Growing up in the age of internet anxiety, there was an intense, irrational fear of the unknown lurking in the depths of the Worldwide Web. I vividly remember stern warnings from teachers when we first climbed into chairs in the computer lab, the information superhighway at our fingertips. We were coached from day one to guard our privacy ferociously; never give out your real name, your phone number or, god forbid, you address, under threat of death or torture.
Now here we are in 2021, meeting up with strangers and buying vegan sushi off of Instagram. What a wild trip it’s been.
Despite that sketchy introduction, Rice Above is a fledgling food purveyor with low-key sales tactics but high-quality rolls. The moment I laid eyes on those brilliantly colored, boldly creative maki, I was hooked. Menus drop at random, and the only way to get in on the action is to watch @riceaboveATX on Instagram. Forget about the standard fusion fare; these are more than mere vegetable rolls. Meatless orange chicken, or watermelon tuna with cream cheese, or fish-free eel are just the beginning. As soon as I saw my opening, I had to place an order, of course, but I also had to know more. Luckily, times have changed since my earliest online interactions, and everything is easily accessible with just a few clicks of the mouse.
I reached out to chef Shane Michael, the man behind the business, to get the inside scoop on above board but below the radar sushi deals.
Hannah Kaminsky: Why/how did you get started in the first place?
Shane Michael: Well, when covid became a scary reality, I took a step back and left work to stay home and keep my family as safe and isolated as possible. When it first really hit us all… everyone was kind of at a loss for how to navigate the new territory. So many businesses closed and options for vegan food slowly began to dwindle. In the beginning, MANY of the normal spots here were closed. So, I really wanted to put an option out there for anyone stuck at home. I did contact-free delivery to help make it easier for anyone that was home bound and hungry. Since then, it’s been an up and up.
HK: Before launching Rice Above, did you have a background with sushi, or cooking in general?
SM: So, the only sushi background I had was just in making it as a hobby to eat at home. I started out rough haha then slowly caught the hang of it. Then really started branching out with what was possible or fun to do.
HK: What inspires the flavors for your rolls?
SM: I really wanted to focus on what wasn’t being represented for vegans, here. I don’t care about an avocado roll.. I don’t care about an AAC roll. These have always felt like cop out rolls on regular sushi menus meant to have a veg option. I wanted to make sushi that didn’t feel like someone was settling for a vegan option. What rolls can be veganized? Then, I just thought of what flavors go well with other flavor profiles. Blueberry + habanero, mango + spam, apples + oranges. It’s been most fun trying to match flavors that aren’t typically an option.
Zero Roll – Gluten Free Sweet Teriyaki Chick’n, Sautéed Cashews, VVhite Sauce, Crumbled Cashews, Eel Drizzle
HK: Is this your side hustle or full-time gig? What else do you do when you’re not rolling?
SM: For the majority of covid it has kept us afloat. But, ultimately, it is a side gig until I can really push forward and make it full time. At the moment I also work at a vegan food truck, down south. RVK!
HK: Does anyone else help you in the kitchen, or are you rolling solo?
SM: It really has just been me. I have had help with deliveries when needed. But, even that is something I’d like to figure out a permanent process for. It’s fun but it’s also a lot of work. It has to be a labor of love haha otherwise I’d lose my mind trying to keep up.
HK: What has been your biggest challenge thus far?
SM: I’d have to say… trying to organize the entire process. Keeping up with demand. Keeping options rotating to hold interest. Some weeks are absolutely insane. Prepping the right amount to fulfill all the rolls that are pre-ordered. Every week is just so different with how many customers are ordering however many rolls.
ShEELa Roll – Avocado, Cucumber, Wrapped in Vegan Glazed Unagi, VVhite Sauce, Eel Drizzle
HK: Have you faced any unique issues you weren’t expecting, in regards to operating in the middle of a pandemic?
SM: The pandemic propelled it. And Austin is incredible with its support of local vegan business. Our community is unlike any other. I think the pandemic actually forced a simpler process. No contact. So pickups are contact-free. Deliveries are on the door step. Masks. Masks. Masks.
HK: Any plans to expand? Regular pop-ups, food truck, brick and mortar, or something else?
SM: The ultimate goal is to have a food truck location. That’s on the agenda for next year. Fingers crossed. Until then… consistent weekly drops. Pop ups. And hopefully some branching out to other cities in Texas.
Appels & Oranjes Roll – Gluten Free Orange Chick’n, Pickled Carrot, Pickled Honeycrisp Apple, Fresh Orange Segments, Homemade Orange Sauce, Sesame Seeds
HK: How can people best support you right now? Aside from ordering, of course.
SM: Oh man. Any advice on this kind of stuff would be greatly appreciated. Something I think that helps massively and is often overlooked… is sharing on social media. The more photos posted in stories or on Facebook always brings more followers… which always brings more orders. It may not seem like something so simple could be so beneficial, but it’s one of the biggest helps for boosting the radar.
Also, some shout-outs to the best teammates in our local vegan community.
and of course @bittersweet__