State Street got its first purely vegan restaurant Wednesday when John McCune opened the fast-casual Sookie’s Veggie Burgers in what had been Koi Sushi, 502 State St.
McCune, 25, a former vegan, now vegetarian, who grew up in Stoughton, sold his vegan sandwiches at East Side Madison festivals last year from Sookie’s food trailer, which he sold in January.
He and his partner, Elle Borden, started Sookie’s in 2019 after they graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and won a business-startup competition through the business school.
Early in the pandemic, they set up across from Milwaukee’s Discovery World and had customers order through a phone app without leaving their vehicles.
The couple moved to Madison from Milwaukee so Borden could go to UW-Madison Law School.
The trailer’s two burgers, the sweet potato pecan and the black bean walnut, are no more. “We just wanted to go nut-free in a big way,” McCune said, adding that the idea was to make his food more accessible.
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Customers can order sandwiches on a regular bun or opt for a gluten-free bun or a lettuce wrap for the same reason, he said.
The restaurant has six sandwich options: an Impossible burger, vegan chicken sandwich, portabella mushroom burger, sweet heat beet burger, chipotle black bean and black bean quinoa burger.
Sookie’s uses vegan cheeses and vegan mayo.
The restaurant sells guacamole and chips, and fries and sweet potato fries that are made in commercial air fryers instead of deep fryers to lessen the amount of oil and make them a bit healthier, McCune said. Air fryers also lead to a cleaner working environment, he noted.
McCune said he and his creative director, Esperanza Tyson, have “classed” up the space with 60 to 70 plants. “So, we are plant-based to the extreme,” he said. Tyson is also responsible for the wavy rainbow mural on the wall.
Madison lacked many vegetarian and vegan choices, particularly on State Street and near the UW-Madison campus, McCune said. “Typically, restaurants, if they have plant-based options, will only have one or two things.”
In an attempt to be as sustainable as possible, McCune said he’s using only biodegradable packaging. “That’s really important to us because the whole reason we’re providing plant-based options is because it is better for the planet as a whole.”
McCune said when he and Borden were coming up with a name for the trailer, he suggested his last name, but Borden said, ” ‘that’s such a guy thing to do, (giving it) your own name’. So, we ended up naming it after her family’s dog instead.”
And the dog was named after Sookie Stackhouse of The Southern Vampire Mysteries book series, he said.
Sookie’s is taking up part of the space that was Koi Sushi. The building’s landlord divided the former restaurant into two spaces.
The separate, smaller one, Diamond’s Café, has an entrance on Gilman Street.
Sookie’s is open from noon until 8 p.m. daily.
“We don’t want people to have to compromise when they’re choosing what to eat and what to consume,” McCune said. “We want to provide clean alternatives to some of the other stuff that’s out there.”
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