It’s before noon in late April, and a heavy rain blankets my Jeep as I dodge potholes en route to my destination in northeast Minneapolis. The radio cuts away to the national news, and I hear of a death reported earlier that morning at Paisley Park, the iconic home, club, and recording studio of Minnesota’s musical legend, Prince.
Moments later I wrap my hand around what looks like a massive butcher’s knife and pull, opening the door to a surreal and simultaneously antique, yet modern, time warp. Long, washed out tiles that look like old wooden planks span the room. Glancing up I see a wide, white, brightly lit deli case filled with every variety of meat you could possibly imagine. To my right, a narrow high-top table runs the length of the storefront window. Exposed brick and natural woodwork usher me back in time to the old Rossmor Building in downtown Saint Paul where my dad used to run his antique letterpress printing shop. A big five by five foot butcher block adorns the wall past the windows to my right with somewhere around ten butcher knives hacked into it as though the butchers held a knife throwing contest earlier that morning.
I approach the deli case, and a young woman decked out in a white shirt, white apron, and a white paper hat greets me at the counter with a smile.
“What can I get you?” she asks.
Growing up vegetarian in the 70’s and 80’s, I had never experienced a trip to the butcher shop before, and I’m nervously at a loss for words. I’d silently rehearsed my order before she caught my eye, but now that it’s go-time, my tongue is tripping over itself. “Can I have some pastrami?” I ask. Here’s where the average adult would know that you order meat at a butcher shop by weight, but having never done this before I have no idea whether to order a quarter pound, half pound, full pound, or 5 pounds. “How about just a nice handful?” I ask, nodding approval as she places a healthy stack on the scale.
After picking out a couple more items, I’m ushered to the checkout, a gorgeous floor-to-waist butcher block counter featuring little more than an iPad terminal and another bubbly employee.
This is The Herbivorous Butcher, a modern rendition of an old 1950’s neighborhood staple. It is the first of its kind that crafts 100% plant-based meats and cheeses that capture the same flavors, textures, and nutrients that omnivores are used to from their traditional butcher shop, but without all the, well…blood.
I’m giddy with anticipation as I take a look inside my bag of goodies, and just as I turn around I’m greeted by Kale and Aubry Walch, the brother and sister duo who went from experimenting with vegan meat recipes in their kitchen to launching this full-fledged vegan butcher shop within the span of only a couple of years. It was such a novel concept that news outlets around the world covered the grand opening in January.
“Did you hear about Prince?” Aubry asks as we make our way to the office, her face filled with grief. We Minnesotans take our precious few homegrown celebrities to heart, and there is a palpable sadness as we make our way upstairs. The office is old, but beautiful and spacious. Exposed brick and creaky wooden floors provide a quaint backdrop for several modern workstations sporting widescreen computer monitors.
With smooth, olive skin and easy smiles, the siblings have an air of youthful innocence, and I’m shocked to learn that they’re almost 13 years apart in age. Aubry, 34, was born and raised until the 7th grade on Guam. Even to this day she considers the tiny Pacific Island home. Kale, now 22, was just 6 months old when the family left the island and moved to a suburb of Minneapolis. The big age gap made them feel as though they were only-children, but that separation isn’t apparent as our conversation unfolds.
“For me as a kid, life was about food…only about food,” Aubry says, and it showed. At 10 she was a self-described “roly-poly kid,” weighing in at 165 pounds. Kale is quick to pounce, in a playful sibling way, puffing out his cheeks and making what could only be described as “roly-poly” sounds. They both chuckle, and it’s clear they enjoy working together.
“I always thought it’d be cool to work with him.” ~Aubry Walch
Their father traveled to Guam as a Christian missionary in the late 1970’s, but later landed a job as a sports telecaster. It was there he noticed a beautiful woman walking the studio halls. A model who won the Miss Guam Universe pageant, she was the “Vanna White” of a gameshow called Bingo Bonanza. The two hit it off, and though at the time they met she was dating one of the wealthiest men in Guam, they eventually married and became something of a celebrity couple on the island.
Back in Minnesota, Kale and Aubry followed separate trajectories. Kale became a child underwear model, and remembers sporting a bowl cut and playing lots of video games as the family bounced around from various apartments and townhomes. Far from the tropical warmth of Guam, Kale developed an ability to cope with the fierce Minnesota winters in a way Aubry never did. “It was a strange suburban existence,” he recalls.
At 14 Aubry began bagging groceries for $4.66 an hour in order to afford a pair of $120 John Fluevog platform shoes. It was there at the end of the checkout line where she started to notice the amount of meat people were buying, and suddenly made the connection between the tidy cellophane-wrapped packages of body parts and the animals they came from. Her reaction was swift. That day she called her mom to say she wasn’t going to eat meat anymore, and the epiphany opened up a whole new world with lots to learn. Reading books by Peter Singer and Ingrid Newkirk, she began soaking up any information she could find of the subject. At 18 she joined Compassionate Action for Animals, a local grassroots animal advocacy organization. While her involvement was born out of a concern for animals, she eventually learned about the ties between animal agriculture and environmental degradation, and her commitment to the cause deepened.
It took Kale a while longer to develop an interest in veganism. Like many young boys, he always ate a lot of food, regularly pounding an entire Little Caesar’s pizza after school. His weight ballooned. By his senior year in high school he was pushing 200 pounds, and wanted a fresh start before beginning college. He went vegan, and in three months he’d lost 60 pounds. As often happens when people change their diet to address health or weight issues, Kale found himself without the need to defend his food choices, and became more open to the ethical implications of eating animals.
“If our food is a stepping stone towards people eating more ethically and thinking more empathetically, then the battle is won.” ~ Kale Walch
One Christmas while Kale was studying to become a pastor and Aubry was working as an office manager and bookkeeper, their family went to dinner at the posh St. Paul Hotel. As they were walking through the parking ramp, Aubry turned to Kale and said, “We should open some food thing together someday.” Kale’s response? “Yeah, maybe.” They laugh.
Little did they know that one day they would be pioneers in the plant-based butcher business.
Unsatisfied with vegan meats on the market, they’d both been experimenting with plant-based meat simultaneously, though separately, in their own kitchens. “There are basic recipes that exist,” says Kale, but we found that they just weren’t enough. If you left it there, no one would eat it. So instead of water in recipes we used different kinds of juices, or different blends of beans to create a heftier texture.”
“There were a lot of failed batches,” Kale continues. “A lot of failed batches. We would change one thing in every batch and it would get a little bit better. We changed the cooking methods to make them easier.” And so their little impromptu experiment grew.
Aubry’s love for food and desire to work more formally with Kale got her thinking. “Initially our idea was to open a vegan restaurant. We did some market research and realized that the failure rate of restaurants is so high, but we wanted to center this restaurant around meats that we were making.”
“We started slowly,” she says. With the five products they had developed, they put together ten groups of people, many of whom they didn’t personally know, most of them omnivores. Beginning with a big batch of teriyaki jerky, for eight weeks they sent each group new samples of their creations, and gave them surveys afterward asking what they liked, didn’t like, and what they’d change. At the time Kale was working as a server, and had the opportunity to run the recipes by the chef. He worked with Kale on a few recipes and gave him a lot of good ideas that they still use today.
Between the money Kale managed to save with his server job and what Aubry had after her bills were paid, they both got their community kitchen and farmer’s market licenses, and started ramping up the operation. They’d cook at the Kindred Kitchen on Thursdays, package items on Fridays, and sell at the farmer’s market Saturday and Sunday. They made enough money to buy ingredients and keep things going, and by the second summer of selling at farmer’s markets they decided they’d ramp things up again. Instead of one day of cooking they bumped it to two, and even with the increased supply, continued to sell out every weekend.
By that time they had met a man interested in investing in the venture, and the group decided to run a Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds to open a store. It was, as Kale recalls, the most stressful month of his life, since Kickstarter withholds any money raised if you don’t reach the total goal. In the end, though, the campaign raised the full amount.
But that’s not all it raised. “A lot of people heard about us through that. Right after our crowdfunding thing, Jimmy Fallon mentioned us on his TV show, not by name, but he talked about the brother and sister duo who were opening a vegan butcher shop in Minneapolis,” Aubry says rather casually.
“If people don’t hate you, you’re doing something wrong.” ~ Aubry Walch
While there has been an enthusiastic, international outpouring of support for the vegan butcher shop, not everyone is so thrilled about it. You’d expect snickering jabs and condescending remarks from the never-vegan crowd, of course, but even some in the world of animal advocacy find the resemblance to an old-world butcher too close for comfort. “The comments in all the articles or videos on some of the more major Facebook pages are so funny, just the wars that are waged,” says Kale. They made the mistake of reading them after the grand opening, but don’t bother anymore.
“If people don’t hate you, you’re doing something wrong,” Aubry says, her calm smile showing me she is at peace with the controversy they’ve caused by daring to reinvent an old, outdated business. This is, indeed, a bold new business; a modern rendition of an old and worn out business model.
It is the kindest, most badass butcher shop on the planet.
This article originally appeared in Issue 6 of Compassionate Man Magazine. You can purchase a PDF copy of the issue for $2.99 by clicking on the image below.
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