KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The road to veganism, vegetarianism and even a gluten-free diet isn’t always easy.

Plant-based eaters struggle to find cruelty-free products that not only benefit the earth, but their own taste buds, with some pointing to unreasonable costs for quality plant-based foods as a major roadblock in their herbivorous explorations.

“Sadly, eating healthy is expensive, and that’s the problem,” Mandy Morris, co-founder of Tree Hugger Plant-Based Kitchen, said.

Several Kansas City business owners are taking the more expensive route, swapping their sausage for tofu, and arguing that plant-based menu options provide a more inclusive environment for their customers.

“I think for us, it’s like, ‘Why would we not offer everything to everyone?’” Max Sims, husband of Summit Pizza owner Susan Sims, said. “So everybody’s different.”

“Why can’t we all sit down together and eat?”

But every Kansas City plant-based restaurant FOX4 spoke with admitted the road to dietary inclusivity is packed with stigma and criticism, something many business owners are working to combat today.

“Sadly, I think the word ‘vegan’ just has such a bad stigma to it because I don’t know, maybe like, the stereotype, like we’re snotty and we think we’re way better, and that’s just so what we want to break,” Morris said. “We just want to show people that it’s OK, like give it a try.”

How lucrative is the plant-based restaurant industry?

The number of plant-based eaters has skyrocketed across the globe, with nearly 14% of the world population identifying as vegan, vegetarian, or some other related category last year, according to a 2021 article published by The Economist

“Only 3.4% of Americans were vegetarian in 2015,” and of those, only 0.4% were vegans, according to The Economist. But by January 2021, the number of vegans in the U.S. reached 3.5%, nearly nine times that of 2015.

“It’s really cool how it’s becoming just so much easier to transition and not even miss meat by this point,” Seth Kean, owner of Sweet EMOtion, a vegan ice cream parlor located in North Kansas City, said. 

Today, as many as 6% of U.S. consumers say they are vegan, six times the number of Americans who self-identified as vegan in 2014, just 1%, according to PlantProteins.co, a website dedicated to helping people eat more plant-based protein.

With this influx in plant-based customers, the U.S. has seen an increase in plant-based restaurants. 

A 2020 study found there are more than 1,474 plant-based restaurants in the U.S., and in 2021, plant-based food sales skyrocketed 2.5 times faster than it did between 2018 and 2020, according to The Vegan Society.

“I realized so many people with dietary restrictions just have nowhere (to go), especially within the gluten-free community and the nut allergy community,” Kean said.

Susan Sims, owner of Summit Pizza in Lee’s Summit, said she decided to include plant-based options on her menu after a group of kids came into her restaurant, asking to order a pizza without any cheese.

“We had the soy-based cheese and they (customers) were like, ‘Well, they can’t have soy,’” Susan said. “It’s usually children, and I’m like, ‘Children shouldn’t have to go without pizza and without cheese on top of it.’”

Susan said she decided to cater to the allergies and dietary needs of her customers, adding new products onto her menu as her customer-base began to grow.

“I’ve got one kid who’s been coming in since he was like two, and he has to eat gluten free and vegan,” Susan said. “He gets his one pizza every week cause that’s what he’s got to have.”

Although Summit Pizza has been serving meat and dairy-based products on its menu since opening in 2004, Susan said her business recognizes that people choose to eat gluten free and plant-based for numerous reasons.

“I’ve got a friend and actually the hormones in the meat don’t get along well with her body, so as much as people think that they’re eating vegan and I can see the stigma of, ‘They’re just trying to get attention,’ ‘They’re just trying to be different,’ ‘They’re trying to be special.’ No,” she said. “Some people, it makes them feel better, and some people still want to eat meat (but can’t).”

Kean, owner of Sweet EMOtion, serves vegan and gluten-free ice cream made with vanilla oat milk, rather than traditional milk. He said the best part of running a plant-based business is watching people who typically cannot eat ice cream get excited. 

“You start realizing, you have like, older people coming to the parlor that are like, ‘I have not been able to go out and get ice cream somewhere for like, 20 years because of these dietary restrictions,’ or the coolest thing is seeing really little kids with health issues that come get ice cream from my parlor because we cover every single thing that they have a restriction on,” he said.

Balling on a budget

Phillip Newman and Mandy Morris, co founders of the Tree Hugger Truck in Kansas City, which used to park outside the Blackbox theater in the West Bottoms, said they decided to switch to veganism nearly five years ago, citing their love for animals as a major factor.

“I think my big thing is like, you turn vegan for probably one of three reasons: for the animals, for the planet, or for your health,” Newman said. “My step sister and her whole family’s vegan.”

“They’ve got solar panels on their roof, like they are vegan 100% for the planet.”

Having founded a shaved ice truck in Los Angeles prior to moving to Kansas City, Newman said the pair decided to sell the ice truck and purchase a food truck, eager to provide their hometown with mobile access to plant-based foods.

But just two weeks ago, the pair sold the food truck and announced a new brick-and-mortar location opening up in Riverside next month, the Tree Hugger Plant-Based Kitchen.

“It’s strictly plant-based,” Morris said. “It’s pretty much our same menu from the truck, with some added items coming soon, so we’re very, very excited.”

Morris said going vegan can be pricey, something the two owners must consider when they purchase products in bulk. 

For example, the food truck used to offer a Caprese panini with cashew mozzarella on its menu, something Newman said became way too costly to keep up with.

“It was crazy expensive for us to make, and so it’s one of those things where like, ‘I’m not gonna charge $18 for a panini,’ you know. But that’s how much we would’ve had to charge to turn a profit, so we just boot it off the menu because it’s not affordable, it’s not practical. We don’t want to charge that much to people, so there’s definitely a learning curve there,” he said.

Whenever a product becomes too expensive for Morris and Newman to realistically afford, the two come up with creative ways to offer similar or entirely new products, but at a reduced cost.

“We do walnut meat,” Newman said. “She (Morris) is the brains behind this.”

“She takes walnuts and grinds them down and makes it taste like taco meat, like chorizo, and so it’s like double decker tacos from Taco Bell.”

Breaking the stigma

Morris said she feels like vegans have a bad reputation in society, oftentimes stigmatized as snotty, attention-seeking or ungrateful. 

She said Tree Hugger Plant-Based Kitchen’s main goal is to reduce this stigma and provide Kansas Citians with a welcoming location where they can come, ask questions, and leave feeling accepted and understood.

“We’re never going to dinner and telling people all about where their food came from on their plate,” Morris said. “I would love to, but I don’t.”

“That is how people actually steer away from it and they get a bad taste from it, and we’re not like that and I don’t ever, ever, like I said, I don’t ever want to make someone feel bad for their choice and their beliefs.”

Kean said he didn’t promote his business as “plant-based” when they first opened because he wanted people to try his product before judging it.

“I want people to try it and make a decision before they just hear that it’s something (plant-based) because they’ll just use that as a scare tactic for why they don’t wanna try it,” he said. “Like, I’m telling you, it’s just as creamy as normal dairy ice cream.”

“Most people question whether it is actually not, like they think it is dairy because of how creamy and how thick it is.”

He said he wasn’t necessarily trying to hide the fact that his product was vegan, but he wanted people to leave their stigmas and stereotypes behind, tasting his product with a clear mind and palette.

“People were just kind of weird about plant-based stuff, so I was like, ‘Just try it and then make a decision on whether you like it or not, and then I’ll tell you it’s not dairy,” Kean said.

Susan, of Summit Pizza, said she notices the stigma already diminishing as the quality of the plant-based products increases, along with the availability of plant-based menu options at local eateries.

“I would not be surprised if it encouraged some people to try, because you hear people all the time saying, ‘I want to go vegan,’ or ‘I’m only going to eat chicken or shrimp,’ so the availability is probably encouraging to people that maybe have thought about it but never really tried it,” she said.

Newman said people eat vegan all the time without ever realizing it.

“My big joke is always like, ‘No, you can eat our stuff. We can’t eat your stuff,’ you know?” Newman said. “That’s how it works, so it’s like, ‘Just try it. What’s the worst that can happen?’”

Where should I eat?

If you have allergies, a sensitivity to gluten, live a plant-based lifestyle, or want to expand your knowledge of plant-based foods, check out these restaurants in the Kansas City area.

Summit Pizza

Summit Pizza offers an array of plant-based, gluten free and allergy conscious products. You can check out their menu here.

Tree Hugger Plant-Based Kitchen (coming soon)

Tree Hugger Plant-Based Kitchen provides vegan and vegetarian menu options only, offering luxury plant-based comfort foods. You can learn more about their menu options here.

Sweet EMOtion KC

Located in North Kansas City, Sweet EMOtion KC serves ice cream, milkshakes, smoothies, and more, all completely oak milk-based. Their desserts are completely vegan, and gluten, nut, and dairy free. They are closed Monday and Tuesday. You can check out their menu here and here.

Mud Pie Vegan Bakery and Coffeehouse

Mud Pie Bakery has two locations, one in Kansas City, and the other in Overland Park, KS. It offers 100% vegan pastries, breakfast foods, desserts, and beverages. You can learn more about them here.

Dead Beet Eats

Dead Beat Eats is a vegan junk food spot, located in North Kansas City. Open from 5 am to 10 pm on Tuesday through Saturday, the eatery offers 100% vegan hamburgers, hotdogs, tacos, and more. You can visit their menu here.