Sookie’s Veggie Burgers seeks to save the environment, one burger at a time

By Anupras Mohapatra

State Street boasts a wide variety of culinary choices, with chain restaurants and local eateries tussling for turf at the heart of Madison. Despite the thriving food ecosystem, State Street lacked a vegan presence, until Sookie’s Veggie Burgers came along.

Sookie’s Veggie Burgers is located at 502 State Street. The restaurant opened in March 2022, and it has been welcomed by vegans and vegetarians in the area. 

“What I like about Sookie’s is that it’s all plant-based. So, I’ve been vegetarian for seven years, and it’s nice to be able to go in somewhere and just be able to order anything off the menu,” Madison Rhodes, a regular at Sookie’s, said. 

Sookie’s — named after owner John McCune’s girlfriend’s family dog — was born as a food trailer in Milwaukee that initially operated partially in Milwaukee and partially in Madison. According to McCune, Sookie’s was born out of his desire to save the environment. 

“The main goal behind me starting this business is to do something that’s good for the planet. That’s kind of the reason why we’re here,” McCune said. “Plant-based food is more sustainable and it takes less energy to grow plants than it does to raise livestock, and it does better for the ecosystem and sequesters more carbon and all that good stuff. So that’s the impetus behind why we did plant-based food.”

Besides providing sustainable, plant-based food to customers, Sookie’s also aims to reduce pollution through the use of compostable packaging for meals. 

“We don’t use any single-use plastics in our to-go containers. Nothing that we’re giving out to customers is plastic. That’s to reduce pollution,” McCune said. “We want to be part of the solution. So that’s why we’re here. We’re doing this for the planet. It’s not a moneymaking grab. I’ll say that I’d go into finance or do accounting or something if I was trying to make much money.”

Choosing Madison as the location for a brick-and-mortar restaurant was a sensible move for McCune, considering his connections to the area.

“My girlfriend is going to law school here, so we were always planning to move out this direction. I’m from Stoughton originally, which is like [the] Madison area, and I thought it was a good centralized market for vegan eats,” McCune said. 

The COVID-19 pandemic slowed Sookie’s journey to a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Madison.

“2020 was supposed to be our big coming out year for the food trailer, but then, you know what happened in 2020, and so that didn’t really pan out, but we kept doing it on the side at events where we could, and then brought it to Madison,” McCune said. “We did a couple events here, and then finally landed a spot in a restaurant, which was our ultimate goal kind of the whole time.”

Now, Sookie’s has made it to Madison, and the restaurant caters to a wide variety of clientele. Being located in close proximity to the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus means that the restaurant attracts lots of college students, and being located close to the Capitol means many families also visit. This means the restaurant occupies a niche in the market, best reflected by the unique interior of the restaurant.

  • Paintings, earrings, stickers and a mural made by Esperanza Tyson add to the dynamism and colorful environment of the restaurant

Photos all taken by Anupras Mohapatra.

Sookie’s manager and creative director Esperanza “Espi” Tyson is the artist behind the restaurant’s unique interior, which consists of colorful, vibrant artwork and a mural that adorns the walls. Tyson was a part of Sookie’s staff before the restaurant opened, working on the restaurant’s interior design. 

“So, I did the mural and all the tables and the counters. That’s what I started working on in January, and then, once we opened, there is less art stuff to do, but we try to keep it growing and getting more bright and colorful every day,” Tyson said. 

Tyson has a side business as an artist, and she has worked on projects outside of Sookie’s in 2022.

“I was featured as the Madison Night Market’s featured artist and did their flyers, so that, kind of, was a catalyst to get doing more art out in the world and stuff, instead of just here at Sookie’s,” Tyson said.

Tyson’s artistic instincts led to the birth of a unique Sookie’s tradition: doodles on the paper bags that the food came in. When given a marker and paper bags, Tyson could not help but draw flowers and smiley faces on them. This practice spread among the rest of the staff like wildfire.

“Not everyone who works here draws something, but pretty much everybody has a signature thing that they’ll draw. Some people do an exclamation point or a smiley face, but most people will draw something fun on the bag,” Tyson said. “I just kind of feel like most people could benefit from a cute little doodle unexpectedly with their food.”

Doodles are a prominent part of the restaurant decor too. In fact, customer doodles can be found on a metal pipe that runs through the restaurant, a sign that customers are part of a greater Sookie’s community. 

“I think that we have created a space that feels inviting to creative people,” Tyson said. “You can see a lot of customers have contributed to the viable space with their drawings as well. We keep adding people’s doodled placemats up there on the big metal thing because the people who enjoy the space should get to participate in making it fun and bright too.”

A headshot featuring a spiral drawn on Tyson’s face. Spirals are part of her art style. Photo courtesy of Esperanza “Espi” Tyson. 

The Madison Sookie’s location is not even a year old, but they have lofty aspirations for the future. 

“We’re always looking at getting another location. The dream right now is to get a drive-through location. That would be pretty sweet, but, you know, one step at a time,” McCune said. “The dream is to get really big and serve a bunch of vegan food to a bunch of people and have it taste good, have people appreciate it and reduce a bunch of the waste that’s going on in current fast food.”