“I’m a low-brow vegan,” says Kim Hoedeman with a laugh. The Dutch immigrant still speaks with that endearing and unmistakable Netherlands lilt, despite more than 10 years in the States. She is the owner of Kingston’s newest eatery: the Secret Vegan Cafe, located in the Rondout District. “I call this a naughty treat for vegans,” Hoedeman says, referring to the menu of indulgences like cheeseburgers, pancakes, and breakfast sandwiches, “and hopefully a surprise and a delight for non-vegans.”
Plant-based foods have a stuffy, bland reputation, which Hoedeman has been seeking to upend ever since she and her husband Jeff Semones went vegan in 2017. “We’d go to a bar or restaurant, and all you could order was chicken wings or deep-fried mozzarella sticks,” she recalls. “It was incredibly hard to find anything vegan.” Hoedeman wasn’t being precious about it—she was still at a bar and still wanted to be eating bar food, but what? “I felt there should be an option,” she says.
In the Netherlands, bitterballen are classic late-night drunk eats. Breaded and fried, these creamy croquettes are classically made with beef, stock, and roux and are mildly addictive. (The Dutch reportedly eat over 300 million of these tasty nuggets a year.) So Hoedeman set out to create a mushroom-based version to fill the vacuum in vegan bar bites. It took over two years to perfect the recipe, then in 2019, Hoedeman launched Vegan Junk Food, to bring these environmentally friendly, plant-based snacks to bars, restaurants, and caterers in New York City.
If Hoedeman’s track record is anything to go by, vegan bar bites may well be the next big thing. She seems to have a knack for predicting the market (and for naming businesses). In 2012, she co-founded a start-up in New Orleans called Benevolent Enabler, which provided financial software to nonprofits that allowed them to collect donations and data without fees. It was early days for platforms like Stripe and Square, pre-regulation, and charitable organizations were taking a huge ding with every transfer they received.
Though the technology was eventually made obsolete by the release of services like Apple Pay, Benevolent Enabler was able to help some 360-odd charitable organizations in New Orleans—Hoedeman’s first foray into the social impact realm. To the extent that she is living her values of sustainability and veganism, she is still in that space today.
In the ’20s and ’30s, the building at 38 McEntee Street housed an ice cream parlor/candy shop. More recently, it was Margie’s Beauty Salon for 20 years before sitting empty for nearly a decade. However, when Hoedeman and Semones saw it listed in 2019, it was being billed as a residential property. Just before the pandemic hit, they made an offer conditional on the building being rezoned mixed-use. The owner filed to revert the building back to its previous zoning as mixed commercial/residential, and they closed in July 2020.
“This storefront had history,” Hoedeman says. “It’s just such a great, eye-catching corner. It deserved upgrading and love. It would’ve been such a waste for it to be residential.” In the three weeks since Secret Vegan opened, there has been a steady stream of neighbors wandering in for a coffee and a breakfast sandwich, glad to have something back in that spot. “I didn’t know whether three vegans would walk through the door or what,” Hoedeman says. “Maybe there would be no vegans here at all, or maybe people would rebel. Really, there was absolutely no way of knowing—no data set. So I said, ‘You know what? We’re just going to open the doors.’”
A striped awning and a couple of bistro tables with checkered oilcloths announce the cafe from the curb. Inside, a tree of life design from the couple’s friend John Sherman of Flavor Paper adorns one entire wall. The menu, on a clean white letterboard in the corner, is short and sweet. In mid-October it offered: pancakes (3 for $6), breakfast sandwich ($7), yogurt parfait ($4), burger and cheeseburger ($11 and 12), nuggets ($6), mushroom nuggets ($8), daily salad ($11), fries ($4), and a kid’s jolly meal ($8). There is also drip coffee and espresso drinks, with the option to add (flavorless but nutritious) mushroom probiotic from House of Waris Botanicals. Have a sweet tooth? Hoedeman also dishes up gluten-free apple pie by the slice and whole, as well as beignets—a nod to both New Orleans and olie bollen, another late-night Dutch favorite.
Aside from the breakfast options, the whole menu is subject to change. In the future, Hoedeman imagines options like a Thai green curry, bangers and mash, and pita wraps with meatless chicken and lamb.
“The idea was really to be the Dutch version of a snack bar...with style. A Dutch vegan snack bar with style,” Hoedeman says. Aside from the own-brand mushroom nuggets, which sell out pretty much as fast as she can make them, Hoedeman is buying in the other plant-based proteins and ingredients. The patties for the breakfast sandwiches and burgers are made using ground Beyond Meat and different house-made bouillons for an infusion of flavor. The vegan and gluten-free pancakes are made using Coconut Whisk mix. For cheeses, Hoedeman sources a mix of brands including Violife, Esti, and Daiya.
“We are very conscious of our ingredients,” Hoedeman says. “We try to stay away from soy products as much as possible. Nothing is GMO in here. The majority of the fresh produce is organic. Sometimes, instead of a spring mix, the cheeseburger comes with spinach or cabbage or kimchi. The pancakes are served with fresh fruits and honey. We’re trying for the detail to be the part that delivers the magic.”
Once Hoedeman has a handle on the cafe operations, the plan is to ramp up production of the mushroom croquettes in time for the Super Bowl in February to start delivering to local restaurants and bars. “We consider the mushroom our hero,” Hoedeman says. “It is still very underutilized. We are only on the cusp of what mushrooms can do in terms of versatility. Like hemp being used for building materials, fabric, hempcrete, all the CBD extracts—I think the mushroom is going to compete with that. We’re at the beginning of a massive shift.”
By next summer, Hoedeman hopes to have the back garden open, with a pizza oven turning out vegan pies and a bocce ball court. In the meantime, she’ll keep slinging those killer breakfast sandwiches and getting to know her neighbors.
Secret Vegan Cafe is open Wednesday through Friday, 6am-6pm; Saturday 7am-6pm, and Sunday 7am-5pm.
Secret Vegan Cafe
38 McEntee St, Kingston, NY 12401