COVID hasn’t handed Katherine Willis many lemons, she said, but the vegan chef behind Dead Beet Eats has been given plenty of tomatoes in 2020 — and an opportunity to turn salsa into ketchup.
“It’s been a really hard year and I like to think that what we’re doing is really lighthearted and it’s really fun,” explained Willis, who owns the Kansas City pop-up taco shop-turned-hot dog stand and operates it alongside her boyfriend, Jon Terry.
“We were doing these pop-ups and they were really successful; they were a lot of fun and we would pack people in bars. But once COVID hit it just didn’t make sense for us — obviously — to sustain the same trajectory,” she continued, noting the couple pivoted the business from selling vegan tacos and junk food within a space to slinging vegan hot dogs and treats from a traveling shop.
While they couldn’t immediately afford a food truck in their quest to quickly mobilize the business in a socially distant way, Willis and Terry had the budget for a hot dog cart — made available to them by the transition of another Kansas City-cooked, vegan staple, Peaceful Pig.
“With the cart I was just like, OK, I need a job,’ I need money to be able to buy a food truck and to one day open my own restaurant,” Willis said. “So I sort of just had this crazy idea one day to buy it.”
On the grill since July, the hot dog cart has found success within the local brewery scene, making frequent stops at places like Torn Label Brewing and Strange Days Brewing Co., in addition to the Barista Mercantile at Marcell Coffee Company and the Strawberry Swing Indie Craft Fair. Leaving vegan and carnivorous customers alike lining up to sample the cart’s latest creations, the menu includes such staples as a vegan chili dog drizzled with cashew cream.
“I hate to use the word ‘trashy,’ but I really feel like it embodies what we’re doing,” Willis laughed, referencing her creative craving to turn junk food on its head for Kansas City’s vegan community.
“I don’t know if putting mac and cheese on a hot dog or in a taco is doing anything crazy, but I try to really tap into stuff that’s nostalgic and that just feels fun and easy, and I don’t try to take myself or my business too seriously,” she continued. “I just want to make people feel good through their food.”
Click here to check out Dead Beet Eats offerings on Instagram.
Community support for the effort — which expects to get back to tacos with a brick-and-mortar space at some point in the future — has offered reinforcement for Willis that Kansas City’s vegan scene could be just as vibrant as its BBQ.
“Everyone is just really stoked to have options,” she said. “And there are so many different types of things happening right now and I feel like people are grateful for what we’re doing.”
Reaction has been welcoming, Willis continued, noting they’ve been embraced by other vegan businesses in Kansas City.
While the mobile shop has made business ownership easier on Willis and Terry during the pandemic, COVID’s overall impact on local restaurants and small businesses hasn’t scared the couple away from their long-term goal to own their own space, Willis added.
“It’s a huge commitment, especially with a pandemic happening. But what I want isn’t the traditional, big, sit down restaurant,” she explained, sharing her vision for more of a grab and go concept.
“I really just want a little corner shop where you can come in and get some tacos and sit on the curb and eat them with your friends or take them to your back porch.”
Such a vision is all part of Willis’ quest to “make vegan food weird again.”
“I think life is hard enough, let’s just put some fun ingredients together and see what happens,” she said.
“You can’t really be having a bad day when somebody hands you a big, beautiful chili dog or a chocolate chip cookie. What we’re doing is really simple and really authentic — and it just tastes really good and feels good for your soul. That makes a lot of people happy, including myself.”
Click here to check out Dead Beet Eats on Facebook.