Seitan's Realm owner on expanding its vegan dominion to Clintonville
When Kevin Ridenbaugh and his wife, Amber, opened plant-based food truck Seitan’s Realm last May, they expected to ramp up slowly, building a customer base over time. But on the very first day, near Virtue Salon on High Street in Clintonville, the line to order food wrapped around the block.
“We hoped that maybe on Saturdays we could sell 30 sandwiches or something, and we could call that a really good day. But it turned into a lot more than that,” Kevin Ridenbaugh said. “It was actually way crazy and overwhelming; we weren't ready for that sort of response.”
When the Ridenbaughs launched Seitan’s Realm (the punny name references a vegetarian meat substitute), Kevin was still working in accounts receivable at Ohio Health but had grown tired of the corporate world. While logging hours with his day job, he’d begun making vegan “junk food” that he couldn’t find elsewhere, and when his friends tried it, they loved it.
Prior to his gig at Ohio Health, Ridenbaugh had worked in the food industry, and the more people raved about his homemade vegan offerings, the more he started pursuing the idea of opening up a food truck, which seemed like a financially safer way for the Ridenbaughs to dip their toe into the restaurant world.
Seitan’s Realm offers plant-based riffs on popular sandwiches (Reuben, gyro, cheesesteak, beef and cheddar) and makes all of its own protein, which Ridenbaugh said is a time-intensive, three-day process. “It's kind of a pain in the butt to make the seitan, but we've gotten really great results from it, and people love it,” he said.
For almost a year, Seitan’s Realm was a crowd-pleaser at Virtue Salon and at bars around town (Land-Grant, Antiques on High). When bars closed due to the pandemic in March, the food truck shut down, too. But when Seitan’s Realm returned, Ridenbaugh said he was pleasantly surprised.
“As we've come back from the pandemic, our sales have been a little bit higher than we were expecting them to be,” he said. "We've gone to contactless ordering, so people can just order online and come pick up their food. … I think it does help us being a food truck, because we’re outside.”
After easing back into the Seitan’s Realm sweet spot, and with many COVID restrictions on indoor dining still in place, it may not seem like a great time to make the switch from mobile food truck to a permanent brick and mortar location. But that’s exactly what Seitan’s Realm is aiming to do, with plans to open a vegan deli in the Clintonville spot formerly occupied by A Common Table (3496 N. High St.).
To Ridenbaugh, though, the move is a natural progression. For one, customers often request slices of the eatery’s vegan turkey, ham and roast beef so they can make their own sandwiches at home. At the deli, Ridenbaugh plans to sell its seitan by the slice. Plus, without the space constraints of a truck, Seitan’s Realm can start offering a wider variety of sandwiches. Oh, and desserts. “My wife is actually going to be making some cakes and some pies, maybe some cookies, as well. I think my daughter's going to help her out with that,” he said.
Also, currently Ridenbaugh has to rent out a commissary kitchen, but having a permanent location will allow the restaurant to work out of its own kitchen, where Seitan’s Realm may also begin distributing its seitan elsewhere. Recently, Ridenbaugh began supplying vegan chicken wings to BrewDog — an unexpected but welcome way to diversify its business.
And there’s another, more obvious reason: An indoor, brick-and-mortar store isn’t weather dependent. “In the wintertime, it gets pretty rough, to be honest. It's definitely financially hard, because you're probably losing a third of your sales just because it's cold,” Ridenbaugh said, noting that some food trucks close entirely over the winter. “And there were times where we couldn't go out because the truck wouldn't start or our pipes froze up, so we didn't have water and we had to close for the day.”
Plus, when Seitan’s Realm is on wheels, it’s reliant on business from bar-goers. But what will that look like when winter comes and the pandemic continues? “Some of the places that we go to, they have outdoor seating so people can sit outside, and we get a lot of business that way. But once the winter hits, we were a little bit worried,” he said. “If you're at a bar and there's outdoor seating, but now it's wintertime, will the bar even be able to be open?”
As far as a neighborhood for the permanent location, Ridenbaugh said Clintonville was a no-brainer. "Every time we go to Virtue Salon it’s always been the best day that we ever go out. So many people walk to the truck, and the outpouring of love that we get there was always awesome,” he said. “I always said, if we ever did open up a brick and mortar, this would be the absolute perfect place. We get nothing but love from Clintonville.”
Ridenbaugh hopes to open the doors of the Clintonville location in the next month or two. Once that happens, he said Seitan’s Realm will concentrate on the brick and mortar restaurant. “We haven’t made a final decision on what to do with the truck,” he said.