to the East and West coasts as well as parts of the South so they no longer have to ship products by air to serve their ever-broadening consumer base. They estimate that expansion plans will begin in the next year or so.
“I think that we’re going to grow out of our kitchen pretty quickly,” Aubry said. “We’re definitely getting a little too big for our britches.”
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