A vegan burger bar might seem an oxymoron in an area dotted by rolling farmland where pastured cows, pigs, chickens, and ducks become key ingredients in many farm-to-table menus. Yet according to an article in Food Revolution Network, there’s been a 600 percent increase in the number of people identifying as vegans in this country in the last three years. In addition, the restaurant consultancy group Baum + Whiteman out of New York, says “plant-based” is the food trend of the year. Even Forbes recommends turning your business vegan.
So Hudson Valley trio Bobbi Jo Forte, Bonnie Schweppe, and Martin J. Pucino were onto something when they conceived of a plan to open a fully vegan restaurant offering dishes that mimic meat as well as dairy-free “milkshakes” and cheeses. But they weren’t being financially tactical; they have legitimate vegan zeal. Their reasons represent those most commonly cited: to avoid the unethical practice of consuming slaughtered animals, live a healthier lifestyle, and protect the environment from industrial livestock production.
Veganism Takes Root in Red Hook
This past April, Forte, Schweppe, and Pucino made their dream a reality when they opened the all-vegan WildFlower Café on West Market Street in Red Hook, named by Forte for her love of the late Tom Petty’s Wildflower album. “We wanted people to think of our cafe as a place that’s a bit edgy rather than purely sweet,” she says. Th restaurants walks a finely struck balance, hinted at in the partners’ marketing efforts, with Instagram hashtags ranging from the benign (#vegan) to the edgy #eatlikeyougiveafuck) to sarcastic (#notbrooklyn).
While other vegan restaurants have sprouted around the Hudson Valley, these partners zeroed in on one specific food niche. In a quirky celery-green and yellow 1840 building in the heart of Red Hook, they opened the area’s first vegan burger bar with a lineup of favorites many vegans and vegetarians miss when dining in restaurants or picking up fast food. “Usually there are a few items off to the side of a menu for vegans, but we wanted a full range,” says Schweppe, who with husband Mike, an orthopedic surgeon, has been vegan for eight years.
The other two partners became devotees more recently. Forte eats vegan and some vegetarian foods; she and Schweppe met seven years ago when Schweppe was buying a barn for her animal sanctuary. Pucino, who owns MHJP Painting in Red Hook, met the women when working on the Red Hook building and also on Schweppe’s home; he recently became a convert to veganism.
Both the dine-in and take-out menus at their WildFlower Cafe include two kinds of “red-meat patties;” fish, chicken, frankfurter, and bratwurst imitations; nondairy shakes; fries and onion rings; traditional condiments; some sauces; and soft drinks. They recently added beer and wine to the menu.
Deciding on the location was the easy part. Schweppe and her husband Mike already owned the three-level, 6,000-square-foot building. They purchased it in 2014 to house Schweppe and Forte’s other two ventures—Morgan’s Cat Café, a nonprofit cat adoption center, and Living Eden, a boutique that retails local, Fair Trade and cruelty-free gifts. The two businesses shared the first floor in separate spaces until this past January when Morgan’s Cat Café moved to the third floor for more square footage.
With a cheerful, street-facing, first-level area empty, Schweppe and Forte decided they had the perfect spot to test their burger bar concept. They also believed that there were others like them who would rejoice at not having to worry about what ingredients foods contained. “We believed if we built it, they would come,” Schweppe says. “We hoped we would also encourage others to eat less meat, even if they didn’t become vegan.” Pucino, who had long hoped to own a restaurant, asked to join in as a partner. He now juggles both of his businesses.
The threesome knew that just using the right vegan ingredients would not be sufficient. They sought a quality product that would cook up, look and taste like great meat. “We wanted to satisfy people’s appetite for a great burger without guilt,” says Forte. Finding the right food distributors to supply the “burgers” and cater to a small café that couldn’t place huge orders became their biggest challenges.
For several months, they sampled possibilities and finally had their Eureka moment when they found not one but two red-meat-style options that tasted fabulous and were made from plant proteins and other healthy ingredients. The Impossible Burger, made with wheat and potato protein, can be cooked rare, medium, or well-done and “bleeds just like meat,” according to Forte. The other winner was Beyond Meat’s pea-protein-based burger.
Next, the search was on for quality vegan versions of chicken- and fish patties, frankfurters, and bratwursts; good tasting rolls, including one crafted from pretzel dough; several cheese alternatives; and nondairy ice creams. They also decided to bake rather than fry their onion rings and French fries to make them healthier.
A Comfortable Spot
Forte developed the modern-meets-country décor with a gray, yellow and green palette, wood floors and open-style kitchen where burgers are grilled fresh to order. Menu tweaks already are being made with wine recently added to the offerings. Homemade soups will be introduced to the menu come fall. And a bright orange binder is their always-handy reference, listing ingredients of all the menu options, which also helps anyone with food allergies.
@wildflowercafeny opened yesterday in #redhookvillage to rave reviews! The first and only vegan burger bar in the Hudson Valley will be offering a slider special tomorrow for #fridaynightlights so be sure to check them out. The cats of Morgan’s Cat Cafe have been moved into their redesigned space upstairs - you can watch them thru the cat cam while you eat, or choose to bring your food up to hang out. They also offer online ordering and whatever you do don’t forget to try the milkshakes! #liveitupredhookvillage #liveitupredhook #liveitup #12571 #eatlocal #smallbusiness #redhooknewyork #ourtownisbetterthanyours #werekindofabigdeal #justonevisitandyoullbehooked #notbrooklyn #vegan #burgerbar
All three partners feel they’ve already met their most important goal. “We’re seeing our restaurant filled with happy people,” Schweppe says. Sometimes people wander in without knowing the concept of the restaurant and ask if there is anything vegan on the menu. “When we have said to people, ‘It’s all plant based,’ they often reply in some variation of, ‘You mean I can order anything? This is like Christmas!’ Then, many almost cry,” says Schweppe.
Could this someday become so popular that it might be the vegan version of Shake Shack? “Who knows?” Schweppe says, “but people already are asking if we plan to open in Hudson or Woodstock or franchise. We believe veganism is here to stay.”
Address: 35 West Market Street, Red Hook
Hours: 11am-6pm, Monday and Wednesday; 11am-7pm, Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 11am-5pm Sunday; Closed Tuesday
Phone: (845) 779-0770
Average check: Between $15 and $20
Barbara Ballinger, a writer, author and speaker (www.barbaraballinger.com), pens a weekly blog with Margaret Crane, www.lifelessonsat50plus.com