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Monday, November 30, 2020

A fine and fair city: How Norwich became a vegan-friendly hotspot

A multicultural hub in sleepy Norfolk that has quietly been celebrating diversity and alternative lifestyles for decades, Norwich is a haven of independent vegan businesses that work together for a kinder future and a more compassionate city.

Living outside of the Norwich city centre, it takes a bit of effort for me to cycle in for a plant-based snack, but all of the following make it so worth it. That’s not just hyperbole or nice words either, as my family and I love all of these businesses and support whenever we can. Interviewing the owners and founders and discovering what ruddy nice people they all are, away from their counters, makes my two-wheeled journeys even more worth it.

Each and every one of these vegan businesses or groups has been a steadfast and supportive environment for vegans old and new in Norwich. To anyone planning a plant-based pilgrimage after lockdown, I implore you to come to our fine city and try all of the delights that these amazing organisations offer. The collaborative nature of these separate yet intrinsically connected companies is proof itself of what a special community the vegan one is, and I for one consider myself honoured to be able to connect and support each and every one of them.

I asked a host of these vegan companies and collectives to give me their views of the vegan landscape in Norwich and to talk about how Covid has affected them. This is what they all had to say.

Kayleigh Baddeley-Read, Deerly Beloved Bakery

deerly beloved bakeryTell us who you are and what you do.

I started Deerly Beloved Bakery in 2011 because my husband (then boyfriend) and I couldn’t find any vegan cakes when we were out with our family. We would mostly sit there with a black coffee as you couldn’t even get soy milk in cafes then. We now supply shops and cafes, make birthday and celebration cakes and have stalls all over Norwich (pandemic permitting).

What do you see as the future for vegan businesses in Norwich? Is there space for more? 

The last couple of years has been really difficult for vegan businesses and a lot of my friends who I started out with have sadly closed. This is a double-edged sword, because as more and more supermarkets and major chains start doing vegan food, it makes it harder for small vegan-run businesses to compete, but at the same time that is the goal of vegans; to get veganism available everywhere and to help save animals and the planet.

Why Norwich? Do you think we have a particularly supportive vegan network here?

There are so many amazing vegan support groups out there and it has been amazing to see veganism grow in Norwich and to have been a part of that change.

Do you have any Covid-19 survival initiatives in place, business-wise?

Covid has been another challenge for all businesses. I have had to rethink my business and what I do. A few months ago, I started making postal cake boxes and they have been going amazingly well. It’s so lovely to be able to reach UK-wide vegans with my cakes too.

What are your plans/hopes for the future?

The future plan is just to take each month as it comes at the moment. Christmas is coming up and it’s my busiest time of the year, so I am busy planning that.

Rachel Cox, Little Shop of Vegans

little shop of vegansTell us who you are and what you do.

Little Shop of Vegans is a small, independent business run by me with help from my brother Ed.

Several years ago, the Norwich Vegans group used to hold regular pop-up vegan shops — like mini-festivals — at the Quaker Meeting House on Upper Goat Lane (this was in the days before the city had vegan cafes, restaurants and shops and you were lucky to find somewhere that offered soy milk). I used to volunteer at the pop-up shops and thought I’d like to do something similar full-time. In 2016, I threw caution to the wind, left my sensible job and used all my savings to set up Little Shop of Vegans by myself.

What do you see as the future for vegan businesses in Norwich? Is there space for more? 

I think there’s always room for more vegan businesses. In my ideal world, the city would be full of thriving independent vegan-friendly business, all doing something a little different and all being supportive of each other (as I think the current ones are).

Why Norwich? Do you think we have a particularly supportive vegan network here?

When I moved to Norwich, about 10 years ago, veganism was fairly low-key everywhere but it really seemed to take off in the city with the Norwich Vegans events (think Christmas Fayres, BBQs, social events, activism) and it’s grown so much since then. There are a lot of vegans in Norwich and I think they try to be as supportive of small vegan businesses as possible.

It’s always a challenge to survive as an independent business and there have been some wobbly months, but Norwich as a city is proud of its wide range of independent shops and cafes and I think many people here make a conscious effort to shop local as much as they can.

Do you have any Covid-19 survival initiatives in place, business-wise?

Before Covid, we were just a regular, walk-in shop, but we had to turn things around very quickly in order to support our customer base and keep the business afloat when the national lockdown happened. We now have a fully-functioning website with real-time stock levels and offer click-and-collect, local Norwich deliveries and UK-wide delivery. We’re hoping that we’re now in a good position to meet customer needs for Christmas and beyond, come what may.

What are your plans/hopes for the future?

Not the most exciting development, but we’ve recently increased our refills range to include some anti-bacterial cleaner in light of how much spritzing and anti-bac’ing we’re all doing now. Other than that, the last six months have seen us change almost everything about the way we operate and it’s been a challenge, so I haven’t had a chance to look ahead to other developments yet. I think the rest of 2020 will be all about helping customers shop safely for Christmas, and then who knows what 2021 will bring?

Samia King, Moorish Falafel Bar

moorish falafelTell us who you are and what you do.

Moorish was conceived in February 2011 when myself and a friend put our heads together and decided to open a new cafe in The Lanes (a trendy part of Norwich full of indie shops). After much research and trips to London, we decided upon falafel/Mediterranean/Middle Eastern food. I’ve always worked with food and have a background of travel in southern Spain and Morocco and time spent with people from the Middle East, and so was inspired and suitably experienced.

We had a shop in place, and so began the shop fit. My job at this point was to design the menu and create recipes. We launched in October 2011 and over the years, our menu has evolved but always stuck to its main feature: the falafel. I bought out my business partner in January 2013 and I have been running the business alone since then.

I am passionate about protecting the environment and my ethos of Moorish is to be sustainable and continuously find ways to reduce our carbon footprint. We can produce delicious plant-based food that satisfies everyone’s taste buds and do everything we can not to harm the planet at the same time. We encourage everyone to bring in their own containers, bottles and cups for discounts.

What do you see as the future for vegan businesses in Norwich? Is there space for more? 

Vegan options have grown tenfold since we opened Moorish in 2011. At that time, we were one of two places, I think. Now, I can’t even count them. We can all work cohesively and complement each other and the fact we are considered to be one of the best places in the UK for vegan food is just such a wonderful compliment and proof that there is always room for more. Veganism is a growing movement and will just continue to grow as the years go on and more people begin to realise how important it is in order to save our planet.

Why Norwich? Do you think we have a particularly supportive vegan network here?

Norwich is a wonderful place to live, not just because it’s beautiful but because most of its occupants share a similar ethos of supporting local and small businesses and working together to keep Norwich what it is. I feel lucky to own a business here.

Do you have any Covid-19 survival initiatives in place, business-wise? 

Since the first lockdown, we have created a new app in order to avoid the crippling commission costs from Deliveroo and Just Eat. We launched in July 2020 and are using the wonderful new local delivery service provided by Norwich Urban Collective. The partnership is working really well and it feels so good to work with another small independent business whilst expanding the possibilities for Moorish during this uncertain time.

What are your plans/hopes for the future?

No future plans currently, only to stay open during the Covid crisis, and then, watch this space!

Penny Franiel, Norwich Vegans

norwich vegansTell us who you are and what you do.

I’m the founder of Norwich Vegans. I started the group in January 2014, holding the first meeting at the Norwich Quaker House. I had been vegan for several years and not only did I not know any other vegans, I didn’t think Norwich was particularly vegan-friendly, so I wanted to see if there were actually any other vegans in Norwich. Turns out there were lots.

What do you see as the future for vegan businesses in Norwich? Is there space for more? 

I believe Norwich can support more vegan businesses, they just need to be different to what we currently have. A hotel or B&B would do well, I’m sure, or a vegan butcher or community cafe.

Why Norwich? Do you think we have a particularly supportive vegan network here?

I do think Norwich has a very supportive network. Many of the current businesses are owned by people who came along to the Norwich Vegans meetings and events. Our monthly pop-up shop offered a space for new businesses to test the waters and we got to know each other, and I think that’s one of the reasons why the vegan community is so supportive.

Do you have any Covid-19 survival initiatives in place?

We had to cancel our Summer Fayre and Christmas Market this year. We are just focused on developing new community projects and keeping all of our members safe, so no meetings, but plenty of work going on behind the scenes.

What are your plans/hopes for the future?

The committee — myself, Alicia (treasurer) and Steve — have been working hard with a group of people to help create an Eco Hub. The Norwich Vegans plan to be tenants within the hub with our own cafe and meeting space. We have loads of ideas on how to make this a really amazing space not only for the vegan community, but the wider community so they can see all the benefits a vegan lifestyle can bring. We are currently trying to raise some money for the proposed cafe kitchen with a crowdfunding page.

Richard Austin, Rainbow Wholefoods

rainbow wholefoodsTell us who you are and what you do.

I started Rainbow Wholefoods in 1976. I’d done two degrees and trained as a lawyer, but wanted to be a part of the Alternative Society of that time and didn’t want to get my hair cut. So I set off for the USA. I lived in Hollywood for a bit, hitchhiked across the US one way, back across Canada in the other direction and then came back to England. I chose whole foods as an area to work in with no idea of what working in a shop was like or even what whole foods were.

But it has been my great fortune that this was one of the best decisions that I ever made. I’ve worked with some lovely people over the years and the present team is mainly made up of ‘old-timers’ who have made the place what it is. 

What do you see as the future for vegan businesses in Norwich? Is there space for more? 

In my view, there will always be room for a business with decent principles as long as there is plenty of energy and care involved. The space for businesses isn’t restricted by good ideas but by the number of people who are prepared to dig deep in order to survive. I think the lovely Norwich businesses built up by Tofurei and Little Shop are very inspiring examples of the way forward.

Why Norwich? Do you think we have a particularly supportive vegan network here?

Why Norwich? Because it’s a ‘Fine City’ and, as the sign at the entrance of the city says — added to it in felt-tip pen — it’s “Full of Anarch-Vegans”’. Over the years, Norwich has supported so many different projects in commerce and in the Arts. It’s a wonderful place.

Do you have any Covid-19 survival initiatives in place?

We are still serving people across our threshold. In spite of government announcements, we don’t feel our room is safe for our customers or for us to work in. So that is how we are working at present. Our plan is to move the shop to a bigger place about 150 yards away and these plans are well advanced. In the interim, we are also serving our customers by click-and-collect and delivery services. With the announcement of the November lockdown, we are abolishing charges for both of these services.

What are your plans/hopes for the future?

Our new shop will be as green as we can make it and we will have a large refill zone where, when human contact is re-established as safe, we can have a serious go at helping to reduce packaging. For us, it’s all about connecting with people, whatever their views, and we look forward to getting back into the swing of that.

Michelle McCabe, The Tipsy Vegan

tipsy veganTell us who you are and what you do.

The Tipsy Vegan is owned and operated by myself and Cheryl Mullenger. I have always worked in restaurants and bars, and prior to starting the business, I was providing finance management to hospitality groups in London, where I am from. Cheryl is an ex-PE teacher and a fitness and nutrition fanatic, responsible for most of what comes out of Tipsy’s kitchen. We started in a food truck in 2015 and then opened a vegan diner on Norwich Market in 2016 before launching The Tipsy Vegan in 2017.

I have been vegan for six years and Cheryl five. We started the business to show people that eating vegan doesn’t have to be restrictive and prohibitive in any way. Most familiar dishes can be easily veganised (even more so now) and doesn’t have to be the expensive option as has been people’s perception in the past. Affordable and familiar — that was our primary aim.

What do you see as the future for vegan businesses in Norwich? Is there space for more?

I think vegan restaurants in Norwich will evolve in the same way non-vegan restaurants do; by continuing to up their game in their food offerings. It’s not enough nowadays to simply offer vegan food. People want to be wowed when they eat out and it’s super important for restaurants to offer something unique and ever-evolving to ensure their customer base returns time and time again.

Yes, there is totally space for more. A vegan restaurant has just as much chance of surviving as any other, so long as they offer something that appeals to a wide enough audience. At least 50% of our returning customers are neither vegan, nor vegetarian. Most people are savvy nowadays to the health and environmental benefits that come with leaving meat and dairy off the plate. People are also becoming more conscious of animal welfare issues. So I believe there is an open-mindedness, particularly in Norwich, regarding eating out choices. We’ve just got to make sure as a business that we are offering something that sets us apart from the many other options.

Why Norwich? Do you think we have a particularly supportive vegan network here?

We live here so Norwich was the obvious choice, being a city centre. We particularly wanted to be on St Benedicts St, as I think it has such an eclectic mix of independent businesses that we were keen to be among.

Do you have any Covid-19 survival initiatives in place?

Prior to Covid, we were reluctant to offer a take-out service as the restaurant gets so busy and our kitchen is super tiny. However, when lockdown happened we knew it was something we would have to offer in order to continue trading. We also partnered with Just Eat to offer a delivery service with the intention that once we were back operating normally, we would probably stop this.

Even though we were back to normal(ish), we have found that we have a regular returning base of people that order collection and delivery from us once or twice weekly, so we have maintained this service and incorporated it into our daily operations. It’s tricky at times but a welcome boost to trade.

What are your plans/hopes for the future?

Future plans involve a second location. We also launched Plant & Seed during lockdown, a vegan deli venture. We currently supply a range of deli sandwiches, pasta pots and sushi burritos to our neighbour The Little Shop of Vegans and will look to expand on this further in the new year, once we have a minute to breathe.

Steve Lepper, Tofurei

tofureiTell us who you are and what you do.

Myself and Jenny McCann planned Tofurei during 2016 when an opportunity came up to open a totally vegan business. Norwich already had a vegan street food stall on the market, but there was nowhere vegans could go for snack-based lunches that didn’t involve lots of label checking.

So the original idea was to have totally vegan sandwiches, crisps, chocolates and other snacks for sale, alongside vegan fizzy and still cold drinks, and a coffee machine with plant-based milks. Jenny was already making popular vegan cakes, so it was natural to also have those for sale alongside everything else, and with plenty of sweet options we also looked at savouries and developed what became our signature ‘soysage rolls’.

Fairly early in the planning, we started to get a bit carried away and decided to add a vegan deli-counter, with ‘soysages’ and burgers for sale by weight. By this time, it also became apparent that we couldn’t achieve this using standard shop-bought tofu, what we now call ‘commodity tofu’, and we began experimenting making our own, adding tofu production and a ‘soya dairy’ to our range.

We finally opened in October of that year, at 12 Pottergate in the Norwich Lanes with our tofu machine only being commissioned in the week before we opened, enabling us to add fresh tofu to the deli-counter, along with Tyne Chease. By the end of the year, we also became the first outlet for One Planet Pizza. We were also able to add a vegan whippy-style ice-cream in 2017, and in 2019, partnered with the local ice-cream company Ronaldo’s in developing both whippy-style and scoop ice-cream made using our own soy milk.

We quickly outgrew the premises, but moving out was a gradual process, as first we took tofu production out to a new unit and looked for premises where we could seat more people and serve hot food. Our new tofu production unit opened in September 2018, with a new higher capacity tofu machine — by this time we’d been able to source Norfolk-grown soya beans, making ours the only tofu produced using soya beans grown in the UK.

We bought our new shop premises on St Gregory’s Alley at the end of 2018, but the building required a complete internal rebuild, which, along with the lockdown, meant that it wasn’t until August 2020 we were finally able to open the downstairs.

What do you see as the future for vegan businesses in Norwich? Is there space for more? 

The future is bright, but Covid means a lot of consolidation at the moment. More vegan businesses have opened and some have become well-established. There is room for more, but the key to success will be to maintain an independent vibe that focuses on quality over branding and hype.

Why Norwich? Do you think we have a particularly supportive vegan network here?

Norwich is a great city for vegans. Along with a large student population, it also has a strong environmental conscience with a lot of support in the wider population for green and progressive causes. Norwich Vegans also has a large and active membership in the city and wider area. Their organisation of annual summer and Christmas markets have proved hugely popular in raising the profile of vegan businesses in and around Norwich and Norfolk. 

Norwich’s perceived isolation has also helped keep things quite low-key and relatively free of hype — and our businesses have become more embedded and sustainable. We noticed that, as other vegan businesses opened, even the more mainstream outlets quickly added and promoted vegan dishes, reinforcing its position and drawing people in from across East Anglia.

Do you have any Covid-19 survival initiatives in place?

When lockdown started, we quickly set up a home delivery service, and although our team was furloughed, we were able to sustain enough production to supply our regular customers. We’ve now added click-and-collect online and as well as continuing with deliveries, we are offering special discounts on our over-the-counter prices.

What are your plans/hopes for the future?

Our main target is to get the new bistro fully open and develop our hot menu. By December, we will be adding a premises licence so that we can serve alcohol with our food. The interior features lots of recycled and repurposed materials and we’ve been blown away by the positive reaction from our customers. By the end of the year, we’ll have achieved our vision of a vegan bistro, showcasing our own tofu — including a new maple smoked version. The ground floor still has the core takeaway deli items and a new range of sandwiches, along with a much wider variety of cakes, but it is when we add the hot food that we can really start to grow into the new space.

Soon, we’ll be taking new crop soybeans directly from a farm just a few miles down the road and then our tofu will then be made using soybeans that have never left Norfolk. We’re now using a plastic-free compostable vacuum pack for our deli products and hope to finally add national online ordering for some products, once we have things running smoothly at St Gregory’s.

I’d like to give a special shoutout to Deerly Beloved, Moorish and the Tipsy Vegan for all stepping up when our government didn’t, by offering free lunches for kids during half-term. As independent businesses in an economically scary time, it was even more amazing that they dug into their own profits to make that happen.

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