Food truck caters to veg crowd

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Plant-based fare a top menu feature at Greater Lansing’s Purple Carrot

Vegans and vegetarians always have options at The Purple Carrot Food Truck. Thanks to a vegan friend of co-owner Nina Santucci, the popular farm-to-truck stand has served an ever-changing variety of plant-based fare since opening in spring 2011.

Santucci, who started both the truck and later a restaurant with husband Anthony Maiale, says her friend was always complaining there wasn’t any good vegan food in the area. She decided to solve that problem by offering animal-free dishes that don’t take a backseat to the truck’s other menu items. Two months after the truck launched, her friend moved to California, but the vegan approach stuck.

“When you go out to eat and say you’re vegan, your only response is like an oily plate of noodles with some steamed vegetables on it, and it’s always an afterthought,” Santucci says. “So it kind of started with her, to say there’s always at least going to be something here. And we wanted to make the vegan and vegetarian food not be an afterthought, but be just as good, just as thoughtful, as the food we’re making with meat in it.

“We found there were a lot of other people who felt the same besides just her, and we got a really strong vegan and vegetarian following that made sense for us to continue to do it.”

Now in its fourth season, Purple Carrot is a fixture in the Greater Lansing food scene. The bright and colorful mobile dining destination — which sources locally grown ingredients for its cuisine — often sells out at its regular stops, including Spiral Dance Bar in Old Town, Hannah Office Center in East Lansing and the Meridian Township Farmers’ Market in Okemos.

Farmers’ markets are great for the truck, Santucci says, because customers there embrace the value of using Michigan foods: “It’s actually being grown by someone who’s cutting the greens by hand and seeding by hand, so it costs more than if I go to Meijer and get a big bag of lettuce mix. So the nice thing about farmers’ markets is those people who go there know what the products cost and what that means for our menu as well. It’s not like, $9 for a sandwich, oh my goodness.”

Santucci, an East Lansing native, and Maiale, weren’t initially sure their farm-fresh concept would thrive in the area. The couple lived and worked in the food industry in several progressive cities, most recently Philadelphia, before returning to Santucci’s hometown to scope out potential spaces for their own restaurant. “I grew up here, but I hadn’t been here for about 10 years, and so the biggest thing I noticed coming back, it was a lot of chain restaurants,” she says. “I had been living in larger cities where you get a more interesting food scene and a lot more independent businesses. And so I kind of freaked out, like I don’t know if what we want to do is going to fly in this town.”

Around the same time, the Great Food Truck Race was in its first season on the Food Network channel. Santucci joked that the people on the show are going out on their truck and making a ton of money, and that she and Maiale could do that. Santucci’s dad — who’s always looking for a deal, she says — bought a food truck on Craigslist within a week. “And I was like, oh, I guess we’re doing this,” she recalls.

in Lansing for part of the summer and Traverse City — where Santucci’s family has a cherry farm — for the remainder of it. They wanted to see where their concept worked to determine the best location for their original goal, a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Once Purple Carrot launched, business took off. It never made it to Traverse City. “Pretty much when we opened the truck here, after about a week, it was crazy,” Santucci says. “And within about a month we would wake up, go out for a couple of hours and sell out. It was like a blessing and a curse. It was exciting to be busy, but it was like, gosh, we just sold all of our food, and we have to do this all over again.”

Vegan and vegetarians have supported the truck from the start. In its first year, Purple Carrot was voted America’s Favorite Vegetarian Food Truck by readers of Mobile Cuisine, an online trade magazine.

“I think a lot of the people who come and are vegan or vegetarian are really excited we even have vegan or vegetarian options, and that we consistently, every week, have at least one vegan option and one vegetarian option,” says Haslett resident Michelle Schimpke, who has worked on the truck since 2012. “We change the menu every week, so it’s not like they get the same thing every week or just a salad. We mix it up."

One of the truck’s popular vegan items — and Santucci’s favorite — is the tofu banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich with marinated tofu, lentil-walnut pate, sriracha aioli, pickled vegetables and cilantro. “That’s like a craveable sandwich,” Santucci says. “It’s got the sour flavors from the pickled vegetables, and you get the spicy, too. It’s awesome. The one thing I really like about that is a lot of people don’t like tofu, and it’s an easy way to convert people because it just tastes good.”

Other top plant-based favorites include beet falafel — made with Michigan white beans instead of chickpeas — and tofu scramble breakfast enchiladas with house-made salsa and vegan queso.

Lansing vegans Lisa Ossian and Aryan Pedawia appreciate that Purple Carrot caters to their diet. Ossian, an ethical vegan for eight years, discovered the truck online while Googling for vegan restaurants in the area. The couple first ate there two years ago at a farmers’ market in East Lansing and have been regulars ever since.

“We can find some (vegan meals) if we modify things at most places we go, but here we don’t have to worry about contamination,” says Pedawia, an ethical vegan for about two and a half years. “That’s something we always have to worry about at other places. You tell them no dairy, but there’s a little bit of Parmesan on there. You don’t have to worry about that here.”

The success of the truck led to Red Haven, the couple’s farm-to-table restaurant in Okemos, which opened in fall 2012. Although the truck and restaurant have a different following and atmosphere — Red Haven is more upscale, Purple Carrot more family-friendly — the two complement each other well.

For one, Santucci says, it’s easier to operate a food truck with a restaurant kitchen in which to prepare the food. Purple Carrot isn’t equipped for heavy cooking so much of the food is prepared before it arrives at its destination. Second, the truck serves as a way to market Red Haven and to expand the restaurant’s customer base. “If we want to promote something,” she says, “I can hand out a flier with each meal. Plus, we have the ability to get farther out, so we’ll do a couple of stops in Lansing and places like that.”

Akin to the truck, the restaurant is also vegan- and vegetarian-friendly. But whereas the truck follows a mold — each day there is at least one vegan soup, one vegan sandwich and a salad that’s almost always vegetarian — the veg options at the restaurant are based more on seasonal foods. Summer, when the local produce is changing every week, is the best time for plant-based eaters to dine at Red Haven. Then, the menu is heavily vegetable-focused as opposed to in winter when more meat and dairy are available.

“More so for the restaurant, we choose the ingredients first, and the menu kind of follows, but we always have options,” Santucci says. “For example, we have a birthday cake on our dessert menu. Every month it’s a different flavor, and it’s always vegan. So it’s just something that if you come in, and you’re vegan, there’s always something you can get for dessert.”

Santucci and Maiale, the executive chef, enjoy experimenting with vegan dishes. Maiale, she says, has “the crappiest palette, in a sense” — due to his love of very American food — so it’s been fun seeing what he comes up with for the menus. His vegan and vegetarian creations often transcend faux-meat replicas.

“A lot of times when you get vegetarian foods, it ends up being a substitute for meat,” she says. “I think a lot of people who choose to eat that diet are not looking for something that tastes like a hamburger. It’s very easy to be like, OK, I’m going to make a vegan chicken sandwich that tastes like a chicken sandwich. I think it’s kind of nice to maybe have that at times, but to also have the ability to make food that is good just because it’s good, not because it tastes like maybe what you wanted to have.”

That theory might explain why some meat eaters enjoy the truck’s veg-friendly options. As Santucci points out, good food is good food, plant-based or not: “I think it’s nice we’ve turned a lot of people onto vegetarian food who wouldn’t normally go for it.”

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