Not so vegan-friendly: Plant-based businesses on the acute impact of the hospitality crisis

By Katy Thornton

February 13, 2024 at 11:13am

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Being vegan has never been more popular, so why are we seeing so many plant-based restaurants in Dublin shutting down?

Veganism is on the rise in Ireland, with the number of vegans quadrupling in the last decade, according to a 2023 report from the Vegan Society of Ireland. The signs are there, with the Vegetarian Society of Ireland rebranding themselves to the Vegan Society of Ireland a few weeks back, believing it was a more fitting title given the rise in veganism. It's important to remember that this rise is an incremental one, given that vegans numbered just 2% of the population ((10,000 in comparison to our 5 million population) in 2021, based on a Bord Bia report. But on a more positive note, that same Bord Bia survey showed that almost a quarter of Irish citizens associate with a flexitarian diet, with 19% strictly adhering to it, which is a significant percentage. While those surveyed would not describe themselves as vegan, they were cutting down their meat and dairy intake in favour of a more plant-based diet.

It's no secret that every restaurant and cafe in the city has been put through the wringer over the last few years, but anecdotally there seems to have been a stark increase in the number of dedicated vegan hospitality businesses closing. As the whole Lovin team took on the Veganuary challenge this year, we couldn't help but notice the sheer number of closures in the plant-based sector, even compared to last year. The likes of Bear Lemon, Yum Grub, and Woke Cup café, to name but a few, have all shut down since we last embarked on this January lifestyle. Much like any other business, vegan businesses face staffing challenges, electricity VAT increases, and a looming recession making it more challenging than ever to operate, but solely vegan businesses can feel the sting of product price increases and a lack of plant-based subsidies more acutely.

Perhaps the dwindling of vegan businesses is down to fewer people committing wholly to the lifestyle, but even if fewer people are going plant-based full-time, should that mean we no longer need restaurants and eateries that focus on wholly plant-based meals? What often puts people off the vegan diet is the commitment associated with it, the all-or-nothing approach.

With this in mind, there needs to be more grace, and perhaps a focus on cutting back as opposed to cutting out - but that is made difficult when there are fewer and fewer restaurants with a vegan or plant-based agenda; even from doing Veganuary again this year, I've found most restaurants that aren't vegan only do one option (if an option at all), and finding 100% vegan restaurants, or even vegetarian, are few and far between. While I'd argue that the vegan selection in supermarkets has vastly increased in comparison, eating out as a vegan in this city isn't as easy as it was a couple of years ago, despite the slow but steady increase of those taking up this lifestyle change.

While we're grateful to have the likes of Glas, Cornucopia, The Saucy Cow, Flip, and V-Face, the vegan offering is most certainly not what it used to be, and we got onto business owners who have closed their vegan premises in recent years to get their perspective on this area of hospitality.

"At one point Dublin was considered one of the most vegan-friendly cities in Europe and now I think we’re down to just 2 vegan places."

Rebecca Feely of vegan-friendly café Kale + Coco, which closed in Stoneybatter at the end of 2023, recognised the issues facing hospitality but saw it as an industry-wide problem. Her take on the recent vegan closures was that because they are newer, most only operating for a couple of years before closing, they are simply not as well positioned to make it through difficulties like covid, citing that younger businesses are more vulnerable to these challenges.

Add in that Dublin is already a tiny market in comparison to larger cities, running more niche restaurants like vegan-focused eateries presents a challenge and Feely considering whether the city could hold multiple Kale + Cocos.

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That said, Feely recognised the gap that has opened in the vegan market, noting that Dublin was once considered one of the most vegan-friendly locations in Europe, and now only has a handful of totally vegan cafés or restaurants. However, she did stress that most places will provide at least one vegan option on their menus, so even though there's less of a focus on plant-based specific restaurants, vegans can still eat out in Dublin much easier than five or six years ago.

She found as a business owner one of the biggest issues was staffing, and that people simply cannot afford to live on minimum wage salaries in this city, where once they could have.

When it comes to hospitality as a whole in Dublin, Feely got candid about how the city has changed in the years since covid, how many businesses only operate three days when it used to be five, and how they're penalised for having sandwich boards that advertise their café/restaurant, as well as outdoor seating. But that's not all - Feely explained how she, like many business owners, has been forced to clean up human excrement from outside her premises, saying that, "some grants would be nice and support in paying increased wages and some leeway on payment plans for repaying warehoused tax but I think there also needs to be a focus on making Dublin a city that people want to live in again."

The conversation with Feely suggested that the obstacles faced by Dublin hospitality is much more than just internal factors when it comes to running a business, with staffing and bills, but what's going on with the city itself.

Closure statement via Instagram / Kale + Coco

"People need to be able to spend money in hospitality, it's the lifeblood of the economy."

Mark Grace, co-owner of YumGrub had a similar experience when closing his food truck after two years in operation. Grace acknowledged that with a likely recession looming, "niche markets and premium brands will feel it first" although all of hospitality is suffering. While he agrees with Feely's point of view that there is a gap in the market now for plant-based or vegan offerings, he also recognised that most restaurants have a better understanding of dietary requirements and more of a willingness to create plant-based options on their menus than ever before.

When asked if the lack of vegan-centred restaurants could deter consumers from embarking on this diet, Mark said that could likely be the case, saying that, "plant-based businesses are extremely helpful in the beginning when you are transitioning to plant-based" and that those on a flexitarian diet may opt for the meat option on menus if there's a lack of good vegan options.

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From a sustainability point of view, Mark suggested that plant-based hospitality businesses should receive government aid, saying: "The government should provide subsidies for plant-based products and businesses as they align perfectly with our goals of reducing CO2 emissions. There are grants available for certain products but not for cafes and restaurants."

As it stands, agriculture is responsible for 37.5% of Ireland’s emissions according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), with the livestock sector producing more greenhouse gases than direct emissions from all transport forms - so government subsidies and support for plant-based products and businesses could only be a positive step in reducing these emissions.

Image via Instagram / Yum Grub

"A total of 228 small food businesses have closed since July."

We got in touch with Conor Sweeny of Dae Ice-cream (formerly Leamhain), a brand that caters to all dietary requirements, not just those who are dairy-free, as the closure of their ice-cream parlour in Stephen's Green Shopping Centre was another vegan-friendly business we were sad to see shut down.

However, Sweeny assured us the pop-up had simply come to the end of their contract, and that was the reason behind exiting the shopping centre. Dae is also switching its focus back to where it started, as a wholesaler - so those who rely on their delicious dairy-free, gluten-free, nut-free ice-cream sandwiches will still be able to find them in supermarkets.

When asked if he had noticed the negative trend of vegan or vegan-friendly locations closing, Sweeny echoed the points made by Feely and Grace, saying he believed it was more of "an industry issue rather than the dietary preference of an establishment" and said that "the rising of food costs, energy, waste disposal, packaging, 12% minimum wage increase, revert of VAT, lack of staffing and the cost of living" were factors affecting all food businesses.

So while it might feel as though this is a vegan restaurant issue, it is clear that Dublin hospitality at its core is struggling in today's economy.

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Dae Stephen's Green pop-up via Instagram / Dae

 

I came into these conversations with a clear opinion, based on the number of vegan closures in Dublin over the last couple of years, but from speaking to these business owners, it's become obvious that the doors shutting on vegan restaurants is just a symptom of the wider issue affecting all of hospitality. As a more niche offering, much newer to the Dublin food scene than eateries that serve meat and animal products with the majority of their dishes, they tend to be more vulnerable, and when a handful of vegan-friendly businesses shut their doors, it leaves very few options left.

The result remains that there are less than ten vegan-only restaurants in Dublin now; at a time when cutting back, choosing more sustainable and environmentally friendly options is more imperative than ever, it's becoming harder and harder to do so, at least when it comes to dining out.

Options like government subsidies for plant-based businesses, a reduction in VAT to balance price increases, and as Feely pointed out in our conversation with her, the "convoluted processes involved in getting planning permission" would all go a long way in assisting those trying to operate successfully in 2024.

We can only hope to see positive changes as we get further into the new year.

READ ON: 12 vegan friendly spots to try out in Dublin this Veganuary

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