We caught up with Loui Blake to get his thoughts on life, business and new challenges in Brighton.
How different is Brighton to Norwich and what attracted you to open a restaurant here?
There’s actually a fair amount of similarities between Brighton and Norwich, but I would say the vegan scene is further established in Brighton. Both places love independents, bohemian and are incredibly liberal, and have strong hospitality scenes that transcend the usual chain restaurant city centres. My business partner, Russell Martin, was playing for Norwich city when we opened Erpingham House there and after moving back to Brighton was trying to convince me to get one open in his home town! I’ve always loved going to Brighton and selfishly I wanted to spend more time there. Equally, I recognised that as popular as plant-based foods are in Brighton, it lacks more formal dining experiences that are 100% vegan. My friend Anna at Happy Maki, and Cem at What the Pitta are testament to how successful vegan brands can be in the fast and casual food space, but there was a gap in the market for what we could offer, and so we made the decision and went for it.
Do you think your previous background in running clubs and the nightlife scene has benefited your success within the hospitality industry?
Nightlife definitely helped me. I find it fascinating how our previous roles and businesses can provide so much for future ventures, which are seemingly so different. I ran two nightclubs in my early twenties and learning how to operate a venue (or how not to!) has stuck with me. Working in London and dealing with high profile clients, you need an attention to detail. Also learning about guest experience components helped us curate an experience that makes everyone feel special.
I really enjoyed working in nightlife but as my lifestyle changed, it was no longer a good fit. I now find much more gratification in helping people discover healthy foods and make the connection between what they consume, and how it impacts the world around them.
The word vegan often comes with quite a negative connotation, sometimes labelled as hippie, restrictive or weak. Has this shown up within your businesses and how have you overcome it?
The word vegan has certainly had a negative connotation attached to it previously, but I do feel that’s changing. When we first opened Erpingham House over two years ago, we avoided the word altogether, and instead choose to say “Plant-based”, but still adhering to the vegan ethos. Our core customer base is not vegan at all, and we’ve found it’s much easier to speak to this “flexitarian” group by using the term plant-based over vegan. I do think the more people see the word being used in the mainstream and by big brands, it becomes more normal, and in turn, will benefit businesses like ours.
The lockdown period was obviously a particularly tough time for the hospitality industry. As a multiple restaurant owner and all the pressure that brings, did it have an effect on your mental health and how did you remain positive during these testing times?
I have to say, I took a week off and it was exactly what I needed. I’d been working 100 miles an hour for years and it was truly the first time I was able to switch off. When you have businesses that trade 7 days a week, or 24/7 in some cases, it’s hard to find time for yourself. After that, I got really into my running and channelled my energy there, running a marathon and then an ultramarathon. In terms of work, I was able to really focus on pivoting to meet the new demands of the space and we opened a number of new kitchens with Chloe and Vegan Dough Co in London. It was a really productive time and the balance of work and training helped keep me level headed. My daily practices were more manageable than ever and I spent a fair amount of time alone, reading and taking stock of where things were.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs looking to start a business within the sustainability industry?
My advice for anyone looking to start a business in the sustainability industry is to be driven by your ideas and your purpose, but be adaptable to new information. And practice self-care. That one Is massively important. If you are the driver, you need to give as much attention to the vehicle, if not more. It’s really important to give your all, but save something for yourself.
What are your vegan cooking skills like and what’s your go to meal?
My cooking skills leave a lot to be desired, but I’ve got really into sprouting recently! I love whole and plant-based foods and try to eat healthy 90% of the time. I would say I assemble rather than cook, but I can use a juicer and a blender pretty well!
What can we look forward to from you in the future?
In the future, I’d love to diversify my c oncepts and keep bringing new ideas that are of service and value to the community that’s seeking healthy, sustainable foods. I’m paying attention to where I’m supposed to be and what people want from me at the moment – so, let’s see!