Trio Plant-based turns court fight into comfort food

The restaurant Trio Plant-based opens in September at 610 W. Lake St., serving vegan comfort food like bbq chikken wings and baked mac n cheeze. Pictured are co-founders Dan Woodcock, Sarah Woodcock and Louis Hunter (l to r)

On the night that sent her on a new career path, Sarah Woodcock was tired and really wanted to stay home on the couch. It was the spring of 2017, and a local house party was sharing the story of Louis Hunter, who faced felony riot charges for an Interstate 94 protest that Sarah and her husband Dan had also attended. Thinking about Hunter, she reconsidered.

“I’m sure he doesn’t want to be in this situation right now either,” she remembers thinking at the time. “If I can learn his story, I should.”

Hunter explained that he participated in the protest that stopped traffic on July 6, 2016 after an officer shot and killed Philando Castile. A 911 caller accused people of throwing Molotov cocktails at police from a black SUV. Police arrested Hunter the next day, driving the same car and wearing pants with a green “marking” dye that officers shot at people believed to be throwing objects at police. Hunter faced two counts of felony riot in the second degree, and he flatly denied throwing anything at police. As Hunter talked, Sarah said she knew he was innocent.

“I was blown away,” said Hunter. “People were really trying to come up with a strategy for trying to get me off of a case. They don’t have to be here.”

By this time, Hunter had been fighting his case for a year. Activists had noticed he was the only person charged with a felony, and they felt the possibility of 10 years in prison was a tragic injustice for a grieving man. They packed courtrooms, signed petitions, held rallies and fundraisers, sketched Hunter’s portrait on posters, mailed hundreds of postcards, spread the word at Rock the Garden, and organized call-in campaigns with signups to ensure the phones at the Carver County Attorney’s Office rang every 20 minutes.

The Attorney’s Office met with officers and reviewed 60 hours of video and more than 100 police reports. The office didn’t find evidence that Hunter had thrown objects or held a weapon. Police provided inconsistent suspect descriptions, according to the office, and police said they occasionally missed when trying to mark people with dye. The prosecutor didn’t have enough evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt and dismissed the charges.

When Hunter’s lawyer called and said the charges were dismissed, Hunter asked if he was playing. Reality sunk in when he was assured he could post the news on Facebook. Hunter called his pastor and cried with him for five minutes, and then he told Sarah.

“Sarah didn’t let her feet off the pedal,” Hunter said. “There were so many things she did to get my case dismissed.”

Activists threw a party at People’s Park in St. Paul, with speakers and music and activist Chauntyll Allen running the grill.

Though never convicted, Hunter said the charges impacted his life. After he got out of jail, he said, someone slid a piece of paper under his door in St. Louis Park, notifying him that he needed to move out within a few days.

“They wouldn’t tell me why,” he said.

He found a new apartment in Stevens Square, but the place needed work and his daughters preferred their old neighborhood parks.

Hunter continued meeting periodically with Sarah. At one point, he floated the idea of opening a food truck during the Super Bowl.

“What do you think about a vegan food truck?” Sarah asked.

Sarah has a background in vegan advocacy work, and they had been sampling vegan foods around town. But the recipes Hunter liked best were the ones Sarah cooked at home: quesadillas, mac n cheeze and lasagna. They even had a name for their food truck — Vroom Vroom Vegan — until a business advisor at the Northside Economic Opportunity Network suggested they think about a brick-and-mortar restaurant instead.

“It’s a lot of work, but it’s effortless in its own way,” Sarah said.

A Kickstarter campaign raised more than $62,000 from 600 backers, surpassing a $50,000 goal.

Trio 6

They tested recipes at pop-up events at Kindred Kitchen.

“Each one sold out,” Hunter said.

“Our specialty is delicious vegan comfort food,” Sarah said.

They’ve served traditional vegan fare like chickpea salad, along with vegan cheezeburgers, fries, root beer floats and homemade lasagna with scratch sauce. A soul food pop-up featured smoky house ribs from The Herbivorous Butcher. Multiple people requested extra mac n cheeze to-go.

“I spent six years perfecting that recipe,” Sarah said.

She recently left a job as technical project manager to focus on Trio, and Dan will work at Trio part-time. Hunter is pausing his landscaping business to work at the restaurant full-time.

They’re redesigning the Lake Street space at 610 W. Lake St. formerly home to The Gray House, Prairie Dogs and Emperor of India with a focus on simplicity.

“We want everyone to feel comfortable here, no matter what their background is,” Sarah said. “We have such a diverse group of customers.”

Customers will have the option to purchase a meal for someone in need in the community. The idea came from J. Selby’s in St. Paul, which has a similar program where patrons can buy a $5 community bowl token to “pay it forward.”

“I love that, that’s totally us,” Sarah said.

Trio will offer dinner to start, adding lunch on the weekends and later expanding to breakfast. They plan to add beer and wine sales as well, eventually serving three meals, seven days a week.

The grand opening will span two weeks so that all supporters have a chance to stop by, including viral video star Tabitha Brown and other crucial supporters like Nekima Levy Armstrong, J. Selby’s, The Herbivorous Butcher and Crepe & Spoon.

“We all want each other to succeed,” Sarah said.

Hunter said he’s glad to start a career in the business of feeding people. He thinks about growing up and sharing meals as a family, laughing and eating until they are full.

“I want to make some people smile,” he said.

For more information, visit Trio Plant-based.