Twenty years ago, Eric Brent presciently founded HappyCow, a free online service that lists sources of vegan and vegetarian food all over the world including restaurant, grocery stores and all other type of vegan-friendly businesses and services. Since its inception, the platform has become the go-to resource for vegans and plant-based enthusiasts who religiously check the app for cruelty-free eateries, reviews, and suggestions. HappyCow has evolved into a full media platform, with on vegan recipes, travel destination guides, health articles and trending plant-based news. We had the opportunity to talk to Eric about everything from his inspiration to launch HappyCow to where he sees the plant-based dining world going in the future, as well as his thoughts on how much veganism has grown in recent years.
GQ: Thank you for taking the time to speak to us, Eric! Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you started HappyCow? We would love to know more about the journey that got you here. What’s the HappyCow story?
EB: Thank you for having me here. When I finished college and started to travel non-stop for 15 years, and I was already vegan at the time, there was no easy way to find out where vegan restaurants were because it was before the internet age. I really struggled to find where I could go to eat vegan food. Eventually, when the internet became available, people did post some information but there was nothing comprehensive out there. After about a year of procrastinating, I decided to go ahead and do it myself without much thought about what it would become. I taught myself how to make websites, and I decided to put together a basic version of what HappyCow is now, and later on, I had a friend help me make it more dynamic.
GQ: Many of us plant-based folk have used HappyCow regularly and find it a hugely helpful tool. For those who might not be as familiar with the platform, could you explain a bit about how HappyCow works?
EB: Over the years, obviously the data and information available is one thing that makes HappyCow special. Our platform is a free resource for anyone in the world to use to find vegan restaurants, shops and more. We have people all over the world contributing and creating content, which then gets curated by our team. For many years, I ran the website myself, but in the past 10 years it has really grown and now requires a whole team of people to keep it going from all over the world. People have no idea how much is involved!
GQ: Veganism has really taken off in recent years. In your opinion, what is driving this shift in eating habits? Is it environmental awareness, health reasons, ethical concerns or a combination?
EB: I have been vegan for 30 years now, and I have never seen such growth before as in the past 5 years, and especially the past 2 years. Everyday, I’m now hearing and seeing amazing stories. While there are many things I feel I can easily attribute the shift to, one of the most important factors is the way that information now can travel so fast and so easily. There is so much content now, from online articles to youtube videos, vegan documentaries and medical recommendations in favour of going plant-based. We’ve never seen more people and organisations doing great advocacy work — it’s like a wave has come over. The motivations for the spread of veganism are different in every part of the world, whether it is animal rights, health, the environment or spiritual reasons.
In the past, I’ve felt that a lot of vegans I knew were somewhat imbalanced and have typically focused on one reason above others. But nowadays, I feel like the vegan community is much more balanced in terms of having all sorts of angles, information and education to create a solid basis of all the reasons to be vegan.
GQ: There seems to be so many more vegan and vegetarian restaurants opening up all over the world now. How different is the picture today compared to say 5 and 10 years ago? What does the data show to reflect this growth?
EB: We have a lot of data. We’ve done one on London’s vegan growth recently, which is really showing us the way of how veganism is totally taking off. For a long time, we saw more vegan-friendly destinations in Berlin, and Seattle and Portland in the United States, but the scene has really been growing in London. We’re not just seeing so many new vegan and vegetarian restaurants being opened every week, but we’re seeing all types of businesses, from salons to professionals of all kinds in London go vegan.
Globally, we’re also seeing a steady growth in the number of new vegan restaurants being added to our database each year—from 840 in 2014 to a massive jump to 2551 in 2019. You can access all of our data and statistics on our homepage, and HappyCow has also provided articles where we highlight some of the interesting things going on in the plant-based world.
GQ: Where do you see the plant-based dining scene going? What innovations are in store?
EB: I think that in terms of the quality of restaurants and the food offerings, it’s just going to get better and better. In recent years, there has been a big trend of huge chains providing vegan options, and to some degree I am concerned about this because while it’s great for the animals and environment and vegan diners, it can be bad for independent vegan restaurants who do depend on each and every customer to stay in business. Because of this, vegan restaurants are going to have to reconsider their strategy, launch new offerings, revamp menus and really focus on upping their cuisine, innovating to keep customers coming.
And as peoples’ plant-based journey continues, a lot more people will be paying attention to health. So it won’t just be about something delicious, we’re likely to see more healthy vegan options come around.
GQ: Do you think that in the future, all restaurants will do so – even traditionally meat-heavy eateries?
EB: Oh yeah, for sure! Three or 4 years ago, I was in Berlin and shocked that almost every restaurant had a vegan option. I walked past one particular restaurant that had to place a sign that said they had no vegan options, which was pretty hilarious. What I’m trying to say is that we’re on the way to see that everywhere, where cities will be full of vegan options, and those restaurants who don’t will need to advertise that they don’t have vegan food.
GQ: To non-plant-based folk, what do you think is the best way to convince them to adopt a more plant-centric diet and try to reduce meat and dairy consumption?
EB: There are so many good organisations like Vegan Challenge and Veganuary, which gives people the resources and mentoring to make the switch. But in general, there are so many reasons to go vegan, and to at least reduce our consumption of meat and dairy.
If I had to convince someone, I would tell them to stop dairy first of all. This is because the life of dairy cows is cruel, and baby cows are being taken away from their mothers, and environmental reasons. In terms of health, the casein in dairy products has been tied to breast and prostate cancer. Substitute out the dairy products using alternative butters and plant milks, which will help remove the hormonal addictive factor in dairy. Once people go dairy-free, they will soon realise they might want to go meat-free too. And with so many plant-based options like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, it’s so easy to substitute meat out.
GQ: What do you ultimately hope to achieve with HappyCow?
EB: It’s been 20 years running HappyCow, and I feel like it’s already achieved my initial goal of making information accessible for everyone. We’ve had website upgrades and launched our own app. Going forward into the future, we’re going to work on building the community and interaction between members. We want to create a place where people are safe to ask questions and find people they can relate to. Of course, the primary purpose of HappyCow remains the same, to provide the highest quality information, and continue with the integrity and reliability of our data.
GQ: In your opinion, what is the biggest environmental issue facing our planet today?
EB: Animal agriculture, which is something that us as individuals can easily control to change with our diet. We can choose to recycle and avoid flying to help keep down emissions, but going plant-based is one of the biggest ways to save water, reduce pollution and there are so many health benefits too. To me, it’s all about personal ego – food is ego. It’s about what one can get for themselves, versus caring about the source of food and the impact it creates. There are certainly other things that need to be worked on, but going plant-based is very impactful.
GQ: If you could convince every person to adopt one habit, would it be to go plant-based then?
EB: Obviously, yes. But there will always be people who will never want to stop eating animals, no matter what the reasons are. Which is why creating all the options will help with that, and this is already happening with plant-based meat and dairy. There is even bioidentical dairy happening with companies like Perfect Day, which can replace the need for dairy cows. There are brands making aged cheeses. Basically, there will be alternatives that can substitute all the dietary cravings people have. Also, in terms of in vitro meat and dairy, once these fully develop the price point will go down and companies will hopefully switch.
It could be that one day, huge fast food chains won’t even give customers the choice of conventional meat. They will choose from a plant-based burger, a plant-based bio-identical burger, or clean meat burger. Some people speculate that this will happen 10 years from now, but I feel it could be possible within the next 5 years, where animal agriculture as we know it will completely collapse.
GQ: Final question – we have to ask you: team rice or team noodles?
Lead image courtesy of Eric Brent.