Brother-and-sister duo Kale and Aubry Walch are a formidable force in the emerging world of vegan meats. Their vegan butcher shop, the Herbivorous Butcher, has taken Minneapolis by storm and features a menu full of delicious plant-based offerings. Kale offers an inside look into the business.
Is your birth name Kale?
Yes. I was named after my grandma, Keela. My dad was adopted and never knew his birth mom. He was looking for her his whole life, and a few months before I was born, he found her a, and they named me after her.
When did you go vegan?
Seven years ago. Right after I got out of high school, I wanted to lose some weight before college to get a fresh start. It worked really well—I ate salads and smoothies every single day. I wasn’t the happiest camper, but I was losing weight fast. But I also knew I couldn’t stay vegan for too long unless I had the cheeses I grew up with. And so began the kitchen experiments. My sister Aubry was vegan before me, and she encouraged me to stick with it.
How has your Guamanian heritage influenced you?
I was only in Guam for six months, but Aubry lived there for thirteen years. My mom was very good at making traditional Guamanian recipes. For holidays, we’d have a huge spread of meats . . . with a side of meat. That really did affect the flavors I liked early on. It directly influenced some products, like our smoky house ribs, which still use my grandma’s recipe for the barbecue sauce. The huli-huli ribs are a re-creation of a sauce my sister had in a food court in Guam. More than anything, our upbringing imparted a love of food and the tradition of family gathering around a table that we wanted to re-create with the shop. We wanted other vegans to have that experience.
What did your parents think about you going vegan?
It was tough at first. My dad and I used to travel the country looking for the best ribs and burgers. But he slowly came around to it, and he still tries all the new products to vet them. He’s always been our biggest critic. My mother still makes the Guamanian feast, but now it’s all vegan.
When did the idea for the Herbivorous Butcher come about? Did you have experience owning
Neither of us had any real experience. It was just me experimenting with cheese and Aubry making sausages. I had dropped out of college, and my sister and I were talking about how
we had all these recipes and were both creative, so maybe we could make a living out of this. Our first idea was to do a restaurant, but my sister looked at the failure rate of restaurants and it was huge, especially in Minneapolis. Then we thought of a vegan butcher shop. It was difficult for a while when we were both working full-time jobs and going to the local community kitchen to make vegan meats and package them all night.
Did you have reservations about how Minneapolis would receive a vegan butcher shop?
Oh, yeah—it was not a very vegan-friendly city when we started. We told ourselves that if we could do it here, we could do it anywhere. We saved $3,000 to secure a kiosk at the farmers’ market and did that for two years. I always had the tray of samples out at the farmers’ market, ready to be shot down, but the reactions were really positive from the start. Most of our customers are omnivores who do meat-free Mondays.
How did you transition from the farmers’ market to your own storefront?
We met a man named John Goodman, who owned a bunch of assisted-living facilities. He believed in the vegan lifestyle and wanted our products in all of his facilities to help his residents. He was a very altruistic man, and he told us, “If you can raise a little bit more money and prove to me that this will work, I’ll give you the rest to start a shop.” We did a Kickstarter campaign and exceeded our goals. He gave us the rest of the money after that. Sadly, three months after we opened, John passed away suddenly from a heart attack. We’ll always be thankful for him.
Have you expanded beyond the city of Minneapolis?
We only have one shop right now, but we ship all around the country and to Puerto Rico. We’re hoping for some much larger expansion this year and in the next couple of years. We wanted to make sure we had things held down here and perfected our recipes before we expanded too quickly.
Is it more difficult to duplicate the flavor or texture of meat?
Definitely the texture. The flavor is actually not that bad. Creating savory flavors is pretty easy. I like to think we can improve on it a bit because we can affect the flavor early on. We can start with the proteins themselves to make a much richer flavor. The texture is hard, though, and still something we are mastering for future products.
How are the vegan meats shaped?
It depends on the product. Most start in the mixer and become very muscular-looking dough. From there, we’ll throw it on the table and shape it in different ways. The ribs, for example, get rolled out until they are almost flat, are cut nto rib shapes, and are then seared and cooked in sauce. When they’re done, they look pretty realistic. That’s a lot different from the turkeys, which are kneaded for a long time and then put into cheesecloth, where they are boiled. Some products are steamed, and some are baked and then steamed and seared. It was a lot of fun in the early days to figure out how to get the shapes right.
Will you talk about a failed vegan meat experiment?
I still don’t know how this monstrosity came out of my kitchen. Before the shop was open, I was trying to make a smoked salmon for a weekend special. I was pretty proud of it when it first came out. I was so excited, I brought it to a meeting with my sister and our brand manager. It was at a fancy coffee shop, and when I plopped it on the table and opened up the seaweed wrapping, it released this noxious fish-and-chickpea smell. Our brand manager almost threw up. I have never tried to make smoked salmon again.
What are some of your best sellers?
The Korean ribs, which I made by accident, have been a staple since we first opened. The Italian sausage was one of our first five products we had at the farmers’ market, and it’s still one of the most popular. The cheddar cheese is the third-best seller because it’s all-purpose. For people who haven’t tried vegan cheese before, it’s familiar. Our mozzarella is on a lot of menus around town and around the country.
What are you workshopping right now?
Right now, I’m trying to perfect our rib-eye steak. It’s really good as it is, but I’m trying to make little tweaks here and there. I make 95 percent of the cheeses here, and I still make tweaks every week. Vegan cheese is an interesting beast that refuses to be tamed, but I’ve tamed it pretty well. When we were at the farmers’ market, our customers gave us a lot of feedback and were brutally honest. It was like a giant focus group of outspoken Minnesotans.
What is the most challenging part of the business?
There is a lot of uncharted territory when it comes to being a small business in this industry. We are paving the way for vegan shops. There are a lot more popping up around the country. It’s certainly a fun time to be in the vegan sphere. We’re all making new things and getting better together.
Is there a community among small businesses in Minneapolis?
Minneapolis is unique in this way. When we were first starting out, we would do a lot of pop-ups at Sisyphus, a local brewery that was just getting started. We both benefited hugely from that. And we still carry a lot of products in the shop from companies we grew up with in the farmers’ market. A lot of small vegan businesses will do pop-ups in the store. “A rising tide raises all ships”—that’s something we’ve had to embrace in Minneapolis for all of us to survive, and it feels really nice.
What makes you and Aubry such a successful duo?
We have the same goals and willpower, but we’re very different. She’s a little more calculated and exact. I’m a bit louder and more extroverted—and maybe funnier. We balance each other out very well. I’m always raring to go on new projects, and she’s there to pull back the reins, but when it’s time to make a move and she’s hesitant, I’ll encourage her. It’s working well so far.
For more information, visit theherbivorousbutcher.com