No one really loves a meat analog. For too long, soy or gluten options were a crutch for vegetarian and vegan cooking: a shortcut to umami, chewy texture and protein. In recent years, though, cooks have been moving away from seitan and toward plant and whole grain solutions. A veggie burger is more likely to be made of roasted beets than soy these days, and that’s been a boon for both flavor and those seeking out gluten-free, soy-free options.
While everyone else had been focused on those meatless burgers, though, Marina Benedetto went to work on the hot dog—an item that was once as guilty and unhealthy a pleasure in its vegan form as it is for carnivores. Since 2014, they’ve been making Yeah Dawgs in Sunset Park, Brooklyn’s Industry City at Hana Kitchen, where roasted root vegetables, sunflower seeds, gluten-free flour and a selection of herbs and spices are blended together before being formed into the frozen dogs you can buy at shops like Haymaker’s Corner Store (Williamsburg), Riverdel (Prospect Heights) and Perelandra (Brooklyn Heights).
“I wanted to own my own business, and a challenge for me is to re-create comfort foods and foods that I miss,” says Benedetto, who became a vegetarian at the young age of 12. After working at a homeless youth drop-in center for five years, they were feeling burnt out, and getting into the kitchen made sense after spending their whole career in restaurants; even at the youth center, they’d spent three years doing nutritional counseling and cooking. It was great practice for getting people who would never think of quitting meat to be more open to plant-based possibilities. The fact that New York City had no locally made vegan hot dogs opened up the perfect opportunity, and Yeah Dawg began its life as a pop-up.
That’s how most people are introduced to the dogs, usually at the monthly Vegan Shop-Up event. At each pop-up, Benedetto serves them with a variety of homemade toppings. You can order the Cali Kush, with kale Caesar salad, avocado, coconut bacon and chipotle mayo, or the Marley, overflowing with ruby red kraut, pineapple pickle and relish.
If you want to try a dog any day of the week, Toad Style in Bed-Stuy features them on the regular menu. The dogs are the only item, aside from bread, that the restaurant doesn’t make in-house. “Originally, we’d planned on making them ourselves—but then we saw Yeah Dawg, and they were soy-free, gluten-free and had already figured them out perfectly,” says co-owner Jillian Camera. “They solved all the problems of vegan hot dogs while still being fun.” The menu item is called the Casino Dog, served just like in New Jersey—the original home of both Benedetto and Toad Style’s founders—with sautéed peppers, onions, garlic, potatoes, mustard and aïoli. It’s the most common order for kids at the restaurant, getting them to eat beets, chickpea flour and other ingredients they might otherwise scrunch up their noses at.
Even though Benedetto’s receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback, growing a small food business is never easy. They’re looking for funding to expand Yeah Dawg’s retail reach—you can’t get into big stores without a team who can conduct demos, and right now every penny they make is going right back into the business. “When you’re a new product, especially one at a higher price point because they’re so homemade, you want to have a demo team behind it, pushing it every week,” they say. Right now, there are only two people on the team.
But those challenges will probably be overcome. “Yeah Dawg has such a following,” says Camera. People have spent hundreds of dollars just to have the Casino Dogs delivered to the Upper West Side. As I sat down at Toad Style to eat one for lunch, I heard the cashier take an order for a bánh mì with one of their hot dogs instead of mushrooms. They might need more marketing money, but for now, the dogs are speaking for themselves.