Image: Food Made Good HK

“The seed germinated back in 1989, when I experienced my awakening and then fully became vegetarian 1992, when I first came to Hong Kong. Once I realized what humans were doing to harm Mother Earth, I aligned my work with healing the earth. I transformed my fashion company to an eco-fashion company. I realized that eating meat and fish had a huge eco footprint in terms of finite resources – and still does.” We spoke to Bobsy Gaia, founder of MANA!, about how the vision behind MANA! started and how it continues to this day. 

“If I wanted to protect the environment, I must change my diet.” 

The root of MANA! started from Bobsy’s change in diet and awakening to how anthropogenic activities are killing Mother Earth.

Tell us about how you started MANA! and what the journey’s been like ever since?

MANA! was founded and opened up their first location in 2011 on Wellington Street in Central. MANA! was and is an evolution of two previous restaurant concepts, Life Café (2003) and the Bookworm Café (1997).

“Diet change, not climate change – is the central call, the clarion call if you like of what we do.” The realization of what we were doing to the planet through our diets was the catalyst for MANA!. Next came the challenge of creating a business model around running a business with zero-plastic waste, zero polystyrene use and zero food waste creation. 

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“In 2011-2015, our zero food waste business model was quite different to how we operate it now. We had a full-time van driver delivering the food waste 2-3 times a week to an organic farm in the new territories. Now there are contractors who’ll collect food waste and turn it into animal & pet feed or scompost for soil.”MANA! would work closely with many local farmers to take the food waste. When one farm couldn’t take any more food waste, we would bring it to the next farm that had space.

They are also a big supporter of using plant-based plastics in ther restaurant. Bobsy and his team have put a lot of resources and time into finding the right waste contractors to collect their plant-based plastic and bring it to the right place with an industrial composting machine.

Tell us about how COVID has affected business in Hong Kong? What can your customers expect next year?

Over the last two years, the Hong Kong protests and Covid-19 undoubtedly influenced business. They no longer see tourists or business travellers coming in to eat. Many restaurants are still paying pre -Covid-19 rents, food has gone up and salaries have stayed the same. “The problem with Covid-19 in Hong Kong is that your income has shrunk but your overheads have not.”

The reality of conducting business in Covid-19 has changed completely. We are seeing a massive boom in new coffee shops, bakeries and small grab and go restaurants opening all over Hong Kong. The new influx of these smaller businesses is a direct by-product of Covid-19.

“No one is travelling in and out of Hong Kong. So trade is limited to local people, and this has inspired many individuals to take the leap and open their passion project. Now with cheaper rents and better deals with Landlords more retail spaces are opening up as older outlets close. Many people are exploring their dream of opening a coffeeshop, bakery or small restaurant.”

Like MANA!, many restaurants are struggling to maintain larger outlets because of Covid-19. MANA! has takend the route of shutting down their outlets and only keeping one flagship location in Soho. From here, they will survive and expand into a Covid-19 world by opening smaller MANA!’s across busy areas of Hong Kong catering to the fast-paced, take-away food culture emerging out of Covid-19.

But even if they shut down their last outlet, this will be a temporary hibernation to wait out the storm. Like an organic seed germinating in the fertile soil, awaiting for the right moment to sprout again. This movement and the work MANA! has been doing for the last 10 years has inspired a younger generation to eat more sustainably, which will show sooner or later.

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What words of wisdom would you share to any reader who wants to open a vegetarian or vegan restaurants in HK?

“I’d say go for it! Now’s the time to do it. But adapt your business model to these Covid-19 times.”

How has the HK veg/vegan scene changed over the last few years?

“It’s grown exponentially. There’s always been a market for it here but we’re now seeing a much larger audience craving more wholesome food.” MANA! has a strong customer following who don’t necessarily need to be plant-based but like the wholesome food concept and leave feeling satisfied.

“Over the last 5 years, we’ve seen a growing trend among young people towards more plant-based diets. When this generation start their first jobs, we’ll see more spending power, and see it take off. There’s also been a big push since Covid-19 which has increased the amount of people eating plant-based. Many people are questioning how do I keep my mind & body healthy? The answer is through diet and choosing healthy, sustainable food choices. “Health is our greatest wealth, always!”

“We’re in the movement of raising awareness about environmental damage. Green taxes, waste charges and government regulation are all coming soon to combat global warming. These will become the norm, and as a group we must spread this message far and wide.”

As a Food Made Good founding Member, can you describe how membership has benefited you?

“Winning the awards twice! If I were to describe it in one word it would be the Food Made Good community. There are lovely people in the community. Food Made Good has a good future ahead of it as the levels of awareness continue to grow.”

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