Interview with Aubry + Kale of the Herbivorous Butcher
As promised, we intend to use this space for more than just highlighting vegan shoes; amongst other things, we also want to use this web journal to celebrate the work of some of our favorite vegan businesses and business owners. First up, an interview I did with brother + sister duo, Aubry + Kale, of Minneapolis' Herbivorous Butcher, the first all-vegan butcher shop, focusing on small batch, meat-free vegan meats and dairy-free vegan cheeses. We got a chance to meet both Aubry + Kale at last year's Vegan Beer Fest/EatDrinkVegan and thought both they and the products they were putting out were great. Coming on the heels of them announcing a campaign to open a 100-acre animal sanctuary in Minnesota, we thought it'd be a good time to catch up with the two of them to find out more about the story behind their shop, its inspiration, and plans they might have for the future.
Troy: Alright, first thing's first, ya'll—how do a Minnesotan brother + sister duo come up with the idea to start up a vegan butcher shop?
Aubry: I was vegan for a long time, since I was 14, then Kale grew up and saw how I wasn't eating meat. We're in Minnesota and hail from the island of Guam, and both places are super meat-heavy. Since I decided I didn't want to eat animals, it was a pretty seamless transition. I was so driven by the fact that I didn't want to impose cruelty on other creatures but I still wanted to eat meat. So I was eating all these plant-based meat products which sucked and were like hockey pucks, so I started making it myself. Then Kale started making it for himself too, and it was natural to make what we were hungry for. That's how we came up with the idea. It's a weird thing because sometimes I forget that the entire world doesn't eat the same things I do, so when I look at a non-vegan menu, I'll see "chicken" whatever and then I have to remind myself that it's not vegan. Owning this butcher shop is like being in a weird fairy tale land that hopefully won't be such a fairy tale for much longer.
Man, it really doesn't seem that fabled land of easy, quality, cruelty-free living is getting closer to becoming a reality every day, doesn't it? I feel like there are so many new and better options for those of us who choose not to eat animals, whether you live in a big city or not. Now, I assume you two get along pretty well given that you chose to go into business together, but is it still a little weird, working as sister + brother?
Kale: It's pretty natural. We're two sides of the same coin. We finish each others'.... pretty well.
So we shouldn't be concerned about that promo shot with the knives; good. I've only been to your fine city once—in the summertime—but did you all have any concern about the community supporting the concept? It's not the 90s or anything when you had to constantly explain what vegan meant, but it's still admittedly a pretty niche industry. Is there a big vegan community in the City of Lakes?
Kale: We figured if we could make it here, we could make it work anywhere. And it is working here. When we started, we weren't planning on moving anywhere. We like it here, but we were still hungry so we were going to make it anyway. The vegan community is growing quickly. It's small but passionate. Every year you see more vegan-friendly businesses popping up, and the future is bright.
That's awesome to hear. Any area vegan or vegan-friendly establishments you can give shout-outs to that you like?
Aubry: Our one super awesome all vegan restaurant, Reverie, is wonderful. Their pictures of sweet treats on social media make me drool every morning. We don't have a lot of all vegan establishments, but I love Ethique Nouveau. They have the best products—from lipstick to t-shirts to purses and vegan snacks—that you can't get anywhere else in town. My third has yet to open, but I've been waiting for months and months and months for J. Selby's, which is an all vegan restaurant in St. Paul. It's not too far from my house so I can't wait to be a regular there.
Those all look/sound great. So, what's the general reaction been from non-vegans to your products? Are they like 'There's no meat in this meat? WHAT‽"
Kale: A lot of people are pretty skeptical to start, like Guy Fieri, but they try it because they have a vegan partner or relative. Then they find that they can actually do it, like my dad who's cut out meat a few times a week. It's been overwhelmingly positive so far.
You totally just name-dropped Guy Fieri—I like it. I also like this photo of you three. So, I know you all fund-raised for the shop with KickStarter, right? How was that experience overall?
Aubry: The Kickstarter experience was kind of like, 'Everybody loves us! Everybody loves us! Oh my gosh, everybody hates us, what are we doing wrong?' And then we'd lose our hair and cry and then they would love us again. It was a really crazy roller coaster. It's a great thing because of awareness, and even though we needed the money, it was vital in increasing our exposure. It's important for young entrepreneurs to have a way to 'kickstart' their businesses. Kale and I had terrible credit and no savings, so Kickstarter was an incredible opportunity. Even though we didn't sleep for a month, it was a good experience overall and it helped us reach more people than we would have otherwise.
That's great to hear and, yeah, seems like it turned out really well for you two. I feel like I've seen a lot of crowd-funded projects go unrealized over the years—many of which I've personally given to—so it's great to see such a huge success story. Sorry about the sleepless month of hair-pulling though. What was the reason behind wanting a brick-and-mortor shop, though, over, say, doing pop-ups or something mobile?
Kale: We started the shop because we couldn't make enough to keep our customers happy working out of a community kitchen. That's really the only reason. We needed a spot that would allow us to keep up with the demand, and we always wanted a spot to call home.
Makes sense. You mention in your marketing that your products are protein-rich + full of B-vitamins that are often absent in non-animal meats/meat alternatives. Can you explain that for those of us not as versed in the nutrient world?
Kale: The B vitamins come from nutritional yeast, and we use a high protein wheat flour so it's all nutrient-rich, low fat, and of course zero cholesterol since there are no animal products.
As you've already mentioned, your family is from Guam and I know you've talked before about how deeply cooking is rooted in that culture—for those of us less familiar with Guam, can you tell us what kind of food's common or popular there? And how did that inform what you're doing with the HB?
Aubry: Growing up on Guam, I was a cute, rolypoly child. I wanted to eat everything. A typical after school snack was something like a ham and cheese sandwich, a large Dr. Pepper, and 3 doughnuts plus chicken noodle soup. I'd eat that after school in 2nd grade and I've always loved food. On Guam, they don't import a lot of vegetables that you see in the US, so I grew up eating a lot of meat and a lot of starch. I still do that now, only it's all vegan. So things have really stayed the same but nothing has to die for anything that I consume now.
Great way to think about it. You guys do a porterhouse steak, right? What's that like and how do you make it?
Kale: The steak has the same wheat base as most of our products but gets some extra treatment. We roll them out and it's baked, then boiled, then seared. It gets a little more TLC than some of the other products, but it's worth it. It's savory and has that iron flavor that you look for in a steak. All the heft, but none of that weird gristle.
Sounds and looks really great from what I've seen online. How do you make your cheeses though and what's your favorite?
Kale: The cheeses have a soy milk and coconut oil base. From there, we add different combinations of nutritional yeast, salt, herbs, spices, etc. to really create any flavor and texture you want. Vinegar and lemon juice can make firm and soft cheese. My favorite is the Garlic Pepper Havarti (pictured below); it's just so good. We roast the garlic and when I want something to put on crackers, it's always the Garlic Pepper Havarti.
Yeah, it was a terrible idea to do this interview before lunch. We absolutely loved your vegan Double Down at Vegan Beer Fest/EatDrinkVegan (below)—any plans to make that part of your permanent menu?
Aubry: It unfortunately is not feasible at the shop since we operate like a traditional butcher shop where everything is taken to go, and making the double down is very time consuming. So for now, we'll keep making the Italian Cold Cut and Turkey & Dill Havarti that Guy Fieri ate on Food Network's Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.
We get it—you guys know Guy Fieri. No, all kidding aside, that's awesome that they visited your shop on that show. Again, I feel like we're making a lot of headway in the mainstream. And sad news (for me) about the Double Down. But are there any other new products you're excited about possibly adding to your repertoire?
Kale: We're more giving facelifts to existing recipes. Like we're looking into turning our Shredded Chicken into a Buffalo Chicken. There are some new things, though. We just discovered that we can make cheese in wheels so we can do pepper-crusted havarti or caraway-crusted cheddar, things like that. We're always trying to think of new things.
Nice. So, you've touched on this a little bit, but can you both talk more to when and why you adopted a vegan lifestyle?
Kale: I went vegan in 2012, and right now it's less about health, which is why I switched, and more about the environmental factors. Just look at the news—it's scary sometimes, and if I can do my small part to help, then there's no reason why I shouldn't.
Aubry: I remember the moment I decided to go vegan when I was 14. I was working at a grocery store, saving money to buy a pair of leather shoes. I was bagging groceries, and the cashier had to put the meat in plastic bags because it was leaking blood. I remember putting it in the bag and thinking, 'Wow, that was alive once and this is disgusting. I don't know what I'm doing eating something that used to bleed because I bleed.' From that moment, I knew I needed to make a change and I knew that I didn't need animal products to be happy and healthy. I started reading Peter Singer books and learning about animal agriculture and that it wasn't cute cows standing in a pasture. I was really inquisitive and I think that's how a lot of other young people are these days.
That's great. And I think it speaks to whole idea of there being so many different angles at which to arrive at an animal-free lifestyle, so many different, totally valid reasons to do so, and people like the two of you make it so much easier and more fun, there's really no reason not to go vegan.... HEAR THAT WORLD‽ Changing tracks and putting my design hat back on for a brief moment, who did your logo? We dig it.
Kale: We had a woman just out of college design it, but we're actually in the process of working with a local branding company on a brand refinement. So THB will be getting a little facelift soon!
Oh, that's exciting. We'll keep our eyes peeled. So, I totally want to come by your shop, but in the meantime and for those of us who don't live in the Twin Cities area, can we look forward to you all doing more fests or any pop-ups in the coming months? Or any plans to have anyone carry your stuff outside'a MN?
Aubry: Events like EatDrinkVegan are a huge undertaking for our small staff, so we'll be sticking close to home this year. We are always open to new wholesale partners, and already wholesale to a couple places outside of the state. And of course, we have nationwide shipping options on our website.
Awesome. Well, thanks to you both for taking the time to do this interview. And hope to see you in Los Angeles again soon!
Editor's note: In the time between conducting this interview and posting it, it's been announced that MooShoes NYC's soon-to-be-opened sister shop, Orchard Grocer, will be carrying Herbivorous Butcher products right next-door to MooShoes on the lower east side. So stay tuned for opening announcements in the very near future.