By ANDREW MCGINN
We live in amazing times.
Think how far cellphones have come in the past 20 years. Or digital special effects in movies.
We also have vegan cheese that apparently no longer behaves like Flubber.
“The evolution of vegan cheese has been tremendous,” Tony Pille, 45, explained recently with the straightest of faces.
He remembers being in Oregon and once sampling vegan cheese — that is, a plant-based cheese substitute. He accidentally dropped it, and it literally bounced.
A Jefferson native, Pille couldn’t have picked a better time in history to open the doors of a vegan fast-food joint, Dirt Burger, on 5th Street in downtown Des Moines’ East Village.
Not only have veggie burgers evolved to become, well, appetizing, but a seismic shift toward plant-based diets is beginning to rock the restaurant industry.
And what’s a burger without cheese?
“And it tastes like cheese,” Pille said of the vegan cheddar, made with pea protein, that adorns their meatless burgers.
Pille and business partner Chris Place — who also has ties to Jefferson; his family owned the old Place’s five-and-dime store — believe they have the right concept at the right time to go big. Like, franchising big.
So just think: When Forbes or Fast Company one day hails Pille as the Dave Thomas of veggie burgers, you read it here first.
Dirt Burger has been killing it since opening June 28, which sounds wrong talking about vegan cuisine.
“We’ve had moments when people are literally out the door,” said Pille, a 1992 graduate of Jefferson-Scranton High School who’s enjoyed careers as a chef and as an organic vegetable farmer. “There are a tremendous amount of meat eaters who love it.”
The response to Dirt Burger has been so positive, according to Pille, that they probably won’t even get a chance to have an official grand opening.
“I think we’re just open now,” he said.
The thing is, Dirt Burger nearly went the way of Burger Chef, Henry’s Hamburgers or any other defunct burger chain before they even got the grill fired up.
In February of 2017, Pille initially graced the front page of The Jefferson Herald touting a radical new concept for a fast-food restaurant. Called Dirt Burger, it was to be located just off Court Avenue in Des Moines, where it would serve up plant-based fare fast and on the cheap using veggies grown by Pille himself in Greene County at his Sun Gold Farms.
A farm-to-table fast-food joint, Dirt Burger seemed destined to become the In-N-Out Burger for Midwestern vegetarians.
But then it never opened. At least not physically in that location.
Pille and Place kept making the rounds of farmers’ markets in Valley Junction and Ames, and had a stand in Jefferson last summer during RAGBRAI, but the location off Court Avenue eyed as Dirt Burger No. 1 would never materialize — thanks, in part, to a plumbing bid alone that came in at $64,000.
Pille nevertheless kept right on planting beets and onions for three years straight — at least 15,000 onions annually — in the hopes that Dirt Burger would get off the ground.
“I wanted it to come here,” Pille said. “We didn’t have a here yet.”
Then, just like that, one restaurant’s sudden closure on East 5th Street allowed Dirt Burger to finally take root. Within six weeks, the doors were open.
That first week of business, Pille logged 113 hours of work.
“And then I had drive time,” he said.
He still lives in Greene County.
Dirt Burger is everything Pille said it would be.
“It’s super-unpretentious,” he said. “It’s blunt. To the point.”
They have a goal to open locations in Iowa City and Madison, Wis., by this time next year — complete with drive-through lanes.
“We think good food should be available to anyone,” Pille said. “For $4, you can come in here and eat.”
What has surprised Pille the most has been the number of men who’ve so far eaten at Dirt Burger.
“And it’s not women dragging men in,” he clarified.
Admittedly, the demographics have been all over the place.
During any given lunch rush, hippies with their hair in dreads mingle with soccer moms.
“And behind them is a kid with tattoos and a skateboard,” Pille explained. “And behind him is Grandpa and Grandma.”
“This isn’t a trend,” he added. “People are eating healthier. They’re eating plant-based.”
Even Arnold Schwarzenegger has started advocating a plant-based diet. Yes, Conan the Destroyer has become Conan the Herbivore.
For some, meat production is linked to the world’s ills — global warming, deforestation, pollution.
Just down the street from Dirt Burger, Des Moines’ resident T-shirt company, Raygun, has started selling shirts that ask, “Iowa: Is There Poop In This Water?”
Even the straws, cups, bowls and forks at Dirt Burger are plant-based and compostable.
For others, a diet of occasional meat — they call themselves flexitarians — is purely for personal health reasons.
Whatever the motivation, widely reported data indicates a 600 percent increase in the number of U.S. vegans — people who consume no animal products — between 2014 and 2017.
That didn’t escape Burger King, the nation’s No. 2 burger chain.
BK this year introduced the Impossible Whopper, a meatless version of its signature burger. It’s so far just in select markets.
Since 2017, McDonald’s customers in Sweden and Finland have been able to order a McVegan, its own meatless burger.
The Impossible Whopper is made with the Impossible Burger patty, the flagship product of Silicon Valley-based Impossible Foods, which also supplies Red Robin and Qdoba with plant-based meat alternatives.
Impossible Foods in May announced that the likes of Jay-Z and Serena Williams have come aboard as investors in the company, which initially touted its plant-based burger as the “veggie burger that bleeds.”
The company claimed to have “cracked the molecular code for meat,” but to do so requires the use of heme — a molecule containing iron that makes meat blood red. Impossible Foods’ use of bioengineered soy leghemoglobin to mimic heme has been controversial at a time when GMOs (genetically modified organisms) are under suspicion.
Dirt Burger arrived at its own signature burger the old-fashioned way.
“We made some crappy burgers,” Pille joked.
The “dirt burger” was born more than a decade ago when Place and Pille were working together as chef and sous chef, respectively, at Proof in Des Moines.
Ninety percent of the Dirt Burger menu could be grown in Iowa, Pille said. Just not by him at this time.
“I don’t have any time to do anything right now except to be a restauranteur,” he confessed.
The ingredients of a Dirt Burger are listed on the menu board for all to see — parsley, raw beets, raw garlic, raw spinach, raw carrots, raw broccoli, gram beans, lentils, flax, raw chickpeas, kosher salt, organic spices, coconut aminos, nutritional yeast, raw sweet potato, soaked raw buckwheat, organic coconut and sunflower oil, and, finally, dried organic mushrooms.
“Everything works together,” Pille said, “to create this flavor.”
Basically, if a Dirt Burger one day surpasses the Big Mac in the national consciousness, they’re gonna need a longer jingle. “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun,” just won’t work.
The Original Dirt Burger is topped with ketchup, mustard, pickles, vegan cheddar, red onion, herb mayo and shredded lettuce on a brioche bun.
“You don’t have to choke it down,” he said. “I believe in my food.”
The kicker is that Pille isn’t a vegan, let alone even a vegetarian.
“My daughter’s favorite thing is fried chicken,” he said.
But a funny thing has happened ever since he started relying on Dirt Burger for his own meals.
“I actually feel better,” he said.