When I moved to Glasgow in 2013 – the year that PETA recognised the city as most vegan-friendly in the UK – there was already a number of well-established vegan restaurants in the city. Even though I was not vegan then myself, I frequented some of them regularly. Since then, I have become vegan – and just at the right moment, as the vegan food scene in Glasgow has practically exploded.
Eating out as a vegan in Glasgow is easier than ever before and every few months a new vegan place is opening its doors. While in 2013 PETA spoke about roughly 20 vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants, a recent review I conducted for a directory on my website GlasgowVeganGuide.com shows that this number has increased at least fivefold. Almost every restaurant in Glasgow is able to accommodate vegan customers to a certain extent, some offering just one or a few vegan options, others providing a whole separate vegan menu to choose from. Veganuary is particularly popular with the local community and many restaurants offer special deals as incentives to give a plant-based meal a shot.
One thing that I noticed is that a large number of these new vegan-friendly restaurants, is run by amazing women, who with their cooking skills want to bring some positive change into their local communities. I sat down with five of them to hear more about their journeys and find an answer to the question, why they and so many other women open their own vegan businesses.
Let’s Dance to Soy Division!
One of the first fully vegan cafes to open in Glasgow was Soy Division, in a popular residential area in the Southside of the city. Debbie McCulloch, owner, chef and beating heart of the cafe hails from this part of Glasgow herself and left her corporate HR career to fulfil her lifelong dream of opening a cafe. “My mum and dad had a vegetarian cafe in the West End many years ago, and I loved helping them. But I also just really wanted to bring vegan food to everyone.” She initially began to sell her vegan sausage rolls, pies and quiches at the local farmer’s markets and was overwhelmed by the response. ‘People really loved it and couldn’t believe it was all vegan.’
At Soy Division, Debbie offers homemade vegan food with a particular focus on Scottish classics. On the menu you can find sausage rolls, square sausage – a Scottish breakfast staple – bacon rolls, and Scotch pies among other delicious snacks and meals; anything really, you would also find in typical Glaswegian breakfast cafes that specialise in quick, often fried food. The thought of “giving up” your everyday favourites, is what many people associate with going vegan, but Debbie says, ‘I wanted people to see that you can have good every-day food without having to eat meat.’
Throughout our conversation Debbie goes off-topic a little and tells me stories about her cats and dogs. Being a cat owner myself, with an entire folder on my phone dedicated to photos of my furry baby, I appreciate that; but it also underlined the fact that Soy Division grew out of a deep care for animal rights. Debbie wanted to create and promote vegan options, so that no animal would have to be harmed again; the fact that she thus also provides healthier food options and created a welcoming atmosphere beneficial to the local community are just most welcome side-effects.
Get your vitamins at Picnic!
Another such welcoming space in the city centre of Glasgow is a bright and open cafe called Picnic. Owner Michelle Morrow, who opened the café in 2016, says that the response of the local community is what drives her onwards: ‘There was a lot of work and planning required before opening, but we were blown away by the response. The menu has been received well and we have a lot of regular customers who work or live close to Picnic.’
While you can order a few dishes containing vegan meat or dairy substitutes, Michelle’s focus really lies on healthy wholefoods. Freshly blended smoothies with names such as Glasgow Green or Yellow by Yellow, are joined by nutritious meals like a Raw Pad Thai salad, a Black Rice, Kale & Basil burger or all kinds of wraps. Of course, there are also plenty of breakfast items and options for a sweet afternoon delight on the menu. With a menu so diverse, it is no surprise that the cafe reaches far beyond the vegan locals as well. ‘Since I went vegan, I wanted to find ways of encouraging people to explore cruelty-free options. We’d like to appeal to as many people as possible, vegan or otherwise.’ At her cafe, she wants to introduce cruelty-free, healthy and environmentally friendly food to as many people as possible, and if someone enjoys their food at Picnic and only finds out that it was vegan after finishing their plate, Michelle considers that deed done.
The Bagel Revolution with Kind Crusts
Reaching as many people as possible is also the dream of Kathryn Veroni, owner of the bagel and doughnut shop Kind Crusts. ‘My overall aim is to expand across the UK and eventually launch a franchise model. Picture Subway or Greggs, but vegan and ethical.’ For now, Kathryn operates her bagel revolution out of her new cafe in the East End of Glasgow. While she was one of the first people to open a fully vegan cafe in Glasgow, she recently moved to new premises on a main road and is now even more visible in the local community. But it was not always like that.
‘When we opened, the idea of a vegan cafe was still very unknown territory. Some locals couldn’t grasp that we didn’t sell their beloved rolls and bacon, and school kids thought it was hilarious to chuck pieces of square sausage at the shop.’ Much has changed since then, and the cafe has found its place in this traditional Glaswegian neighbourhood.
Apart from weekly changing doughnuts, which can be bought by the piece or in boxes, Kind Crusts offers a variety of bagels and sandwiches for breakfast and lunch, filled with anything from smoked carrot or onion bhajis to herby meatballs or seitan chicken. Initially, the menu also offered one vegetarian option containing cheese from a small local farm. Kathryn had hoped that this would attract more non-vegans to visit and try her food, but she quickly realised that it was not the right decision. ‘After a few days of working with dairy, I felt that I had sold my soul.’ So, just a week after opening, Kind Crusts became the fully vegan gem it is today.
All new for Veganuary at The V&V Cafe
Over 70,000 people in the UK have signed up to give veganism a shot this month, and Saffy Reid, the owner of The V&V Cafe in Glasgow’s West End is one of them. Relaunched with a full vegan menu and a larger retail section of vegan foods and books earlier this year, the formerly vegetarian V&V has found its path: ‘Veganuary is an introduction to the future of the cafe and I have no intention of going back to providing any animal products.’
Saffy’s own multi-cultural background, hailing from Nottingham with roots in Kashmir, is what gives the menu its uniqueness. Think Pakora toasties, kebabs and burgers alongside British staples, such as mac & cheese pies or baked potatoes. At the same time, her personal journey to Glasgow also created a dream of giving back to the local community. ‘I have felt more Scottish in the last two years of living in Glasgow, than I felt English in over 30 years. With the V&V I want to give back to the land that has given me and my family so much already.’
And give back she does. Soon the cafe will start to support community initiatives in the city of Glasgow and, who knows, maybe one day we will be able to find Saffy’s own chilli raita on the shelves of our local supermarkets.
Everybody’s welcome at Mala Carne!
Independently run and owned, these cafes are community initiatives in itself, enriching their immediate surroundings by providing space, food and cosiness. Intrinsically tied to this idea is the history of Mala Carne, a café back in the Southside of Glasgow. Claire Dearnley opened this little vegetarian oasis within two years of moving to Glasgow, and there was never really a doubt about where to launch it. ‘We moved to the Mount Florida area as soon as we moved to Glasgow and loved the neighbourhood. It’s very quiet, but there is a real community. What I felt was missing though, was a place where you could go and meet people, sit and chat and have a nice coffee.’
Of course there is more on the menu at Mala Carne than coffee. With a mix of vegetarian and vegan dishes, the cafe offers something for every taste. ‘The idea is that it’s not just vegan-friendly, but that it’s friendly to everyone, so meat eaters as well. I think most of our customers are not actually vegetarian themselves.’ And yet, the cafe is popular among the locals, who come for tofu scrambles, smoked carrot bagels and usually a variety of 5-6 vegan cakes – ‘we lean towards vegan food to be more inclusive.’
In the future Claire hopes to bring her work back to the roots and her beginnings hosting pop-up events and catering: ‘I’d like to do a few more things in the evenings, but when you’re running a café, you kind of lose time for these things.’
More than just coffee?
What the stories of these five women have in common is a passion to create new opportunities and give something back to their local community, but also an element of sacrifice – giving not just time and resources, but also commitment to a greater cause.
For some this cause stretches beyond the spreading seeds of vegan thought, and has just as much to do with creating opportunities for women in business and amplifying their voices in society. Saffy from the V&V grew up in a strict patriarchal environment and experienced many situations of animal exploitation on her travels – and both have influenced who she is today and what she wants to achieve: ‘My concern and anguish for the plight of the Sisterhood and for the animals go hand-in-hand and always came natural for me. I don’t think you can be a feminist and not care about animal welfare and vice versa.’
Speaking about feminism, I was interested to hear the women’s experiences of everyday sexism in their positions as leaders – and I was surprise by their responses. Not one of them had experienced issues running their businesses based on their gender – and that is not something you hear very often. On the contrary, all five of them emphasised the incredible support of the Glaswegian people, other business owners and local officials; men and women alike. ‘People’s initial perception of vegan food can be an issue, other than that I have only experienced support,’ says Michelle from Picnic.
And this brings me back to the question, why there are so many women in particular spearheading the vegan cafe revolution in Glasgow.
Debbie from Soy Division sees the answer in a generational shift: ‘I think women are just becoming so much more independent. We don’t sit back. We go out and run our own businesses.’ And it is true, women have won a lot of freedom since the beginning of the women’s movement, even if there is still a lot to fight for. Kind Crusts’ Kathryn agrees: ‘For decades, it was a man’s world and to some extent it still is. But there is a growing trend of women launching ethical businesses. Maybe we have more of a conscience and are willing to gamble our own finances and livelihood to do the “right thing?”
Glasgow is rich in strong women running successful businesses. There are many female role models to be found in Glasgow, leading the way in music, arts, politics and science – the café owners mentioned here are just the tip of the iceberg. And yet, they are crucial, because they are impossible to overlook in every-day life. ‘If you see other women following their dreams and running their own businesses, then you feel more like you can do it too. It is great to see not only male chefs opening restaurants or running kitchens,’ says Claire and tells me about her own business role model – her mum.
Debbie, Michelle, Kathryn, Saffy and Claire are not only great chefs and passionate entrepreneurs; they are role models, who greet you in their shops day after day, spreading their message of kindness, well-being and inclusivity through food. Just walk up, and hear what they have to say!
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All photos by author