By Katherine Price, Sustainability Editor, H&C News: How to build a durable plant-based restaurant.
Veganism has dominated the headlines this month due to the increasing popularity of Veganuary, which encourages people to try going vegan for the month of January.
More vegetarian and vegan restaurant brands have opened across the UK in recent years than ever before – some of which were short-lived, for a variety of reasons. Pret, for instance, recently made the decision to close or convert the majority of its Veggie Pret stores six years after launching the concept.
There are many factors currently affecting restaurants in the UK that are outside of operators’ control meaning many businesses are in survival mode. And given that non-meat-eating populations in the UK are a minority (YouGov estimates around 2%-3% of the population are vegan and about 5%-7% are vegetarian), is it possible to build a vegetarian or vegan restaurant for the long-term, despite its potentially narrower customer base?
In fact, there are plenty of vegetarian and vegan restaurants across the UK which have been operating for years, some of which opened well before vegetarianism and veganism really became mainstream, and all with very different approaches.
“You’ve got to build your bricks on a solid foundation, don’t run before you can walk – especially now,” says Michael Daniel, who established the Gate group of vegetarian restaurants in London with his brother Adrian, the first of which opened in Hammersmith in 1989.
“Right now, everybody’s got to be very careful, you’ve got to know your niche is going to work for the market.
Living in a society where non-plant-based food is the norm, there’s always a challenge to convince people why they should eat your food,” he adds.
The restaurant was founded on the principle of “quietly and confidently promoting healthy eating” and recreating the flavours from his childhood – his Indo-Iraqi heritage means the food he grew up eating had Arabic, Indian and Jewish influences. The group now has three sites across London and Daniel estimates that there is a 50:50 split between meat-eaters and non-meat-eating customers.
“I guess for a lot of people we’re something different,” he says, pointing out that while committed vegetarians and vegans may be a smaller market, there are plenty of people who just want to reduce their meat intake or simply try something different.
“I would just view it as another cuisine or culinary experience,” agrees Luke Harding, owner of the Waiting Room vegetarian restaurant in Eaglescliffe, County Durham.
While Harding estimates that 30%-40% of his guests are committed vegetarians or vegans; Jay Shukla, owner of Sanskruti restaurants which serve Indian vegan and vegetarian food, estimates that approximately 70% of his customers are non-meat-eaters.
A niche but growing market
It may be a niche market, but it’s a growing market – according to YouGov, 63% of vegans converted only in the last five years and 46% of vegetarians.
“The vegan market is growing so fast,” says Cleo Charalabopoulos, head of marketing and events at Farmacy in London’s Notting Hill, where everything on the menu is plant-based and free from dairy and refined sugars.
“There are a lot of people who come in that are more health-conscious, others who are not vegan but want to try vegan food, or even for religious reasons – there’s quite a massive pool of people now than before who are interested in plant-based diets.
“We’re marketing to all these different pockets and segments that weren’t there before. It’s quite interesting and actually quite fun.”
Daniel agrees that the Gate’s customer profile is changing and becoming “more mainstream”, although the restaurants are still struggling to return to pre-pandemic levels of trade with customers not eating out as often.
Mildreds in London’s Soho was founded in 1988 by Jane Muir and Diane Thomas with the aim of serving good value, internationally influenced vegetarian food with a ‘non-preachy’ approach. Over the last decade or so, the brand has expanded to five restaurants across London as well as new concept, Mallow, in Borough Market, which opened in 2021, expansion which was motivated by the significant growth in demand for plant-based food.
“It’s exciting, it’s a market that’s growing, there’s a huge amount of people becoming flexitarians or part-time and full-time vegans, and doing it for multitude of reasons,” says managing director Sam Anstey.
“Now is the time for us. It’s the most exciting space to be in right now. I can’t think of a better item to be selling at the moment.”
Interestingly, Anstey says the guest profile for Mildreds has been less clear than businesses he’s worked for previously.
“You don’t see the same age group, gender or person, you see a real mix of ages, peoples and races. You’ve got kosher Jewish people of all ages that would prefer to eat in a non-meat establishment, your local Camden clientele that are flexitarian, and die-hard vegans.”
He believes most of Mildreds’ guests are ‘flexitarian’ – people who eat meat but are looking to reduce their consumption.
Harding is also seeing the emergence of a new, younger customer profile at the Waiting Room and fewer challenges to operating a specifically meat-free restaurant.
“It was probably regarded as being very niche and ‘alternative’, and in a lot of people’s minds the expectation might have been a politically driven sacrifice rather than a beautiful culinary experience,” he explains.
“We’re not necessarily catering to a smaller population. Everyone eats vegetables, but a lot of non-vegetarian people might rule out the idea of attending a vegetarian restaurant, imagining that they wouldn’t be satisfied.”
He credits the restaurant’s long-standing reputation with helping to combat this misconception. The restaurant has been running since 1985 and in recent years has expanded to neighbouring buildings to add a cocktail bar, vegetarian takeaway, and an organic bakery to its offering.
Several restaurants I spoke to have had to combat other misconceptions about vegetarian and vegan food – for example, that plant-based dishes are bland or should be cheaper.
“That’s not the case anymore with the vegetable prices out there,” says Shukla. He suggests this may be a hangover from guests previously having had to order vegetable side dishes if meat-free mains weren’t available.
“Some of the non-vegetarian restaurants might not mind giving out a bigger portion, because that’s not their main selling point, they are selling more meat and they might recover the profits from there. But that would ruin the market for us,” he explains.
“We have a huge amount of preparation and cooking time for a lot of our dishes – our ingredients aren’t cheap, and the overall costs of operating a restaurant and its staffing are very high,” agrees Harding.
“The cost difference between restaurants such as ours, which make everything from scratch, and those that defrost and reheat food becomes wider with increasing labour costs.”
Charalabopoulos agrees that Farmacy’s use of quality produce and cooking all dishes from scratch means a higher price tag. Part of addressing misconceptions among guests, she says, is training and equipping front of house team members with the knowledge to explain the reasons behind the pricing.
For some, being a plant-based restaurant has proven to be an inadvertent recruitment strategy. “We get a lot of people who apply specifically to us,” says Daniel. “Either they’ve worked at other vegan/vegetarian restaurants and they’re moving around the London alternative restaurant scene, but we also attract some non-vegetarian/vegan chefs who want to expand their repertoire or understand it a bit more.”
Mildreds, meanwhile, has many long-serving team members, many of whom are vegans or vegetarians and wanted to work for the brand because it aligned with their own lifestyle values.
Is location important?
Operators were more split on the importance of location for a plant-based restaurant. For Farmacy, which opened nearly seven years ago in London and focuses on nutritious and organic, plant-based comfort food, location played a big role.
“Being in London town, there’s more opportunity for higher income,” says Charalabopoulos. “We did try to venture out to east London during lockdown, but that didn’t really work out because of the price point, given that east London has a much younger crowd which wouldn’t be as willing to spend, so we’re focusing on franchising and west London at the moment.”
On the other hand, good location doesn’t equal success, stresses Daniel. The Gate’s Hammersmith site is in a location he says you won’t find “unless you’re looking for it”, for example.
And the Sanskruti’s two restaurants, which have been operating for nine years in Manchester and six in Liverpool, are both long-standing despite not being in typical leisure destinations.
Shukla credits the restaurants’ loyal repeat customer base with their survival, with several of the restaurateurs echoing similar sentiments that meat-free restaurants can often attract a very loyal following.
Anstey suggests the importance of location depends on the brand: “Some of our locations are a little bit destinational [but] people will walk to get to Mildred’s,” he says, however he feels Mildreds’ reputation, built over many years, and its loyal following makes that possible.
“If I was opening a brand-new plant-based business [now] that nobody had ever heard of, the location would be the most important thing,” he says.
Meanwhile, Harding says Teesside was an unlikely location for a vegetarian restaurant to be opening in the 1980s, however it has become something of a destination and being a neighbourhood, family restaurant has suited its homely, slow food ethos.
“We are out of town and so do not benefit from high levels of passing trade or footfall – but we are accessible with good road and transport links in an attractive area,” he explains.
“The benefits of having lower rents and property costs takes the pressure off a bit I imagine, but for us it is also about the character and lifestyle of running a sustainable business that ticks along nicely without necessarily aiming to ‘get rich’ financially. It would be also fair to say that we benefited from a slow build up for the first 10 or 15 years.”
The Waiting Room has also engaged with the local community during this time – the restaurant hosts knitting clubs, book clubs, music events, has participated in local festivals and events, and will use ingredients from local allotments. As a result, Harding says, many customers over the years have said that the restaurant was a key reason in them wanting to move to the neighbourhood.
Trend-led or traditional?
Although, he highlights that there is no one way of approaching a plant-based restaurant venture, depending on what it is the business owner wants to achieve.
“I know quite a few restaurateurs who have done very well with a boom-and-bust pattern of opening restaurants and packing them out for a couple of years before closing down or changing tack, possibly to follow trends,” he explains.
“[But] if somebody’s interest is in creating a sustainable, long-term independent restaurant, I would think that they would need to be doing it because they first and foremost love the work and a lifestyle that centres around the business.”
He adds: “Enjoy it and the more important things it can offer: your long-term relationships with customers, and creative opportunities in creating great food, great menus and a beautiful environment and atmosphere.”
Farmacy is very trend-led, meanwhile, says Charalabopoulos, and she adds that the restaurant is very attentive to guest feedback and suggestions. Anstey says Mildreds looks for new ways of doing vegetarian cuisine in a way that seeks to be ahead of trends.
“We want to bring something to the market that hasn’t quite arrived. Not only do we want that, we have to do it, because the plant-based space is getting busier,” he clarifies. For example, the group launched a Vietnamese-inspired menu to coincide with the Lunar New Year and recently organised a team trip to Paris to explore the burgeoning vegan patisserie market.
On the other hand, there’s also nothing wrong with sticking to tried-and-tested favourites: Mildreds’ best-selling dish is its kiri hodi Sri Lankan curry and has been for the last 18 years.
It’s a reminder of the one key ingredient to building a long-lasting, plant-based restaurant that all the restaurants I spoke to agreed on: the most important thing is serving tasty food.