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Vegging Out: Why It's Getting Easier To Go Meat-Free In Wichita

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Nadya Faulx
Judy and Pat Handley prepare an order for a customer.

Even in Wichita, Kansas — the heart of beef country — it’s getting easier to go vegan.

When Scott Victor switched to a vegan diet three years ago, it was a challenge to eat out.

“When I first started, not a lot of restaurants here had vegan options, or even had, like, a vegetarian option where I can modify,” he said.

But that’s changed since then.

“Now you see a lot of food trucks and you see certain businesses … have their options for us to participate in,” he said. “It’s a real cash cow. It’s smart.

“If there’s any businesses out there listening: Vegans do want to eat.”

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Nadya Faulx
A finished hot dog from Wheat Street Dogs

And more businesses are listening, from big chains like Burger King, which offers a meat-free Whopper, to grocery stores and smaller, independently owned shops that have tapped into a growing demand. Retail sales of plant-based food grew 27% last year to $7 billion, according to a trade group.

Even in Wichita, Kansas — the heart of beef country — it’s getting easier to go vegan. Peruse the Wichitan vegan foodies Facebook group and you’ll find a flurry of options, shared recipes and restaurant suggestions.

“It’s so much easier today to be vegan or plant-based or even vegetarian than it was, you know, 10, 15, 20 years ago,” said Dominic Canare of Wichita. “The landscape has just changed completely over the last few years. And I would invite anybody that is remotely interested in examining their impact on the environment or on the welfare of animals to try something that’s vegan that they might not otherwise.”

Canare and Victor were part of the lunch crowd that, despite the 90-degree heat one June afternoon, flocked to the Wheat Street Dogs cart on the Wichita State University campus. After remaining closed through the pandemic, it was only the second day back in business for owners Pat and Judy Handley — and customers were eager to see them return.

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Nadya Faulx
Pat Handley finishes an order.

“It has been crazy since we opened here this morning,” Pat Handley said as he prepared one of the last hot dogs of the day. “It’s usually pretty slow, but, boy, today, it’s just been slammed.

“It’s a good problem to have.”

The Handleys opened Wheat Street Dogs in 2018; Pat, a longtime cook, experimented with different hot dog recipes until he created one the couple liked. Everything on the menu, from the popular banh mi hot dog to the chips the couple sells on the side, is vegan: no meat, no dairy, no animal products of any kind.

Not that everyone notices.

“When we were down at the pop-up park … we had construction workers that came and ate with us several times before the guy was standing, looking at the sign,” Pat Handley recalled. “He says, ‘These are vegan?’ And he couldn’t tell. I mean, we wish everybody would eat these, vegan or not.”

That’s also the hope for baker Nicole Mullen. Her CM Goodies pastries are vegan and gluten-free — and her packaging is all eco-friendly — but it’s not their only selling point.

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Nadya Faulx
Nicole Mullen is the founder and owner of CM Goodies.

“I think the goal is for it to come off as just your average baked good. That's part of the problem that we have is, people hear the words vegan and gluten-free, and they automatically jumped to the conclusion that, ‘Oh, this probably isn't going to taste that good,’ you know, or, ‘Well, I'm not vegan, I'm not gluten-free, so why even bother?’” she said.

“And so for CM Goodies, the goal is for that to not even be essentially, like, not even part of the conversation.”

Mullen said she’s seen the local vegan scene grow so much over the past few years, she’s planning the area’s first ICT Veg Fest for Aug. 22.

“You would be amazed how many different vegan vendors or options there are that I'm guessing that a lot of people have no idea,” she said.

Nadya Faulx is KMUW's Digital News Editor and Reporter, which means she splits her time between working on-air and working online, managing news on KMUW.org, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. She joined KMUW in 2015 after working for a newspaper in western North Dakota. Before that she was a diversity intern at NPR in Washington, D.C.