Saturday, July 20, 2024

Do good, eat better: New vegan ghost kitchen focuses on healthy food, community support

Angie Barrell chops kale during prep for Stairway to Veggin’s second weekend open in Wilmington. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — Two new Wilmington restaurateurs are combining three loves into one in their latest venture. Vegan cooking, giving back to the community and Led Zeppelin all create the foundation of Stairway to Veggin’ (a play on words from the British rock band’s famed 1971 hit).

The ghost kitchen, owned and operated by Angie and Matt Barrell, opened two weeks ago off Castle Hayne Road. It operates in a 12-foot-by-30-foot space at CJ Commissary. 

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Ghost concepts are essentially commercial kitchens where small startups serve customers via online ordering only. There is no checkout window or dine-in seating. Instead, third-party deliveries are available or the food can be picked up; the Barrells carry it to the customer’s car.

“The cool thing is, in the shopping center our commissary kitchen is in is a bottle shop, so you can order food from us, pick it up, and go hang out in the bottle shop and get a drink with your meal,” Angie said.

During the first weekend of Stairway to Veggin’s opening, a local group of vegans hosted a “carrot mob.” Wilmington Vegan hordes area businesses, especially local restaurants, to help bump up sales during one day of operations. Angie said they hung out at The Tipsy Goat next door as their food was prepared and delivered.

“We weren’t overwhelmed, so it was perfect for us just being a two-person team for a great opening week,” she said. “And then we had the owner of Panacea order, so that was really cool to feel support from them too.”

The Barrells first launched Stairway to Veggin’ as a food truck in Durham in 2021, yet by last fall they wanted to change the break-neck pace of the business setup. The process was grueling: prep and store the food, load the truck, drive to a venue, serve  customers, break down the temporary kitchen, drive back to a commissary to unload everything, wash down all equipment, and wake up the next day to do it all over again. 

“People don’t understand the toll it can take on your body and the long hours,” Matt said.

The Barrells brought the truck to Wilmington for a few events at local breweries and in the Cargo District. Angie said the feedback they received was overwhelming.

“We felt a pull to the Wilmington area,” she said. “Each time we were here, we really felt so much love and support from the people here. We love the city and the beach.”

At the beginning of the year, they revised Stairway’s concept and decided to move closer to the coast to launch its new iteration. The five-item menu is priced $6 to $18, consisting of curry hand pies, banh mi bowls, fettuccine Alfredo, side items and even a kids meal.

“It’s high-quality, flavorful, unique food with a comfort feel, like your mom made it.” Angie described.

The Barrells are building connections locally with farmers and businesses, such as CraftGrown Market, where they source herbs, microgreens and lettuces. Early Thursday evening Angie was chopping kale and Matt peeling and sautéing sweet potatoes to go into the red Thai curry for the hand pies.

“It simmers all day,” Matt said. 

“I make the crust homemade, too,” Angie added. 

“She’s the cook, I’m basically her sous chef,” Matt added.

Red Thai curry is stuffed in hand pies, served over pineapple and cilantro slaw. (Courtesy photo)

The flaky dough round is stuffed with veggies and red curry served atop a pineapple and cilantro slaw, so heat is counteracted by acid and sweetness.

The Alfredo sauce in the pasta dish is dairy-free, made with substitute vegan “creams” and coconut milk.

The menu will change seasonally and the Barrells are excited to introduce new items, such as homemade focaccia and desserts like butter pecan cheesecake. They’re making their own vegan-based “cheese” from cashews, also to be served on a charcuterie board special — for singles and couples — coming up for Valentine’s Day. 

Included is vegan pepperoni, made from tofu that is covered in 12 to 15 spices. Angie adds in fat, along with different nutritional elements, before slow-roasting it in the oven.

“You wouldn’t think it’s as good as it is,” she said.

While vegan food is the main focus of Stairway to Veggin’, it has an offshoot initiative, Eat Good, Do Good. The Barrells donate a portion of proceeds monthly to different organizations and sanctuaries that create positive change in communities. 

They also promote organizations through Stairway’s social media platforms to create awareness. 

Stairway to Veggin’ has donated more than $4,000 since last April primarily to agencies in the Triangle area, from LGBTQ centers to women’s centers, homeless shelters to farm animal sanctuaries.

In 2020 the Barrells decided to leave their home in Pennsylvania and their jobs in finance to pursue this different passion.

The restaurant industry wasn’t necessarily a place they saw themselves as college students. Angie originally was pre-med and worked as an EMT before she realized the fast-pace and stress wasn’t something she desired. She met Matt, a music major, who worked for Vanguard, before moving on to a different company. 

“We were in corporate America and unfulfilled,” Angie said. “People thought we were crazy when we left our jobs. Our parents were like, ‘You’re doing what?’”

Upon moving to Durham, they first launched a franchise food truck. At the end of the day, they began questioning whether the move was right — essentially, they still were working for someone else.

“It was a lot of time for another person’s passion, really — someone else’s ideas — and we couldn’t create our own recipes,” Angie said.

Branching off on their own allowed them to fulfill a philanthropic desire for Do Good. The first organization they’ll be working with locally is Blueberry Lane Farm Animal Sanctuary, which provides housing and veterinary care for farm animals. A portion of February’s sales will go to the Castle Hayne sanctuary.

“We believe in supporting those who are really making a difference in the world — and we want to show our support,” Angie said.

Currently, Stairway to Veggin’ is open weekends, Friday through Sunday, for lunch and dinner. Orders can be placed here.

Matt Barrell sautés sweet potatoes for Stairway to Veggin’s second weekend open in Wilmington. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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