Walking round the restaurant one Saturday evening recently, I came across a couple examining the menu in detail, although they were already halfway through their main course. Having put an extensive write-up on our philosophy on the back of the menu, I was gratified it was being read:
"Oh, you're having a good look at my diatribe!" I exclaimed.
"Actually, we're just checking that everything really is vegan!" They replied.
Having enjoyed the food so far, they couldn't believe that dairy or eggs really hadn't been involved! They were checking for some caveat along the lines of 'everything is vegan, except this or that which we really can't manage!' It's true though... everything IS vegan!
This reminded me of the emails and adverts I have been receiving lately offering certification so that we can be officially 'Vegan Friendly' or a 'Sustainably Run Restaurant.' The former tells me that 80% of vegans would be more likely to visit a restaurant that has been officially accredited, the latter says that they can appraise our approach and certify us for just a few hundreds of pounds a year as an eco-friendly business.
I was briefly tempted by both of these offers for the face-value reason that the young couple who had had their doubts could have been placated by a single logo. However, I was not convinced by either the standards, nor the qualifications of these commercial organisations to offer such definitive awards. In fact, we've been (to coin a cliche) on this 'journey' for ten years, moving from meat-free to locally sourced vegan food. Should we be actually offering certification to others who have joined with our aims? We did go for accreditation four years ago when we joined the 'Proudly Norfolk' scheme. At the time the qualifications were strict (we had to have minimum ten local suppliers on our menu), the benefits of networking with other local businesses were clear, and the brand unambiguous. However, now 'Proudly Norfolk' is merging with the less food-orientated 'Buy Local Norfolk' with less onerous joining requirements, and a broader, more commercial remit. We feel it's no longer for us. We've also looked at certification from the Vegan Society, UK Coeliacs, and others, and been unconvinced, either by the standards, the benefits or the prices.
With the Vegan Friendly certification, I'm sure that the qualifications are also quite unambiguous, but I'm not sure we want to be just a home for vegans to feel safe when eating. In fact, last time we checked, only 20% of our customers were actually vegan (though that may have changed.) Instead, we'd rather be confident of producing good food that anyone would be happy to eat. The fact that it is meat, egg and dairy free is a matter of principle for us, but for many of our customers, simply a footnote. Ironically, and I've said this before, we get the greatest pushback from some Vegetarians. People, who otherwise hold dear to their values of animal welfare, nevertheless complain the most vehemently when their ability to choose dairy cheese over plant cheese is removed. Having been a vegetarian for over 30 years before going vegan, I can partly understand that, at one time we thought we were occupying the moral high-ground, and it's disconcerting to find that that ground has moved beneath your feet and that maintaining your principles is in fact making animals' lives worse. The reaction is often to obstinately fortify your own position, rather than to move it.
As far as 'Sustainable Restaurant' certification is concerned, here I have the greatest issue; We know that modern farming in general is largely unsustainable, and livestock farming in particular is damaging to soil, local environments, landscapes and more importantly, the climate in general. So how can sustainable restaurant status be earned by establishments that serve meat? And yet it is. I am told that this is achieved by carbon off-setting, and whilst this does have some basis in fact, I'm not convinced that for most operators it's anything more than the modern equivalent of buying medieval 'Indulgences.' Pay enough money, and you can sin to your heart's content, rather than actually changing your ways.
I'm confident that we have made great strides to put our business on a sustainable footing, and also aware that there's much more we can do. To elucidate; When I took on the restaurant in 2016, there were 6 microwaves and 2 conventional ovens, plus one ancient gas range that was no use for anything but cooking large stockpots of stews. I immediately removed 3 microwaves from the cooking area, and replaced one of the old conventional ovens with a modern combi-oven. Instead of the gas range, all the cooking would be done on cleaner, cheaper to run, induction hobs. More environmentally friendly, as they only heat the pan and its' contents, not the surrounding air. The unfortunate downside was that we moved from 6 beeping microwaves to a situation where everything in the kitchen now beeps!.... From turning on the hobs, to the oven timer, and even the equipment complaining that it has no pan sitting on it! Nevertheless, that move to all-electric cooking has meant that we can now change to an all-renewable energy supply, and although gas and electric prices are linked, the current situation with the price of gas makes a renewable energy supply the most sensible, if not the cheapest, option. We're confident that vegan food is the way forward environmentally, and every customer who eats a vegan meal here rather than a meat based meal elsewhere, is a small, but nevertheless, appreciable win for the environment. In addition to that, we're sourcing our food from closer to home, getting fruit and veg that's grown less than an hour's walk from the restaurant (see the previous blog), as well as eschewing imported products such as Jackfruit and chickpeas for home grown alternatives; Banana Blossom 'Fsh and chips' may be an easy win, but doing meat-free without using Banana Blossom has to be the gold medal standard, environmentally speaking. In the kitchen we are using concentrates for our cleaning chemicals, making them up to the required dilution and reusing the plastic spray-bottles that would otherwise have been thrown out.
I know there are areas we can improve on: Some will have seen that I drive a large luxury car. It belonged to my Dad, and I now use it for most of the restaurant's shopping requirements. At 17 years old with only 66 000 miles on the clock, I'm confident that it has been used sparingly, and that moreover, it will be going many more years yet, and indeed may be the last petrol car I ever own. (At my age, it might well be the last ever car I own.) At one time however, I made all my journeys by bike, and even carried heavy loads on a trailer. I still have a trailer, but it certainly gets less use than it could do.
It may sound arrogant to insist on self-certifying our credentials, but then, I often do (sound arrogant.) In fact, I'd go as far as to say that as long as omni restaurants are allowed to qualify as 'Sustainably Run,' then we will never join them. The only certification I seek from vegans or otherwise is from our customers who leave positive reviews that back up our intention of serving meals that are good value and taste good, but also happen to be good for animal welfare, and the environment.
So, take my word for it: You will get a decent meal at River Green, it will be tasty and value for money, and it will be prepared in an environment that emphasises sustainability, and no, it doesn't have any meat, dairy, or eggs in it, in case you were wondering.