When people think of Wisconsin, cheese comes to mind before vegan delicacies. Restaurant collective Playing in the Plants is bringing exciting new plant-based outlets to Milwaukee. 

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On The Bus in the popular Milwaukee Public Market features sandwiches, vegan burgers, smoothies and perhaps Milwaukee’s best vegan ice cream. Sugar Cube Donuts is a pop-up that serves Milwaukeeans giant square-shaped vegan donuts. And the collective plans a couple more outlets coming soon to downtown Milwaukee: Treat, a sweet shop, and Make Waves, which will feature custom acai bowls. Inhabitat talked to Emily Ware, owner and founder of Playing in the Plants, to learn more about the Milwaukee vegan scene.

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A pink bakery stand with a woman wearing a red apron standing inside of it

Inhabitat: What does it mean to be a restaurant collective, and how did your collective start?

Ware: The idea of a restaurant collective grew very organically. As On The Bus began to expand its offerings on specific days, such as “Donut Day” or “Milkshake Day,” the notion to push those concepts even further into a whole new brands evolve. Our issue isn’t lack of ideas, rather narrowing them down into the best ones to pursue. 

Locally-owned small businesses and restaurants in particular face so many challenges. Our collective allows us to support our restaurants from the ground up. We’ve got many resources on hand, from a central kitchen space to employee talent, to marketing power and retail space. In essence, each restaurant has each other’s backs.

A bowl filled with chocolate syrup, almond, chia seeds and granola

Inhabitat: Who are the founders/movers/shakers behind Playing in the Plants?

Ware: I’m the owner and founder of Playing in the Plants. I’ve been vegetarian since age 12, vegan since 16. I have three children who have all been vegan from birth. At the time the opportunity to open On The Bus presented itself, Milwaukee was void of vegan restaurants. I took the chance to give Milwaukee a place to experience vegan takes on classic comfort foods. 

Paige Hammond is the director of marketing and events. Many of the over-the-top ideas you see come straight from her. She has a passion for small businesses succeeding and veganism. 

A hand holding a donut that is covered in edible mushroom creations

Inhabitat: Tell us about the outlets you have so far, and the ones that are going to open up.

Ware: On The Bus is located in the Milwaukee Public Market in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward. It opened in August 2017, serving sandwiches, burgers, açaí bowls, smoothies and our infamous house-made oat milk vegan ice cream milkshakes & scoops. The iconic counter is made from a 1971 VW Bus that was my first car. 

Sugar Cube Donuts is Milwaukee’s favorite donut pop up. It was founded in fall of 2020 and offers signature square-shaped, yeast-raised donuts in over-the-top flavors and decorations.

Make Waves will open in 2022 in the 3rd Street Market Hall, offering custom-made layered açaí bowls, fresh juices, smoothies, boba teas, breakfast items and healthy grab-and-go lunch options.

Treat is also opening in 2022 in the 3rd Street Market Hall. It will feature housemade oat milk soft serve milkshakes, donuts, freshly baked cookies and various other sweet treats.

A hand holding a smoothie bowl loaded with nuts, strawberries and banana slices against a blue background

Inhabitat: Please recommend a few favorite dishes or treats from each.

Ware: At On The Bus, try our homemade oat milk ice cream. Seasonal flavors rotate throughout the year. Our homemade seitan, a vegan protein made from vital wheat gluten, is excellent in many of our sandwiches. 

At Sugar Cube Donuts, our signature square donut flavors rotate weekly, but you can always grab a glazed. You can preorder a Sugar Box, which is four flavors, including one exclusive flavor only available by preorder.

Close up of a ice cream cookie sandwich with sprinkles covering the sides of it

Inhabitat: What are Playing in the Plants’ dreams for the future?

Ware: Our dreams are big. You’ll absolutely continue to see new pop-up concepts emerging and events centered around holidays. We’re looking to branch into a retail line of some of our most popular items, so keep your eyes open for that. As far as additional retail locations? I would say we’re open to the idea of continuing to expand at the right place, at the right time. We’re looking to be around for a long time. 

Two hands holding a sandwich loaded with meats and vegetables

Inhabitat: What is Milwaukee like for vegans?

Ware: In the past five years, Milwaukee’s vegan options have expanded dramatically. Outside of Milwaukee’s vegan restaurants, the general consensus of restaurants here has been increasing their offerings. It’s fairly easy for vegans to walk into just about any restaurant and not be restricted to just a salad off the menu.  

There’s a very active vegan community here. They’re supportive of restaurants and often of each other’s journey into vegan eating. There’s a lot of reasons people come to veganism, some for health, others for the environment or animal welfare. It’s great to have a community to rely upon for resources. 

Close up of an ice cream cone dripping chocolate and caramel syrup against a pink background

Inhabitat: Any special challenges for vegans in Milwaukee?

Ware: Cheese. It’s ingrained into the DNA of most Wisconsinites. Vegan cheese has made some forward progress, but still has a way to go. We’re working on some cheese concepts in our test kitchen which we hope will be convincing enough for the most discerning crowd. 

Inhabitat: What are some of your favorite places to go as a Milwaukee vegan, outside of your own collective?

Ware: Milwaukee has a great mix of small ethnic restaurants. Often these are the places you’ll find us… exploring new cuisines and often opening up a whole new array of vegan options. 

+ Playing in the Plants

Images via Playing in the Plants