In Dining

Toppers has a new vegan menu. And this Milwaukee chef is behind it. (PHOTO: Melanie Manuel)

Melanie Manuel of Celesta is the woman behind Toppers Pizza's new vegan pies

Take a look at the list of core values on the Toppers Pizza website and you'll see a key phrase: "Give customers what they want."

And – with their eyes on the growing demand for plant-based options – the Wisconsin-based pizza chain is poised to do exactly that, with a brand new vegan menu that's scheduled to debut in Madison stores beginning July 20, with a full national roll-out in October.

The new plant-based offerings will include new toppings choices for build-your-own pizzas and Topperstix (including dairy-free mozzarella and plant-based crispy chicken) along with two new sauces: dairy-free ranch and Korean BBQ.

Toppers will also debut three new vegan pizzas, including:

  • The Vegan Buffalo Chicken-less Topper: mild buffalo sauce, dairy-free mozzarella, plant-based crispy chicken, green onions and dairy-free ranch
  • The Vegan Korean BBQ Chicken-less Topper: Korean BBQ sauce, dairy-free mozzarella, plant-based crispy chicken, onions and green peppers
  • The Vegan Tuscano Topper: House-made pizza sauce, dairy-free mozzarella, garlic-roasted tomatoes, green olives and spinach

Vegan pies designed in Milwaukee

The creation of the new menu was made possible thanks to a partnership with Milwaukee's own Melanie Manuel, vegan chef and owner of Celesta, 1978 N. Farwell Ave., who assisted the brand with recipe development and testing.

"Normalizing vegan food and making it available – and accessible – to everyone has always been among my goals for Celesta," says Manuel. "I try to make Celesta feel very inviting and accessible to everyone. And it's always been important to me to show people that they can still enjoy just about any type of food while adhering to a vegan lifestyle."

Manuel has done just that using a menu of dishes that range from comfort food favorites like fried chicken and macaroni and cheese to globally inspired dishes like housemade spinach pie, Peruvian lomo saltado (with seitan steak) and Wisconsin classics like a Friday night fishless fish fry.

It was, in fact, her approach to vegan fare that drew Toppers' interest in approaching her about a partnership.

"We knew we wanted to create a vegan menu, and we were drawn to Melanie's love of creating house-made, soulful vegan dishes inspired by classic, familiar recipes," says Mac Malchow, director of national marketing and menu innovation for Toppers Pizza. "The partnership was a natural fit."

Manuel says research and development took place over the course of a few months, with initial recipe testing taking place in the kitchen at the East Side Toppers Pizza location, just minutes from her own restaurant.

The goal, she says, was to create numerous new plant-based pizza options that not only tasted great, but which would appeal to a broad range of diners.

"We spent a lot of time testing out plant-based products," says Manuel, noting that finding a vegan cheese that held up to the high temperatures of the Toppers' pizza ovens was among the biggest challenges. "It was really important to me to find something that even meat eaters would enjoy."

Among the three pizzas, she says the Tuscano – which she says she created to capture the fresh, vibrant flavors of the Mediterranean – quickly became her personal favorite.

And it's a pizza Toppers hopes will resonate with customers as well.

"At Toppers, we've always focused on giving our customers what they want," adds Malchow, "And this partnership shows that we are listening to changing consumer preferences and finding a way to meet them while staying true to the bold flavors that make Toppers special."

Watch for Toppers Pizza's new vegan menu in stores nationwide beginning this October.

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