Welcome to today’s episode featuring our special guest, Jason Antony. Jason is a fervent advocate for the vegan lifestyle and serves as a co-owner of MeeT Restaurants in Vancouver and Victoria. His overarching mission is to make plant-based eating more accessible to everyone. With over two decades of experience in Vancouver’s culinary scene, he transcends the role of a mere restaurateur and stands as a true agent of change.
Join us on this enthralling journey with Jason as we delve into the profound influence of travel on his professional trajectory. Discover how his personal odyssey led him to embrace a vegan lifestyle, subsequently inspiring ventures such as MeeT Restaurants and Vegan Supply, a pioneering concept in the realm of vegan grocery. We will also explore the ways in which travel has shaped these endeavors and examine the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on both the vegan and hospitality industries. By the end of this episode, you’ll gain insights into how travel can spark personal and professional growth of profound significance.
In this episode, we discuss:
- Jason Antony is a passionate advocate for the vegan lifestyle and co-owner of MeeT Restaurants in Vancouver and Victoria.
- His mission is to make plant-based eating more accessible to a wider audience.
- With 20+ years in Vancouver’s culinary scene, transforms vegan cuisine.
- how travel has profoundly influenced Jason’s professional trajectory.
Learn more about what we talk about
- Jason’s personal journey towards adopting a vegan lifestyle and how it has been a driving force behind his ventures
- Travel has played a pivotal role in shaping Jason’s business endeavors.
- The global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on both the vegan and hospitality industries.
- how travel can ignite personal and professional growth.
Other World Vegan Travel content connected with this episode
- LINDENBERG Hotels: Leading the Way in Vegan-Friendly Travel Experiences | Denise Omurca | Ep 130
- Exploring Ahead Hotel: A Vegan Oasis in Germany’s Landscape | Kim Stellbrinck | Ep 128
- Tales of Pebble Cove: A Journey to Orcas Island’s Farm Inn and Animal Sanctuary | Lydia Miller | Ep 126
- Unveiling the Story: Inside the Vegan Resort Von Kernvoll | Christian | Ep 124
- Travel and Vacationing as a Vegan Entrepreneur | Stephanie Redcross West | Ep 118
- Must-sees, do, and eats on your next trip to Portland, Oregon | Ashley Castellanos | Ep 104
Connect with Jason
- Website / Vegan Supply
- Website / Eat Meet
Brighde: Hello Jason, thank you for joining me on the World Vegan Travel Podcast.
Jason: Thank you so much for having me. I’m super excited about this. This is going to be great.
Brighde: Same here, I am really thrilled because you are located fairly close to me in British Columbia and it just so happens that my partner Seb, me also, but especially Seb is possibly one of the biggest fans of your work.
Jason: Yeah, well, we really appreciate it, for sure.
Brighde: So before we get started, Jason, and the topic of the podcast, which is, how travel inspired like a vegan brand and vegan businesses, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what it is that you do in the vegan space?
Jason: I think a really good place to start, I can give you a little bit of my vegan backstory and then walk you into what I did. But I’ve been vegan for almost 20 years. Came to veganism originally as a health concern, like a lot of people. Then started watching the documentaries and learning more about what was going on and kind of took more of a holistic approach.
I was vegan for a series of years and about 10 years ago, like a lot of people, I watched Earthlings. After watching Earthlings, it came to me that there was more that I could do than just be a vegan and that I had to be part of a solution to make a change. I saw a holistic problem that was just much bigger than I ever appreciated. So that really is where we got started. I have been in the restaurant industry in the past. At the time I was in the grocery industry. I had like foods to support healing, so I had Crohn’s disease, that was what I had, and part of my journey back from Crohn’s disease, a buddy of mine was diagnosed with skin cancer. So his doctor at the time, which was not very common, recommended he try a plant-based diet. So I went on board for the ride, to support him. And in doing so, I ended up healing my gut.
So we had a grocery store, that had foods to support healing. It was a philosophically different approach for a grocery store at the time. And I ended up over time becoming more and more interested, in trying to support veganism. I thought natural foods and organics and making these choices were personal choices to improve, a person’s health. Whereas, the animals are voiceless. They didn’t have any say in what was going on and I kind of felt it to be my responsibility to be part of that change.
So, this store was called Antony & Sons. And so what we did was, with Antony & Sons, we had the existing infrastructure. We attended a vegetarian trade show, it was called Veg Expo at the time in Vancouver and it’s now called Planted. We went there with all the inventory that suited a vegan diet under the banner of vegan supply.
And it was really, really well received. This is, where we kind of got started. We started with Ecom and we fulfilled our product out of the Antony and Sons store. That’s how we kind of got that business started. All this happened after watching Earthlings, roughly concurrent to that, a friend of mine who’d been in the restaurant business for years, and I opened my first restaurant in 94, and that one had a fire.
But we had vegan products on the menu back in 94, which is kind of interesting. It’s surprising to think back to those days, but we actually had a couple of vegan products. I wasn’t vegan, but we knew that there were people interested in vegetarianism and veganism.
But anyway, to get back to the person, this is Meet Restaurants. He said hey, I’d love to start a restaurant with you, and I was like I’m not getting in that business ever again, that’s a terrible business. I went away and Linda, who’s my life partner my business partner as well. We had a conversation.
I asked what would it take to start a restaurant again. We kind of designed Basically Meet. We said we would do this, it has to be something scalable, and it has to be an agent for change. So a lot of this is going to tie back into what we experienced, a lot of the vegetarian and vegan restaurants that we’d experienced through our travels. A lot of them were like vegan or vegetarian restaurants kind of set out to serve vegans and vegetarians and very few of them were thriving. Like they were doing okay, I’m sure this happened to you too, you travel to like the corners of some city, and then you get there, and they go, oh yeah, we shut last week. Or they’re not open three days a week, and this week, they’re not open a fourth.
That kind of stuff happened time and time again, and we realized that wasn’t going to make the change that we wanted. So the Meet concept was specific about trying to appeal as a restaurant first and not trying to be a vegan or vegetarian restaurant. Vegan Supply on the other hand, its focus was, okay, I’m interested in going dairy-free, or I’m interested in exploring being plant-based, or I’m interested in being vegan. Where do I find the solutions that I need to move forward? There are so many ways to be an activist. But the ones that really appealed to me because I watched what it would take to change, one was restaurants, because people need convenience and they need to experience food that way.
The other is people need to cook at home, so that was grocery. And the last was being a purveyor of information. And that was… All the people online that were sharing recipes and insights and how do you get started and what happens if you have this health challenge and working your way through all those things and for that we actually haven’t done anything yet But I do think that’s going to be part of our next chapter is figuring out, how to be involved in that section more, because I do see veganism having a bit of a stutter step right now and I think that collaboration is going to be something that, again, we can expand upon this later if you wish, but I think that’s going to be something that’s part of how we’re going to move forward to our, kind of our next stage in our evolution as a community. I’m really excited about that, but that’s kind of the origin story of the businesses and they’ve evolved over time.
We actually have four restaurants under the Meet banner right now. They’re full-service restaurants. Three in Vancouver, one in Victoria. We have two retail stores for vegan supplies. We have an e-commerce store for vegan supplies. Then we have a wholesale division that helps other businesses, whether they’re retail stores restaurants cafes, or food manufacturers, get the vegan products they need to run their businesses.
Brighde: Fantastic. That’s great. I didn’t know until we had a little chat a few weeks ago now that, your company is vegan supply and The Meet Restaurants. Can you talk a little bit about, like, vegan supply and the kind of products that you have? Because here in British Columbia, in the supermarkets, we actually do have quite a lot of vegan products already, which is fabulous. But really, your shop and your e-commerce market go much, much deeper into that, and have even more products from all around the world. So can you talk a little bit about how the difference is between vegan supply and just the amazing supermarkets that we have already?
Jason: I think what’s really important is the timeline. Like, when we started… Veganism wasn’t trendy, it wasn’t popular, and it was a service. So there was nothing in the conventional grocery stores, except cheese that was dairy-free but it had casein in it. It was a very different time, I guess.
At first, it was very much a, if you build it, they will come, kind of scenario, because we had everything. Now, as you described, and this is something that travel has really been insightful for, is that most grocery stores in most developed areas have vegan solutions. It’s just a matter of how many and how good the solutions are that they have.
Now, what we find though, is that, What was interesting is a lot of venture capital came into the vegan industry and all these businesses started up and there are almost too many solutions now, for the amount of vegan consumers. A lot of businesses are going under and unfortunately, it’s not always like the best businesses survive It’s kind of like the best-managed businesses survive. So some great products come and go. What we’re trying to do is sift through to try and find the products that are the best products and make sure that we provide support for those.
And also small businesses, we like to give opportunities for young entrepreneurs to get started and have their first foray into figuring out packaging and all the compliance issues. Just like we look everywhere to try and find great products. So we’re always looking to try and find the latest bacon because bacon is like a gateway drug, right?
So we need to make sure that we have solutions that people can rationalize a transition really is what it comes down to. We’re always trying to be agents for change. So there are certain things, as people talk about coffee creamer, they talk about bacon, they talk about chocolate, like there are a few things and we try to have the latest and greatest in those areas and we just try to stay on trend as, if we can. By the way, we talk about travel as an inspiration, regionally there are really great solutions in different parts of the world that aren’t available in most parts of the world because it’s very hard to scale a business outside of a region, let alone a country.
For us to get into those areas and talk to these people, like, if we could do that more, we would be able to provide such great utility. It’s just expensive and it’s difficult but I find it really enjoyable. So, I’d love to be able to do more of it, but the grocery business is a very low margin. It’s not a very financially rewarding business; selling, Low margin, low volume. You have to be in the other quadrant of the matrix to do well with that. But again, that’s not why we’re here. We always said when we started, for us to go out of business because everybody’s vegan, that’s perfect. That’s amazing. That’s a huge marker, it’s not the success that most people strive for when they’re trying to start a business. And this is the thing when you’re building a social enterprise, your goals are a little different. But that’s really where we’re heading trying to make the change and find the products that are unique.
Brighde: That’s really interesting to me. A few years ago, I was really into the brand Vigusto, which I’m sure you’re aware of. It’s like a Swiss brand, there are some comparable products now, but at the time, I really loved that brand. I was really curious about like, ’cause you stock it, right?
Jason: Are you talking about which brand?
Brighde: Vigusto, is a Swiss cheese brand, I’m pretty sure you stock it.
Jason: So we import stuff directly ourselves, and then we have third-party importers. Like today, I just picked up the vegan KitKat from the UK. So we’ll have that stocked shortly. Like they come and they go, and this is kind of what I was saying. So the brand sounds familiar, but I don’t know it. There’s a Gusta brand from Canada, but that’s not what you’re talking about. So yeah,
Brighde: Yeah. I mean this is what I learned when I found out about this brand that was only available in Europe and North America at the time I was living in Asia. I spotted in Australia and I asked the staff, they’re like, how is it that you get this? And they’re like, well, we have to import it ourselves. And I think that’s probably what you do as well, rather than Vigusto who’s not interested in sort of distributing or setting up an area here. I learned through that experience that it’s really hard to import products like this. Is that?
Brighde: I know from my experience delving into this whole Vigusto issue that it’s actually quite hard to import products like this. And I’m sure most supermarkets would only want to do that if they were really sure that they were going to sell a lot of volume. And as you said, it’s low volume that you’re selling. So it must be really a labor of love to get these products imported, but am I right? It is really hard to import these products, particularly perishable products?
Jason: Yeah, exactly. These perishable ones are really where the problem lies. It’s shipping is expensive for conventional products from all parts of the world. And volume is an issue because everything really works on a palletized system for cargo and stuff like that. And in very few cases, can you afford to go against short shelf life dates?
With volume products, trying to estimate your volume is really challenging in the business, but with refrigerated and frozen products, it’s super tough to try and figure out how to, navigate that and bring in the right amount of product that you’re going to be able to move.
This is where you get into this interesting thing of heavily prepared foods versus healthier choices versus confectionery items. Like there’s just so many different, there’s a lot of nuance there. Sharing the risk and pre-ordering and things like that is ideal. Like if you can find people who are like, Hey, I’ve been waiting for that product forever.
You get a list of people who want to join for the ride. That’s what I think something we’re going to do more of, and we might not even carry the products long term, but we’ll do it on a, maybe a seasonal basis or something. We’ll bring in products from other parts of the world and get pre-orders for people who are kind of wanting to join in and everybody will just share in the shipping costs and stuff like that.
I think that is going to be something that will happen more because, as I said, there are some really great solutions and other, like in Europe, there are some great things going on right now like Europe is very progressive and in North America, have more of those solutions here. I’d love to do that.
And I think they’d probably say the same thing about us, but it would be great to see if we can figure out a way to get things moving around the world to make it easier to be vegan is really what it comes down to.
Brighde: Yeah, I love that. I know in the past until I had this understanding, I was often sort of guilty of thinking, oh my goodness, why can’t this brand be available in the place where I’m living and it’s made on the other side of the world, and it’s well, no, actually, it’s really hard.
Jason: And a lot of it’s bureaucracy. I think that’s something that’s really important to recognize here. It’s not like there are entrepreneurs that would do the work, except the labeling requirements vary from country to country. And not only that, it’s not just the labels themselves, like how they look, your nutritional panel is totally different even between Canada and the US, for instance. And then on top of that, supplementation is permitted in some countries and not in others for things like nondairy milks and required in others. There’s the labeling laws and then there’s the supplementation and what it means to be vegan. In some countries, they’re making it difficult to bring in. Like, the meat lobby is strong, and they don’t want competition. So they don’t want anybody to be confused that they might be buying plant-based bacon, you can’t use terms like bacon and it’s different from country to country. I think we are In the infancy of a really big movement, and we’re having challenges as we get there.
So yes, there are challenges now. I think those challenges in some countries are getting better. In some countries, I think they’re actually getting worse, as they’ve kind of gone backward a bit.
Brighde: All of this to say, you know, obviously your grocery store isn’t directly about, like, vegan travel, but listeners, if you are in Vancouver, well, make a special trip to Chinatown, not just because Chinatown is a very interesting place to walk around in Vancouver, but there are several amazing vegan restaurants, but there is also this incredible vegan grocery store that you can pick up incredible products from all around the world and enjoy them.
I highly recommend it. I’d love to talk a little bit now about Meet and this concept and the kind of food that is there, because again, vegans should definitely go and check it out when they’re in Vancouver, because, as I said, it’s Seb’s favorite. It’s definitely in my top two or three restaurants as well. Can you please talk a little bit about the concept and the kind of food you have and all of those things?
Jason: Yeah, okay, so when we started Meet, the intention was to have a casual and approachable kind of diverse business that allowed a lot of different people to get their needs met there. So we did well with gluten-free and dairy-free and all these things. And again, you walked in, it was accidentally vegan.
So 70 percent of our menu was comfort food and 30 percent of our menu was healthier choices. What ended up happening over the last series of years is Instagram and all the comfort choices blew up. And so we started migrating to doing more and more comfort food, which for me is a bit of a miss.
Like, I think that I can’t eat comfort food three days a week every week. I enjoy it but it’s something that’s really kind of a bit challenging to eat all the time. So, we’re going to get back to that mix of where we’re offering both comfort food and healthier choices, so people can come more often, especially with what’s happening in Vancouver right now, is some of the great vegan restaurants are struggling and are shutting down.
And so, I think meeting the needs of the community is a bigger responsibility that we have now, and trying to figure out how to do that. But, yeah, Meet, we have big menus. Our largest location in Victoria, we almost 200 seats, so these are big restaurants, like full bars like it’s a full-on dining experience a little bit more casual.
We’re not a casual fine-dining restaurant. The music can get a little bit louder later, earlier it tends to be a little bit quieter, in the rooms. In Victoria, because the room’s large, we can do private parties and stuff, but yeah, again, cocktail list, it just feels like a restaurant experience where you, you don’t have to wonder whether or not you’re going to end up with like a shrimp in your fries, or somebody’s going to put real cheese on your burger that day. I don’t know how many times this has happened. You go to restaurants that have vegan options, and you can rationalize your head away. I don’t mind them frying in the same fryer, but then you get an animal product in your fries, and it’s kind of gross. As we went to a pho restaurant once and again, this is disgusting, I know, but these types of experiences happen where like a little bit of fur. I don’t know how this happened.
Brighde: The fur, animal fur was in, the pho?
Jason: yeah, I don’t even know. Again, I’m not even worried about how it happened now, but it’s just that cross-contamination issue. I think it’s super important that non-vegan restaurants have vegan options. It’s not that, Hey, we only have to do vegan restaurants, but there’s this disgusting part of, the cross-contamination. Like I went vegan for lots of reasons, but I don’t want to ingest animal products.
Especially in the early days, I don’t know how long a lot of the community has been vegan, but a lot of times people don’t want to serve vegans. If you’re in a vegan restaurant, people care about, like your values are aligned. And even though not all the staff are vegan, they can’t put nonvegan products in your food just to get back at you. I’m excited to see where more restaurants have better options and more thorough menu placement kind of solutions. Because right now, Even in the restaurants that are doing it, like, it went to a point where you got the red sauce on pasta or, hummus with sliced vegetables.
Brighde: In Whistler, it’s always falafel wrap. Oh my gosh.
Jason: Yeah, exactly. And then in some places now, the solution is a beyond burger. And then innovation is an impossible burger. We are getting to the place though, where it’s getting better. I’m starting to see more diverse menus, in other places, which is exciting. I’m looking forward to watching that continue to change and again, the more solutions available. The business of the restaurant industry, needs to have in their distribution cycle that there has to be a more robust solution environment where people are coaching them and giving them the solutions, and they’re sampling them on these solutions, I’m seeing that happen now, again, it’s exciting. It means that the future is going to be different. So, which is great.
Brighde: Before we get onto the travel aspect, something I would really love our listeners to be aware of is that there are a lot of really exciting things about The Meet Restaurants. In terms of the dining experience there, this is my observation and my perspective, and there are some amazing vegan restaurants in, Vancouver, but something that I’ve noticed about Meet, is was, first of all, you have three branches in Vancouver and one in Victoria. In my opinion, huge in itself, but you have like a weekly special that is different in every single restaurant, which blows my mind. You now have a brunch menu that, correct me if I’m wrong, is available every day from morning until I’m guessing about three o’clock in the afternoon. Like, when we brought my friends Colleen and David there a few weeks ago and we actually had our meetup a few hours later by the bar area of one of your restaurants, they actually commented, Wow, I wish we had something like this in San Francisco.
Because it really is that incredible. You have happy hour. You have outdoor patio spaces as well as dine-in areas. I mean it’s something that’s quite special and unique.
Jason: yeah, the specials, I think for me, are part of, like, one of the things that, it makes the whole experience that much better, because the menu, we haven’t innovated as much on our menu as I would have liked to see, but the specials are incredible, and, like, our Instagram page, if you go back through our Instagram pages for all the different locations, you get to see all the different things that are being tried.
Some of them are better than others, but there’s always food that is interesting and different than our conventional menu. So, there are people that all they do is they look on Instagram, they check out what the features are, and they go to the different locations based on the features.
Brighde: That is almost exactly what we do when we’re coming down from Squamish to Vancouver and we’ll be like okay where are we gonna eat now because we live a little while away so you know we want to make it a little bit of event by having a lunch or something like that and you know one of the first things we’ll do is go to the website which you know I love and they always have the weekly specials for each restaurant listed on the website and it’s very accurate and up to date and yeah, we will be like, oh my gosh, do you see that special that’s on at the Yaletown location?
Okay, the decision was made. That’s where we’re going. So yeah, it’s really, really cool and fun. Something else I wanted to comment on. And you sort of alluded to this, your experience with vegan and vegetarian restaurants. I think a lot of the time people start vegetarian and vegan restaurants because just for the love of it, and they’re not necessarily very knowledgeable about the restaurant industry, and they’re not necessarily business people, and I’m guessing your knowledge of the grocery and the restaurant industry has probably really helped you to become as successful as you are, whereas a lot of other vegetarian and vegan restaurants are closed because they can’t afford to stay open every day of the week and that just leads to disappointment. Is that a fair comment?
Jason: Absolutely. Both businesses are not good businesses. I wouldn’t recommend them to anybody. We are surviving in time. We’re not thriving where we can open up unlimited restaurants because it’s so profitable to do what we’re doing. Especially through COVID, it’s been very, very challenging for both businesses.
Vegan supply had an e-commerce bump when everything was shut down because the stores shut down, it wasn’t a great outcome for us, and with everything being available in conventional grocery stores, like, our profitability in both of our businesses has decreased over the years, and it’s not one of those things that if that’s the only reason we were in it, we wouldn’t be in it anymore.
Our goal is to be more solutions-oriented and innovative and try and see if we can find ways to make the community really expand. Like, how do we have a bigger vegan community five years from now than we have today? And how do we get through tough times with raising interest rates? All those types of things. Like, how do we navigate challenges? That’s our responsibility. That’s kind of what we have to do. And we’re always down to collaborate and like we’ve tried to collaborate with a series of businesses that were struggling along the way. But it doesn’t always work. So some businesses are really like we just sit down and we chat about solutions and other businesses are really tight to their chest and want to do things on their own and so everybody has their own approach and other businesses right now by the way are thriving like there are restaurants and there are consumer packaged goods that are just blowing up all over the world.
Like, there are some great success stories even amidst this challenged economy that we’re in. So, there are ways for anybody who’s interested in going down this path, if your goals aren’t financial and you’re prepared to be a student constantly. I think this is something that’s really worthwhile for a lot of people to do. There are a lot of people who have a lot of skills in this area. It’s a lot of it, just like life in general. You have to manage your expectations. Like, if your goals aren’t financial, you can make some great changes.
Brighde: I love it. I love it. And I’m really keen, towards the end of this recording, I would love to know what your future goals are for what it is that you’re doing. But I would really like to talk about the travel part of this as well because you are quite widely traveled and you talked a little bit about how travel taught you a lot about, what you wanted to create. So would you mind sharing, how travel came to be a part of, what it is that you’re doing now? And just travel generally, your attitude to travel, and how it’s been influential in your life.
Jason: Yeah, so there are obviously lots of questions there. A story that really strikes me as being in Vancouver. I remember driving down to Seattle, just to get donuts. Mighty O Donuts was down in Seattle years ago. There wasn’t a vegan donut shop in Canada and we used to make trips and I think people do this, like people will go to restaurants, people will go travel to a city just to have a dining experience.
Brighde: Travel for vegan food.
Jason: For sure. Yeah. I know that for me, we’ve done that in different ways, for years, like it’s just forever. When you layer upon that experience after experience, after experience, like your travel almost becomes very heavily connected to the food choices you have in those different places that you go to, and when you’re not able to cook you need to have a Kitchenette so you can prepare your own food. So these types of things are like a big part of what it means to have, a vegan travel experience. So the question I guess comes down to is, why do you do that? Well, I find that staying in your same region when we were here, there was a long-standing vegetarian restaurant in Vancouver called The NOM, and again, vegetarian, not vegan. So being a vegan, like every restaurant, you might get the real cheese on your product there. It happens, right? So, what we ended up doing was we used the great resource at the time, Happy Cow is really good. Often it worked well, like it wasn’t perfect, but you can start planning travel based on who’s had a great vegan community and so that’s really what we did. Luckily we’re on the West Coast, Portland was innovating at the time, Portland had some great things going on and we started to extend our reach. I used to go down to California for the Natural Products Expo, and that served the needs of the Antony and Sons business and then soon to serve the needs of Meet. That’s where we first met the guys from Beyond Meat when they first launched the product.
Like we were the first ones to bring Beyond Meat into Canada years and years ago, Beyond Meat used to make a chicken tender kind of thing, nothing like what they have now. But we sourced it at that show and we modified it into our own. We made wings out of that years and years ago. It was great. And then they discontinued it because they were trying to keep up with the Beyond Meat Burger, but attending like travelers, there’s pleasure travel, and then there’s work travel.
So I think we should really separate those two things out for me, where like from a business perspective, Work travel, like the trade shows and consumer shows and basically the gatherings of other people in the vegan space and now the plant-based space too. I, we can talk a little bit about that because I was just at the plant-based World Expo, and as a vegan going to a plant-based event, it’s kind of interesting to see that whole repackaging of veganism.
Brighde: The one in New York,
Jason: Yeah, so we just got back from that. Which again, was a great experience. The economy’s impacted, I think there were like 250 vendors.
Jason: It wasn’t really a huge show. I’ve been to consumer shows that were much bigger than they were. The show was good, but most of the big brands weren’t there. The point is, to get back to like these commercial travels. I would wrap up all these other experiences and stop in at restaurants and do all those types of things to meet the needs of the business. And by doing so, it’s the subtle stuff. It’s like, hey, how do you get your bill when you go to a restaurant?
Oh, they present their bills in this way. What have they done from a decor perspective in the restrooms? It’s the subtleties, the style of service. All of those little things show you a possibility. When you have a myopic approach to life in general, travel opens those doors and shows you a possibility. In many cases, it gives you an appreciation for what you have, which I think is important. But it also shows you that, there are these magical things that exist in other places, if they’re just twisted around a little bit, can really, I think work well in your area. It’s really necessary for innovation.
Like I think online solutions are great, but those subtleties that I’m talking about, like if I were to do restaurant research, the style of service, you can’t feel that on Instagram.
Brighde: Mm, yep.
Jason: Like on Instagram, it’s kind of like the social media influencer. They can put their best foot forward and everything. I’m sure you’ve experienced this. They’re really good at marketing. So they have great photography, great branding, great this, great that, and you go there and the food’s terrible. Like, that happens. And then I’ve had the exact opposite. Some place that has like, no reviews, and it’s in the middle of nowhere, and it’s the only solution in that particular region. You go there and you’re blown away. The food is amazing. So, you can’t just do it, social media only gets you so far. Like, I’m grateful for it. But there’s really not much that replaces connecting with the other entrepreneur, hearing their story, and finding out what they’ve done, to get through a specific tough time. Having those types of experiences is really important.
Brighde: What you’re saying really connects with me because something that I’m so lucky to do just through the nature of my business, which is, vegan travel and group tours is that we get to experience these restaurants and vegan businesses firsthand. It’s just so interesting. Obviously, I don’t have a vegan restaurant, but it really does help me sort of have higher or lower expectations based on where it is that I’m going around the world. And I just think that is so interesting and I really wanted to comment on what you said about Instagram, because something that I’ve noticed, and I think something that we all do as a default, is that we’ll just research through social media, through Happy Cow, and see the highest rated restaurants, and just go to them automatically.
But sadly, well, it’s great for the restaurants, they have this marketing budget and they are able to pay for all of these things, and that incredible family that has this small restaurant that’s creating great food. Just sort of somehow gets knocked off because of the algorithm and that feels a little bit sad to me I think what you’re saying is a great lesson in like justn’t going for the highest rated or the one with the most followers or that has the most reviews because you could be missing out on incredible experiences.
Jason: Well, I’d say there’s another tip that I would give people too, is that especially when places do have not many reviews, what we experience is that if the place is popular, they get fans, but they also get haters. That’ll give you one star, so that you might have a place that would, always be a five-star place.
But if you get enough one-star people that say, yeah, vegan’s terrible, don’t do this, don’t do that, your numbers aren’t accurate. In Victoria when we opened, we had, I think an average of one star or two stars or something before we opened. We weren’t even open, so we never served a customer, and we had like six or seven reviews of just people who wanted to slam us. They’d never dined with us, but they were commenting on veganism and vegan food. All the things they didn’t like about vegan food. What was really cool was the vegan community in Victoria, they were really excited about us coming at the time, and they jumped in for support. But, it shouldn’t be that way. Like, most conventional restaurants don’t even have to deal with the political aspects. People are just judging for the food and service and all the conventional things that you would have with the business. So it is true that in vegan restaurants, you do need to read the comments and find out that the food isn’t necessarily bad if the restaurant’s too loud. If you don’t like a loud restaurant, don’t go to a loud restaurant. But find out why people are liking and not liking places. Sometimes going to the places that are really popular on Instagram means you’re waiting in lines. As a traveler, I want to have experiences.
Like in Japan, you go to the Shoujin Ryori or something, I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that correctly. But the traditional restaurants, I really appreciate mountain vegetables and all these kinds of things which are kind of the root of our veganism to me is really about, eating plants, and so I really think those experiences. A lot of them are rated highly, but you kind of know where I’m going with this, it’s like, it really is important to look in the comments, and that’s where I think you’ll find the gems.
Brighde: Absolutely, absolutely. I’m thinking about a dilemma that my partner Seb and I are having at the moment. We are running a Thailand trip. It’s happening at the end of October or early November, and we have this one evening to fill in Bangkok. And, wow. We’ve spent a lot of time in Bangkok. We lived there for many years, and you know, we are really digging deep to really figure out what will be the best experience for our travelers.
On that evening, looking at the whole spread of all of the restaurants and eating experiences that our travelers will be having and we’re agonizing over this, so, looking at all of the things that you’re saying, and when you jump on a vegan tour, you’re trusting that somebody else has done that due diligence, but yeah, a lot of research, and a lot of weighing up the pros and cons to make sure our travelers have the best experience, but yeah, especially in a place where there are literally so many incredible options, just like Vancouver, so many amazing options.
Jason: Yeah, this is a really interesting thing, like when I went to New York, maybe five years ago or something, there were vegan options all around, but the number of options in the last five years, it’s transformed. There are so many more choices now than there used to be. I’m assuming that’s the case everywhere in the world, so it’s really hard to keep up on the best places now. That’s a challenge for sure.
Brighde: For sure. Alright, I’d love to know a little bit more about your personal travel, and maybe some incredible experiences that have influenced or changed you in some way.
Jason: Yeah, I was kind of just about to touch on that. It’s like, I don’t spend a lot of time traveling just for personal, it always has a crossover purpose. And again, just got back from New York. So it’s not like these are places like it’s challenging. The show was a two-day show, went there for five. So there’s a personal component and a work component. So in New York, have you been to Beyond Sushi?
Brighde: Not yet.
Jason: Okay. So Beyond Sushi, group has a series of different restaurants. So they had a place called Willow and I think Onyx and Coletta and they have like all these different restaurants. So it’s kind of like a restaurant group. We ended up going to Beyond Sushi and Willow and Onyx and we kind of ended up sessioning this restaurant tours different places. Again, they’re doing great things. Like they’re innovating with what they do. They’re using cool materials. I was impressed, and not a lot of the businesses that we go into have you walk away with that. It felt like a real restaurant experience where somebody was trying to elevate the dining experience beyond that and again, it’s not like fine dining.
Like, Beyond Sushi is not a fine dining establishment. By the way, they used to have five, I think. So they did have to shut a couple down. I think where I’m going with this is that, Yeah, New York is a funny one, too, because it’s so expensive. It really is expensive. So I think, to stick out in New York, you have to do, really interesting things. So for me, as a customer, coming in and having people try to experiment with all those things, was so inspirational. To watch what people are doing. To try and appeal to a broader audience and draw people in a very competitive environment.
Now I say competitive, there’s like 8. 5 million people that live in New York City. It’s very different when you live in a smaller community to take, niche-style risk. We were in Tokyo, as well, doing research. But Tokyo has the same idea. It was a work trip, but we went there for enough time. Have you been to Tokyo in the last few years?
Brighde: I am very excited to tell you that yes, I have Jason. We were there Just in May this year, doing research for our Japan trips that will be departing in the cherry blossom season, and we only have one seat left on that trip. So yes, we really dug into Japan, particularly in the destinations that we were going to, but I’d love to hear what your thoughts are.
Jason: Yeah, so again, statistics. Roughly 14 million people in Tokyo. California is the same size as Canada as a state. Three or four Tokyo, that’s Canada again, right? It’s very interesting to see, so the number of people in a very small center, it was very, very busy in some places and in others, not at all.
But the vegan community is not as big there for the number of people. And I think that’s something that was a bit of a surprise. I would have expected it to be further along. And I think there’s a lot of opportunity for countries like Japan to innovate in this area.
I think that’s yet to come. I can feel the groundswell coming like it’s there. When you went, did you go to Kyoto as well?
Brighde: We did, and Kanazawa and Hiroshima.
Jason: Okay, cool. So did you get to go to Uzu Ramen when you were there?
Brighde: Yes, it’s amazing. Tell us about that.
Jason: Yeah, so the food was good. But it was that holistic restaurant experience that was exceptional. Again, I don’t want to say the food’s good almost downplays the food being good. If I ate that food in a different environment, I might have judged the food differently but because you’re having this holistic experience. By the way, this is fine dining. As far as approachability, it’s hard to get in. We had to wait outside to get in like we didn’t have reservations, we had to come back the next day and hope somebody’s reservation got canceled, and
Jason: so we did all of
Brighde: had to
Jason: in there.
Yeah, but the multimedia experience that was in that room, was special. I really appreciate artists expressing themselves in that way and putting it out to the world. I bet you a lot of people are not vegan in that room. The diners are coming for the experience. That to me is a super special thing, that’s where the transition happens. When somebody comes in to have an experience, and it happens to be vegan. And that was the experience we had there. Then we went to Team Labs in Tokyo.
Brighde: Mmm. Mm
Jason: outside of that there was that little chaos where they had like the UZU team, I guess, providing ramen there was good. it was just, those kinds of experiences, even in a place that isn’t as progressive when it comes to vegan, we had great experiences in Japan. Like, I want to go back. It was great. We talk about experiences. The 7-Elevens, all those things, you have to find what’s vegan in those places, because your packaging is not in English, so you have to be able to translate things and figure out if you’re not a native speaker. But that’s part of the fun, that’s part of the excitement. So, yeah it was great.
Now, were those personal trips? I think to validate the spend is, like this is something, finding a way to connect it to a business. If you’re a writer, if you’re a photographer, if you’re doing some sort of creative pursuit, it does help if you can connect it back to a business pursuit, just because it gets expensive.
Brighde: Yeah, it really does. And I often find as well that when Seb and I are traveling personally, we’ll often end up, going to vegan restaurants and looking at it through a business lens as well. It’s really interesting just how much my business has spilled over into personal stuff as well.
And yes, a funny anecdote about UZU and Japanese restaurants. Anyway, most vegan Japanese restaurants in Japan are really small. I don’t know whether you noticed that. And we want to take a group to these restaurants. We deliberately decided to choose 16 as our maximum group size, and then the four of us organizers let’s say, make 20. That really limits the number of restaurants that you can go to, which is one way you could say, well, traveling independently is better than traveling in a group, because you can actually go to these teeny tiny restaurants. We went to UZU and loved it, thought it would be an amazing experience for our groups, that are going there.
I thought surely they would be able to squeeze this amount of people and we approached them and we spoke to the manager and he’s like no, sorry, not interested, that can often happen in Japan and you know he doesn’t need to because he’s got like these huge waiting lists of people to come in and he just wants to keep it that way but that definitely has been my experience in Japan and honestly, it’s what has made this Japan trip the most challenging to put together. So we’re still working on it, we will see.
Jason: Well, I’d be happy to, offline, give you a couple of suggestions there. There seem to be restaurant groups that develop in each city that you don’t realize are part of the same thing and Tokyo is no different they have a series of businesses like T’s Tantan, did you get to go to T’s?
Brighde: I can’t remember now. Yes, but go ahead.
Jason: Yeah, so T’s Tantan, they have a series of locations, but they actually have them in train stations. Some of these train stations have millions of people that go through them, per day or something, it’s a baffling number.
But a lot of people will go, pay admission to, you pay like you’re going on a trip somewhere. And then you eat in the restaurant and then you go out. So you’ve actually paid to enter the transit system to eat in these restaurants if they’re close by.
We’ve done that on more than one occasion for different businesses. That was a really good example of a business. They operate their business differently. T’s Tan Tan. Do you remember when you go to some of the businesses, how you buy the little ticket outside and then you bring it in and you give it to them and then they fulfill the order inside?
That was kind of operationally different. Labour is a challenge for businesses and in many cases, we’d go into restaurants where there was one or two staff. You just don’t experience that the same. Like we have so many staff working in our restaurants to try and keep the wheels going and stuff. It was really interesting to see all the possibilities.
Brighde: Yeah, Japan restaurants, they have some really interesting ways of structuring their restaurants, ordering. One of the things that I love and I wish that restaurants would do in North America is the bell, to get service. I love that.
Brighde: Love that. And something I will say that’s very complimentary about your restaurants is that your staff are excellent.
One of my big pet peeves since coming to North America has been how people will interrupt conversations, to check in on how things are going, or ask how things are before I’ve even taken a bite of food. That is my pet peeve, and I will say that your staff are excellent with not doing that. I really appreciate it.
Jason: Yeah, that’s good. In Korea, I remember years ago, we went to Korea, and they had those buttons where you press for service, and they had these numbers up which table pressed their button, so they always knew who wanted service, so whether they wanted to order. So, it kind of gets your service when you want it, you’re not interrupted when you don’t want it, and I think the evolution of that now is there are places that have, like, tablets at the table, and you literally order your food, you can pay your bill, and do all that kind of stuff.
That is a bit of a business challenge for us as we’re trying to figure out how to integrate technology in a way that makes sense. We lead such digital lives, I’m a little troubled with the integration of technology at the dining table, but at the same time, I also appreciate the value of it. It’s kind of like location-specific. I know that when I want a quick meal, the technology is amazing. And when I want to sit there and connect with my friends, I don’t want them on their Instagram. I don’t want to be on my phone. I don’t want to be distracted by TVs and sports and all that kind of stuff.
I want to really be, eye-to-eye with my friends. And so I think we need both. I don’t think it’s one or the other. I think we need it all. That nuance of how people do that regionally in different areas is kind of special.
Brighde: Excellent. I think one of the takeaways from this conversation that listeners will be hopefully able to use in their lives is just the value, even whether you’re not in the restaurant or in the hospitality industry, just the value in using travel to really learn about how other people are doing things around the world and just the value of in-person interactions in business, so whether it’s going to a conference on the other side of the world in your field that you’re interested in and how you can use the connections that you make on that in order to make improvements in your professional life or in your business life. Travel is just amazing at doing that. And I love this idea as well of going to the other side of the world to go to a conference and being able to add on some personal travel for that. I used to do that as an educator as well and I’m lucky enough that I’m able to do that just through the nature of my job. It’s just so wonderful and so enriching.
Jason: I think it’s really important though that we talk about these grand trips to Tokyo or New York and all these big cities. I’m going to Kelowna. I’m going four hours away from my city today. There are amazing restaurants in Kelowna. So, travel doesn’t have to be, like really what you need to do is get out of your patterns. I think our souls need that. We really need to recharge our batteries. Take five, and go experience some things in a different manner. Nanaimo, it’s a city on the island, and they had a veg fest this summer. That’s an experience to go to these regional festivals in your area. You can travel within your city and you can go have like a taco-eating experience or something or burgers or whatever you’re into. And if you expand the radius a little bit, it becomes travels very quickly.
Jason: So there’s lots and lots of opportunity. Most countries now have regional festivals, both consumer-based and trade-based. So you can really tie in a lot to these vegan experiences and make some special experiences.
Brighde: Yeah. I say this frequently, the longer we stay in our rut and in our everyday lives, the more difficult it is to get out of it, just making a commitment. My partner and I’ll even have Thursday’s evening Explore Squamish, which is a town of 20, 000 people, whether it’s going and having a drink in a brewery that we’ve never been to before or just going and enjoying a view. These things, really make such a difference to our overall well-being, it really does help. I think that’s very similar to what you’re saying here.
Jason: Yeah, and some people live in urban environments, but if you have a bike and you have pannier bags, you can surprisingly get far on a bike too, and you can find yourself in a very, very different environment pretty quickly, and, we’re really fortunate here. We’re very spoiled, so we can go into an area called the Gulf Islands here, and literally ride our bikes to the ferry terminals. And be in a totally different environment in a very short period of time. I’d really encourage everybody to try to find their version of travel. And with VR, I don’t think we should downplay that as a possibility where people can have that experience. Even just to create a short list of where you want to go, and when you go. So you’re not going to places that, you know, you’re not really thinking you’re going to be disappointed by.
Brighde: Yes, I have one extra thing about virtual reality. I really like that too, although it has a tendency to make me feel unwell. But, something that is really cool, maybe you know about it, Jason, maybe not, but there are these websites, HeyGo, for example, and this really became very popular during the pandemic, but it’s still amazing now, but tour guides whose work was completely decimated during the pandemic, they joined these platforms and basically they offered tours of the places that they were going to offer through their phones. So you can have a tour of Assisi through your phone and you can join this and you can tip the guide if you want to and you can ask questions of the guide and they’re talking about the history of this. I’ve seen a few and incidentally, that was how we were connected with our amazing tour guide that takes our travelers around Assisi now, but she would just be taking us walking through the streets of Assisi and we could say, Oh, could you zoom in on this little bit here and talk a little bit more about, like, the architecture or what is the meaning behind this statue or sculpture.
So, so, so cool, and really amazing and fantastic for people who have accessibility issues or maybe don’t have the funds to go to an Assisi themselves or just need an Italy fix, for example.
Jason: Yeah, it’s exciting, but it’s also kind of, scary, right? There’s this authentic human experience but I think we just have to find ways to weave technology into it. And by the way, anytime there’s a new thing, that’s the process you go through.
Brighde: I love it. So, Jason, it’s just been absolutely wonderful to have you on the podcast and talk about travel and your business and all of these things. Before we say goodbye, would you mind sharing Instagram handles and just how people can connect with you, stay in touch with Meet and your brands, and share any last words with us, please?
Jason: Yeah. So first of all, thank you so much for having me. It’s been great. And I’d love to be able to figure out a way to travel and work together with everybody in this, cause it sounds like there are some really exciting trips going on.
And I’d love to be able to figure out how to plug myself into those at some point, that’d be super fun. As far as Meet is concerned, we have TikTok and Instagram. We have all the conventional social media. If you go to our website, which is EatMeet.ca, that’s probably the best way to get access
Brighde: M E E T.
Jason: correct. Then, in addition, we have location-specific Instagrams. So it is, meet in Gastown, Meet on Main, Meet in Yaletown, Meet on Blanshard and Blanshard is shard. That’s where you’ll be able to see all the things going on for Meet and Vegan Supply Vegansupply.Com for the website or ca, they both kind of end up going to the same place. Instagram is vegansupply as well. Now we do have location-specific Instagrams and that would be for like what pastries have come in, what food trucks are, going to be joining on. It’s more but that would be the regionally specific ones, but the general Instagram is just vegansupply.
Brighde: I love it.
Jason: While we’re talking to a global audience here, the one thing that I would like to say, and I think this is really important, is that my interests and my life’s work are to try and see if we can grow veganism in a meaningful way.
And what I would put out to everybody is collaboration, I think is really, really important for that, and discussions. I’m always too busy and my communication skills and I’m not great at getting back to things really quickly, but I think if we all try to reach out to each other and express what our ask would be and to try and see if we can work together and we create a community to make that happen. I think we’re going to end up with a much better future than if we don’t. There’s a series of solutions that are around today to make that possible. But I think there’s an opportunity to do that moving forward. And I’m just excited to try and say, hey, anybody out there that sees a way they want to integrate their business into Canada I’ll do what I can to try and help. We have a team that might be able to help make that possible. And if there are places that you want us to come to on our travels and to come and explore, we’re happy to try and do that. For if some countries have business development offices that’ll help bring in buyer groups from other countries.
And so if you’re in a country or you’re part of a vegan community that is willing to do, reach out to us because that is something that we’re really interested in trying to connect the dots between the countries and bring in products and basically make the world more vegan. So yeah.
Brighde: I love that. And a question that I wanted to ask, but I didn’t ask, what are your dreams for the future, sort of medium term, with what it is that you’re doing?
Jason: Well, I think the pandemic kind of got in the way of our innovation. One of the things that came through travel actually, is all our locations of Meet had the same menu before. What we experienced is that certain businesses had multiple locations. But they were distinctly different businesses. And so I think what we’re going to do is hybridize that idea where each location will have a unique component and it’ll be an incubator for new concepts. So we’ll be able to have like a little section of the menu that might be tacos or something like that, like different cuisine, different ideas.
Vancouver is really great for having different vegan options but we want to really dig into that a little bit more, so we can continue to try and push the boundaries. So that’s a big thing on the Meet side, and on the vegan supply side, we’re just always looking for cool, unique products that we can integrate into our mix.
Brighde: All right, fantastic. Jason, thank you for fitting our conversation into your very busy schedule. I’m so grateful.
Jason: Yeah, thank you so much for having me, and I really appreciate it. Hopefully, we can do it again sometime.
Brighde: I would love that. Thank you.