If you thought there was no such thing as fish free sushi, then think again! Anna MacDonald has been serving up tasty vegan sushi rolls and bowls to festival goers up and down the UK for years, making quite a name for herself on the street food scene.
We recently caught up with Anna of the infamous Brighton based Happy Maki to discuss how she started a career in catering, how she’s led the business through lockdown and what advice she’d give to others in the same boat.
Hi Anna, thanks so much for catching up with us today. Tell us your story and what lead you to establish Happy Maki?
Happy Maki was started to show people that sushi can be sustainable and delicious without the fish. I absolutely loved eating sushi and started researching how our demand for salmon, shrimp and tuna were affecting our oceans. It was hard hitting information and I watched a documentary at the time also called “End of the Line” and it spoke a lot about how the sushi industry is affecting the fish stocks. I was a massive fan of sushi but never really thought too much about where the fish was coming from and what effect my choices were having, so after I’d watched the film I said to my boyfriend “I’m going to start a fish free sushi company” and he was like “that’s not a thing.” But it was really from there that the idea was born and at the end of the day, I knew I couldn’t claim to be an ocean lover (I’m an avid surfer and free diver) whilst contributing to the very thing that was destroying the oceans…eating fish!
You’re a bit of a legend on the street food scene now and have clearly demonstrated that there is indeed such a thing as delicious ‘fish-free’ sushi! How did you get started initially?
We purchased a vintage Renault van and converted it on a tight budget. I had no experience with catering when I started the company so it was an intense learning curve. I started catering at food festivals, marathons, shopping centres and everything in between. We started off fish free, but were still selling real chicken and duck in our burritos. After a year of cooking with meat and that famous line in Cowspiracy “you can’t be an environmentalist and still eat meat” I became a fully-fledged vegan, and so did Happy Maki as a result. The main driving force behind Happy Maki has always been my love of the environment and healthy fast food. After getting our first festival pitch at Bestival it was clear that music festivals were the best place to sell our sushi burritos. By the third summer Happy Maki was catering at most of the top UK music festivals including Glastonbury, which is still is our most successful event of the summer calendar.
You opened your first fixed site premises in 2016, is that right?
Yeah the first shop opened in the South Lanes of Brighton in January 2016. It was another steep learning curve of how things have to be done differently when in a shop versus a field; which takes us to now, we are soon to open our second restaurant in Brighton, with a larger menu and big eat in area and a really exciting experiment of Pay As You Feel. There is a full Happy Maki team, not just myself, doing every single job! We’re excited, nervous and once again, out of our depth creating a pay as you feel vegan sushi restaurant, seating up to 50 people in the heart of Brighton North Lanes.
How did you keep Happy Maki operational during the lockdown?
Well we had to close the small eat-in and takeaway restaurant in South Lanes for the first 6 weeks of lockdown initially and from the 8th May we trialled a four-day work week with split shifts doing lunch and dinner takeaway online. We’re actually converting the downstairs into extra kitchen space so we can increase the size of our offering and try and maximise on the takeaway – when the weather was good we found that a lot of people would come in and order and that was and still is the only way we’re making money at the moment.
As of a few days ago we started doing a 5-day week offering lunch and dinner and people can call ahead to put in an order.
Was it good to be back?
It was really nice to be back, I’m really appreciative of the rest and the time off and I’m sure that anyone who works in catering, especially if they’ve got venues that are open 7-days a week or just wouldn’t give themselves a summer off will appreciate that. The forced break was very good for me for different reasons, but it was really nice to get back to work and figure out how we’re going to make it through the next 12 months really.
To reopen you obviously had to do a Covid-19 risk assessment. How did you find the process?
We actually used the NCASS guidelines a lot and we did rely on you a lot for support, so thanks for everything you’ve done on that front because it is very overwhelming when you’ve got so many different things to consider. We carried out all the risk assessments and put screens up in the shop for the whole rolling counter; the way the shop is laid out you can have one person taking the order and one person collecting. We were going cash free anyway and we’d just started the Pay as You Feel initiative which is just a self-service till so everything was very much set up for there being very little exchange. With regards to staff we had to think about who was exposed to the least number of people at home and how we could keep that contact group as small as possible. We’ve just been extra vigilant with what we were doing before. I think we were fortunate in that what we were doing in the lead up helped and we already had a lot of measures in place such as sanitisation. It was such big news and we did close down a few days before the Government forced us to because we just thought we shouldn’t be open for walk-in business at that current time.
What would you say are your top reasons for offering a vegan menu?
Happy Maki went vegan for the positive environmental impacts. Animal agriculture is the leading cause of, deforestation, water pollution, habitat loss, species extinction, soil erosion and global greenhouse gas emissions. However, it’s also great for your health and most importantly and rewardingly, it means you’re no longer contributing to unnecessary killing and suffering of animals.
The benefits of a vegan diet has been so overwhelmingly positive and rewarding. It’s hard to put into words how much sadness you feel when you finally connect to your contribution to the suffering. However, there is also the huge relief and joy in knowing that you’re no longer part of that.
Do you think younger generations are more open to sampling vegan dishes than their predecessors?
It’s very much a generational thing, yeah. Vegan food is very much in the mainstream now and so eating a solely meat diet isn’t so engrained in a young person’s beliefs and culture as it would have been 60 years ago. There’s also so much choice on offer now. It’s become so normal to eat vegan, even compared to when I was growing up. On the other hand, older generations are stumbling across issues with their health that their diet has caused them over the years and are becoming more open to trying foods that are beneficial to longevity.
I think one of the reasons our food is so popular is because at a festival you can eat one or two a day of our burritos for four days in a row and not feel sick because it’s healthy food, so from that point of view, if you can make your food healthy but it doesn’t feel like you’re just chewing on raw vegetables then I think that’s when vegan street food businesses can do well.
Vegan food is so long lasting also. When you have a dirty burger, for the first few bites it tastes incredible, but an hour after you don’t have that long lasting, positive effect which I think you do when it’s healthy. I think a lot of meat eaters are now cooking vegan options at home without there being a taboo and I think a large part of that is down to health and the environmental aspects that they’re learning about.
I think lockdown has made people more open to cooking from scratch and from what I’ve seen it’s encouraged healthy eating and a desire for a more healthy lifestyle. The beauty of vegan food is that you’re getting a lot of nutrients that are enhancing your energy levels and you’re not contributing to what I feel are the negative aspects of food production.
That leads nicely on to the ethos of Happy Maki and how your values have helped build the caring brand that you’re so known for both in the industry and amongst customers. Can you talk us more though that?
Although we are a vegan company, the food we serve is only one of many factors taken into consideration when trying to develop a loving business model. Our founding principles are:
This relates to the transparency we aim for in the business that we do, and in our communication with customers and staff members. Doing honest work is very important to us. When making business decisions we ask “What would love do?” and a lot of the time this takes us to an easy answer, other times we have to go against what we have been taught or what feels most comfortable. That’s the way change works though and not everyone understands it or feels comfortable at the beginning.
We work on our environmental impact which includes everything from how we deal with our rubbish to the type of energy we us in store. We work on self-responsibility and equality within the company and with our customers. We aim to ensure that staff are self-responsible in their job roles. We don’t serve alcohol out of care for our customers and were hoping that an alcohol-free space for people to hang out in will help change the norm around eating out and what it is we need to have a good time. Of course we are now trialling Pay as you Feel, asking ourselves what would love do, love wouldn’t demand, love would give gifts. To learn more about this go to the “Pay as you Feel” page.
That’s a great ethos to have for your business! Is there anything that you’ve improved on during Covid-19 that you’d like to carry on?
The way we deal with food deliveries coming in – we’re on Uber Eats and Deliveroo – and our process for this has become very slick during lockdown because in the first couple of weeks that was pretty much all the work we were getting in. We’ve very much streamlined our process and we’d like to carry that on.
Finally, any top tips for caterers or newbies coming into the industry?
I think if you want to trial something healthy, just get a diverse range of people to try it and give you honest feedback. At the time that was very much a thing for Happy Maki because I was the only vegan in my friendship group and I was the odd one out, but they all loved the food and you need a wide range of people to like what you’re offering if it’s going to sell. Do your product research before taking it to market and make it delicious. Have options and be able to customise things.
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