MANKATO FREE PRESS (Oct. 30, 2017) – The duo behind Mankato Vegan become tastemakers through social media
The premise was simple: Erika Boyer-Kern and Nicole Olsen would visit one restaurant each month and then post a review on Facebook with photos of the food and comments on the menu’s vegan-friendliness. They didn’t expect to get wrapped up in a larger conversation about eating habits and changing menus in Mankato.
Before launching Mankato Vegan, Boyer-Kern and Olsen regularly met for a beer and a bite to eat. However, the friends often lamented local restaurants’ lack of vegan options, as well as the lack of resources to help people, whether area residents or visitors, find vegan eats. The Facebook page started in 2015 after Boyer-Kern and Olsen pulled up Google, typed in the words “Mankato Vegan,” and hit search.
“Nothing came up,” Boyer-Kern said. “And we were just like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if something came up when you Googled that?’”
Since launching in 2015, Mankato Vegan has reviewed many local restaurants, including Shogun Sushi and Hibachi, La Terraza Mexican Grill and Bar, India Palace, Pho Anh and New Bohemia. However, one important review happened in spring 2016 when, by a total fluke, they decided to go to Pub 500. They regularly ordered beers there, but a closer look at the menu that day revealed few vegan options — little more than fried pickles and pub chips.
Boyer-Kern and Olsen framed the review as positively as possible since they really enjoyed the restaurant and its atmosphere. To their surprise, the restaurant responded.
Pub 500 management didn’t get defensive, but instead asked for help. It was already planning to add vegan and increase vegetarian options, and if the Mankato Vegan duo was willing, the restaurant wanted them to try a few dishes.
“We’ve brought that group in a couple of times to test things on them,” said operating partner Jay Reasner, adding that Mankato Vegan tried half a dozen items for the restaurant’s latest menu. “It has really worked out well for us.”
What does going vegan mean?
Like vegetarians, vegans eat a plant-based diet. While both do not eat meat, vegans also avoid dairy, eggs or other foods that come from animals. Vegans also do not wear clothes made from leather, wool or other animal products.
Nearly one in 10 adults in the U.S. identify as vegetarian or vegan, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center study. “Younger generations (ages 18 to 49) are more likely than others to identify as at least mostly vegan or vegetarian,” the study says. “…Men and women are equally likely to be vegan or vegetarian. There are no differences across region of the country, education or family income in the share who is vegan or vegetarian.”
Many become vegans out of a concern for animals and the environment, according to Boyer-Kern, but she felt that the main selling point was the health benefits. She came across the documentary “Forks Over Knives,” and soon quit meat cold turkey.
“I watched that, and I was just like, ‘I can’t eat meat anymore. I just can’t,’” she said. “I learned about the impact on my health, and that was the major thing that changed me. When I found out that the risk of cancer could be pretty much nothing — and Type 2 diabetes, all of it — I was like, ‘I want to live a long time.’”
At the time, Boyer-Kern and Olsen worked together at the Committee Against Domestic Abuse, and Boyer-Kern “brainwashed” her friend into going vegan too. Olsen was already a vegetarian, though, so she didn’t take much convincing.
Olsen took medicine for acid reflux and heartburn back then, but that changed after she became vegan. “It completely went away, so for me, that was a big selling point,” she said. “I just felt so much better.”
While some say eating vegan costs more, Olsen disagrees. She committed to eating less processed, prepackaged foods, even if they’re plant-based. The ingredients to cook most vegan dishes — fresh vegetables, beans and rice — are inexpensive, she said.
“If you’re going to eat all of the (fake meat and dairy) replacements, then it’s going to be expensive. But if you’re eating whole foods, it’s not going to be,” she said.
However, the goal of Mankato Vegan was not to try to convert people to veganism. If they want, people can learn about plant-based diets through numerous resources and documentaries, such as the recent film “What the Health,” Boyer-Kern and Olsen said.
They hope Mankato Vegan helps people eat less meat, but they don’t want to be “the vegan police,” busting people who eat cheese every now and then. “That stereotype exists. But it’s not something I come across very often, and it’s definitely not how we are,” Olsen said.
The two want to build a community of people who already share an interest in eating a plant-based diet — whether they’re strict vegan, mostly vegetarian or just starting a meatless Monday. So far, that has mostly taken place over Facebook. But Boyer-Kern and Olsen hope eventually to host restaurant meetups for people who follow Mankato Vegan.
Plant-based options keep growing
Restaurants throughout Mankato have been adding vegan options in recent years. Mom & Pop’s has started carrying more dairy-free ice creams. Jake’s Stadium Pizza offers vegan “cheese” and crumbles, and is working on a vegan crust. Friesen’s sells vegan cakes, soups and breads. And using that bread, Curiosi-Tea House offers sandwiches with plant-based “meat” from the Herbivorous Butcher in Minneapolis.
“Tea is such an environmentally friendly drink that it made sense to look at serving foods that are more environmentally friendly,” said Heidi Wyn, owner of Curiosi-Tea.
As a vegetarian moving toward veganism, Wyn said she has browsed Mankato Vegan, but it can still be difficult to find options at southern Minnesota restaurants. “Mankato has definitely got better options than even three years ago, but it’s hard sometimes,” she said.
Restaurants should listen to vegan customers to create tasty dishes that herbivores and omnivores alike would enjoy, Reasner said. It’s similar to accommodating people with gluten or dairy allergies.
“It’s not like our menu is 100-percent vegan now. We haven’t changed our entire philosophy, but having options for almost everybody is what we’re trying to do,” he said. “Our new menu items have been selling well, and I don’t know if it’s because they’re vegetarian or vegan or because they’re fun.”
There’s always some risk that customers won’t respond to new items, but not because they’re vegan. A burger or steak could flop, too, Reasner said. Based on how well the new veggie items are selling, he believes they’re here to stay.
And Mankato Vegan thinks they have a pretty good case for restaurants to keep adding plant-based entrees. When Boyer-Kern and Olsen go out to eat with a group of friends and family, the vegans always get asked to pick a restaurant that will have something they can eat.
“What we want restaurants to know is there might not be 10,000 vegans in Mankato, but even when there’s one, … you’re not just serving that person,” Boyer-Kern said. “You’re serving their entire circle of family and friends because they’re following us to wherever we go.”
Photo caption: Nicole Olsen (left) and Erika Boyer-Kern launched Mankato Vegan in 2015, and they’ve since reviewed many local restaurants and consulted Pub 500 on menu updates.
Robb Murray is the Features Editor for The Free Press. He can be reached at 344-6386 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Robb on Twitter @FreePressRobb