Vegan having a moan
My pal Joe in Berlin wanted a platform to complain about something.
I thought it would be a good opportunity to give you all a break from my self-righteous posturing, so below you will find the unabridged moan by Joe about the phenomenon of vegan restaurants not opening when they are supposed to open.
I can’t say it happens all that often in the UK, but Joe deserves to be heard!
Do vegan eateries have a higher duty of care to their customers than carnivorous ones?
This sounds like a bit of a vague, theoretical question, but it isn’t. Let me explain what I’m talking about.
I’m currently living in Berlin, which is a great city for being vegan. There are loads of vegan restaurants and cafés, a few vegan shops, and plenty of places which offer vegan options. It’s 2014, any self-respecting capital city should be like this.
So my (omnivorous) mum came to visit for a couple of days. After an exhausting few hours in the Museum at Checkpoint Charlie (which is huge and absorbing, but therefore quite physically tiring) we fancied a coffee and some cake. Who wouldn’t?
Unfortunately there’s nowhere around that part of town that I know of which caters for vegans. Luckily, just two stops on the U-Bahn and 10 minutes walk and we’ll be at Freckles, a lovely little vegan café we’ve been to before, which serves good coffee and has some great cake. Perfect! So I check on their website that they’re open on Mondays, and off we go.
It’s a bit of a trek getting there, the weather is really hot and my mum’s not much of a walker. But it will be worth it for a soya latté and piece of cake!
There’s a sign on the door saying they’re taking the day off to recover from some event or other. Crap. What now? We’re exhausted, hungry, thirsty, and we’ve made a special effort to get here only to find they’ve gone off on a whim.
We had to walk another mile to the next nearest vegetarian place, which had no vegan cake and charged extra for non-dairy coffee. (“Yeah Mum, being vegan is easy, and Berlin’s a great city to be vegan!”)
I’ll check the website again. Right there, at the top, it says they’re open Monday to Sunday (i.e. every day) from noon until 7pm. Under “Freckles News” at the side there’s a notice about them being closed over Christmas, but as it’s the last day in June I don’t think this applies.
(In fact, I’d say it’s worse to have an obsolete news section than to not have one at all. Seeing the Christmas message caused me to believe that that must be the last piece of news posted – so there’s no new information, right?)
There is a note at the bottom of the page saying that you can find the latest news on their Facebook page. There’s no link to it though so you’ll have to search for their Facebook page yourself, as I have done just now, as I write this.
I’ve just visited their Facebook page where (unlike their website) there is a photo of the note on the door, posted some time on Sunday. It looks like there was a large street festival right outside their door on the days preceding, so they must have been rushed off their feet, and needed a day off to recover.
Fair enough then I guess, they did at least make an attempt to communicate the closure, inadequate though it was for me.
Now, if this type of thing was a one-off occurrence then I wouldn’t be writing about it. I’m willing to give Freckles the benefit of the doubt and not let that put me off going again too much.
But would it really have been so much trouble to add a note to their website too? It’s not as though us vegans can just go to the next café, is it?
There’s another vegan café in Berlin which we’ve been to twice – or rather, we’ve stood outside it twice! Both times (over a month apart) we found it closed, with a note on the door telling us that they’re away at some event or other. Again, I’d seen nothing on their website, though on closer inspection their Facebook page does mention it (and at least they have a link to it).
But how many pages should a customer have to visit to find opening times? If updating a website is too much trouble, then they either need to get a better web guy in to make it easier, or ditch the website and forward their domain to their Facebook page.
If there’s nothing on their Facebook page, should I also check their Twitter page too, just in case? Should I phone up before every visit? Isn’t this the sort of thing that a website is meant for?
The most frequently annoying place for this sort of thing, however, is Sfizy Veg.
Now, Sfizy is an all-vegan pizza restaurant, and the pizzas are great. Actually, they’re not just great, they’re ridiculous and fantastic and strange and wonderful all at once. Whatever goes on in that kitchen is pure magic.
If you’re in Berlin, go to Sfizy, but – and here’s the rub – don’t get there late. How late, however, I can’t say, because they have let us down so many times.
Their website (and Facebook page!) says that it’s open until 11pm. The website also tells us that the kitchen closes at 10.15pm (though this was 10.30pm at the time I wrote this). But this seems to be rather fanciful notion, as Sfizy stop taking orders whenever the hell they like.
On our first night in Berlin, excited to try this amazing pizza we’d heard so much about, we were turned away at 10pm. Since then, we’ve been refused service on one occasion at 9.35pm.
9.35pm! That’s almost an hour and half before they close, and they’re refusing to take any more orders! Every time I’ve been in on an evening and actually managed to place an order, I’ve watched them turning multiple customers away well before the official kitchen closing time.
But it’s alright isn’t it – you can just stroll around the corner to one of the many kebab, burger and pizza shops on Sonnenallee, which are open for business and not turning anyone away.
Except you can’t, because you’re vegan, and you’ve made a special trip out to this restaurant based on their advertised opening times, only to be left hungry and stranded for no discernible reason. This never happened at Pizza Express.
(Well, of course you can go into an omnivorous place, and if you speak the language you can try to establish whether they understand and and cater for your dietary preferences, but not everyone is confident enough to do this. Even speaking English in England to English people I’ve known people having difficulty grasping what ‘vegan’ means.)
So this is what I’m talking about when I say that vegan places have a higher duty of care to their customers than omnivorous ones do.
Vegans are likely to travel further to reach a café or restaurant, and are effectively left with no option (or few, poor options) when somewhere is unexpectedly closed.
For a meat-eater, if McDonalds’ doors are locked for some strange reason, they can simply go to Burger King, or Nando’s, or KFC, or absolutely any other food outlet.
But for vegans, it’s not that simple. Even in wonderful-for-vegans Berlin, it can mean a long walk to the next place, especially late on an evening.
(After that first time at Sfizy, we went back home, did some more research, went to the U-Bahn station, went back home to get change for the ticket machine, went back the the U-Bahn, changed twice, and eventually – about 1am – reached a vegan-friendly pizza shop called Zeus. I guess we’re lucky that we even had this option!)
Have you had this experience of being left high and dry by a vegan eatery, or is it just me that has exceptionally bad luck?
I am happy to give you a platform for your complaining!
Great email Joe and you are not alone, I have on many occasions been let down by a vegan eatery in the UK and when travelling abroad. Generally in London at your standard places that have been open for years, Mildred’s, Manna, etc you know it’ll always be open, but small places that have just opened I always call before I go. I remember a wee sandwich shop that opened in Clapham a couple of years ago and my friend and I trekked there only to find it was shut randomly and they hadn’t even updated their Facebook page! (It closed down soon after!)
A particularly bad time for me was in Paris in August, my friend who used to live there told me that most things were shut but I thought she was joking – she wasn’t! My friend and I walked around for the entire day going to all the veggie/vegan places we’d found on the internet, only to find they were all shut, and they hadn’t updated anything. Seeing as most places are shut over there for 3 weeks in August, I feel their websites should reflect that!
I don’t know how hard it is to update a website, but I know Facebook is really easy and I think it should always have the up to date opening times. Some veggie/vegan establishments need to be more business minded with things like this, as they are providing a service.
Well said Joe. This is one of my biggest peeves as well, for all the reasons you mentioned! I have specifically bought train tickets, made my way to a place, walked miles, in the cold and rain….to find a place closed despite their listed opening times (on website and facebook). One time, I worked out that I spent 2 hours and 6 euro only to arrive at a café that was closed without notice. I can understand if some terrible accident has happened and the owner is stuck under a bus or something, but on investigating times when we’ve had this happen, mostly the closures are just, as you say, on a whim…because they had something better to do or whatever. Not good enough in my book.
I’ve also had this problem in Paris and in the UK. I was caught out at Loving Hut in Archway last year when I only checked their website. You really do have to check Facebook these days, especially for smaller places where if there are only one or two staff it doesn’t open if they aren’t coming in.
This has happened to me with a vegan cafe in Manchester a few times and it can be frustrating but on the other hand I understand how difficult it can be running a small business with a limited number of staff. Sometimes unexpected, last minute closures happen, sometimes they’ve run out of food early in the afternoon. They have improved and appear to be on it when it comes to updating their Facebook, but they have no contact number and queries on the Facebook page aren’t always answered. Can be annoying but I know they work hard and always look to improve. It’s less of a nightmare for me because I live in Manchester and know vegan friendly places in the city centre, but someone new to the city would probably struggle if they didn’t do a lot of research beforehand.
Some vegans might find it an inconvenience, but I think research and back up plans (as well as emergency snacks) are crucial when it comes to vegan travel. Personally, I really enjoy scrolling through Happy Cow, contacting local vegans and reading countless blogs before I visit a new city, it gets me really excited about my visit and it also gives me confidence too. More importantly, if you don’t speak the language, I think you should at least learn the basics and not rely on others to speak English. I’ve always found that making a small effort encourages people to do more to help you, especially when you’re stuck and need to eat somewhere with no vegan options. In case I don’t remember it all, or I’m in a stressful situation and it all goes out of my head, I have key phrases written down and on me at all times. I also print Google maps of the city and mark down all the vegan options in each area, so I can see what else is close by. I had a nightmare 4 hours in Paris, waiting for a train connection back to the UK because I thought I could rely on the places listed on Happy Cow and didn’t bother to write down my dietary requirements in French. It was a Saturday and everything was closed, with no real explanation why. I was originally really pissed at these places but after consideration realised that if I wanted to eat well in that time, I should have been more prepared.
I think it’s okay to have a good old moan when this happens, it’s frustrating! But I don’t think it’s fair to place responsibility on small vegan businesses and expect them to have a higher duty of care than non vegan places. Running a business is hard enough. I think encouraging better communication and highlighting consistent problems is important. A good business should take that feedback and work to improve, or at least explain why they can’t always meet everyone’s expectations. Unfortunately we live in a non vegan world and if a vegan wants to eat well (especially if they don’t speak the language or are new to a city) then it is their responsibility to research and arm themselves with options. It makes for a much better, less frustrating experience.
Also, I’ve found with Berlin in particular, pretty much all the vegan eateries rely on Facebook to communicate with customers. A lot of places don’t bother with a website. I pretty much always go straight to the Facebook page over the website, unless I want to check out the menu. Can be a bit frustrating, but just one of those things I’ve learnt through experience!
Oh, and Zeus pizza is the best I’ve ever had!