Greasy fries, a Reuben sandwich, nachos, mimosas, cookies and cake… all can be made using 100 percent plant-based products, and thus, all can be made vegan. Dancing Dog Eatery and Juicery opened about seven months ago in Downtown Urbana, and the owners, Brian Behrns and Linda Lehovec, are in the process of finalizing the restaurant’s all-vegan menu. By the looks of it, they’re serving anything but health food.
The staff agreed that their customers have been about 50/50 vegans and vegetarians versus meat eaters, probably leaning toward more than half meat eaters. Waitress Alexx Heald-Alejo knows why: “It’s accessible to people who aren’t familiar with not eating meat.”
I sat down with Behrns in the sunny dining area of his restaurant to talk about about what goes into the food at Dancing Dog, and what he hopes his customers get out of it.
Smile Politely: What do you consider when you put together your entrees, nutritionally or taste-wise?
Brian Behrns: Well, most of them, it’s stuff we’ve eaten for years. When we opened this place, we consciously tried to have a couple things that relate to what other people eat, because, people that are vegan will come and eat anything, but people that aren’t vegan, it helps if they see something that they’re familiar with. We have a seitan Reuben, we have the Down and Dirty Dog which is a hot dog with beans and coleslaw and all sorts of crap on it, and we did that specifically so people that aren’t vegan will at least come try it. Everything here’s vegan so we just try and make it delicious as we can, obviously, like any restaurant would. And we don’t consider ourselves a health restaurant for that very reason. We want everyone to come and have French fries or whatever.
The Down and Dirty Dog. Photo by Maddie Rehayem.
SP: Do you find the people that come here are already vegan or vegetarian, or are they just trying new food?
Behrns: A lot are, obviously, yeah. We’ve only been open for six months so a lot of people are still coming for the first time. [after confirming with waitress Alexx Heald-Alejo] I guess more than half aren’t and that’s great, because that means we’re exposing veganism to a bunch of people that normally wouldn’t think about it.
SP: Do you ever get feedback from them about the taste?
Behrns: Yeah, for the most part, most of the feedback we’ve gotten since we’ve opened has been really good. We use Gardein fishless filets. It’s outrageously delicious. We have fish and chips on the menu, which people love, we have a fish sandwich that people love, maybe tomorrow we’re gonna do fish tacos. With this product, it totally doesn’t matter (if you’re vegan). That’s the kind of stuff that we try to appeal to people. And we have great French fries that are fresh cut, a whole ton of sweets, so…
SP: Do you make meat-substitutes in-house?
Behrns: We make our seitan from scratch, which is a wheat gluten product, and that’s what goes into our Reuben. And we’ve used it for various other things too. We also have a seitan chorizo we use from another company that is in our tacos. We make it really spicy. Other than the components like the chicken and fish and this and that, all the dressings and all the side dishes and everything else we make from scratch.
Seitan chorizo tacos. Photo by Maddie Rehayem.
SP: Are your meat substitute items more popular than the others?
Behrns: I’d have to say the meat substitutes are. I think I remember one woman coming in here saying, “I don’t like any meat substitutes,” and she had a salad. But I think everybody loves to have something that looks like a burger or a Reuben. And we specifically wanted to appeal to those people.
SP: Ever get anyone who wanted to become a vegan after eating at Dancing Dog?
Behrns: Nobody’s said, “Oh my god that’s it, I’m becoming a vegan!” But there have been a lot of people that say, “Oh my god, this is really good; I didn’t think vegan food was this good.”
SP: Do people who aren’t vegan come in here thinking it’s health food?
Behrns: Yeah. Some of them do. And we right off the bat, and on our Facebook page especially, I told people, this is not a health food restaurant. We have a lot of really good crap that is so delicious. On our Facebook page we just posted an article a couple weeks ago about taking back the name “Vegan.” It doesn’t mean gluten-free or healthy, it doesn’t mean anything but plant-based diet. There’s a lot of information out there, and people pick and choose what they pay attention to, so in the long run they think vegan means a lot of things that it’s not. So yeah, people might come in with misconceptions, but when they try our French fries…
SP: Have you had to change things in your first six months?
Behrns: We’ve changed our menu a lot. We’ve already taken off things that didn’t sell. We’re in the process of trying to get our menu printed so we’re reevaluating before we print. We’ve been just doing it on the computer but now we want to actually have a printed menu like every other restaurant in the world. We’re trying to decide what is working and what’s not. We had a menu that changed every day when we first opened, for the first two months. People loved it, because Karen our chef is a freak and she was making weird stuff every day, and people were loving it.
Espresso chocolate cookies. Photo by Maddie Rehayem.
SP: Anything else to say about misperceptions people have about the food?
Behrns: Like I said, the people that know it, know it. We have a lot of vegans that come, and then there’s people that don’t know it and are generally surprised that it’s as good as it is because it’s not health food; it doesn’t taste bland. We’ve got salsa that’s kickass and guacamole. I think they’re surprised.
SP: A lot of stuff is vegan anyway, right?
Behrns: Like what do you eat? And you’re like, what, you’re never had a salad? That’s vegan! There’s places like Black Dog, obviously a lot of people eat meat, and they’re not ever gonna not eat meat, and that’s fine. There’s a new one opening across the street so we’re all surrounded by rib joints.
SP: The Red Herring’s here too at least.
Behrns: We’re friends with Red Herring, actually one of our servers works in the kitchen there during the day.
SP: But you guys have the liquor license.
Behrns: We have a beer and wine license, and one day we might get a liquor license but for now beer and wine is enough. We have a set menu, they kind of don’t.
SP: Have you ever been there?
Behrns: Yeah, the food is good… Right off the bat we wanted to be friends because it’s like, we’re just trying to put the word out. Rib joints don’t start warring with each other. That’s ridiculous! The more vegans out there, the better for all of us.
Photos by Maddie Rehayem.