Business as Unusual

Business as Unusual

26 August, 2015
MANA! Founders speak of pioneering sustainability in one of the world's most wasteful industries

Organic, raw, vegan, vegetarian – MANA! does it all, and is going from strength to strength in Hong Kong’s competitive food scene. 
MANA! Café just opened two weeks ago in the artsy PoHo area, the brand is launching a line of fresh juices (in biodegradable packaging, natch), and co-founder Bobsy will be speaking at the Natural and Organic Products Asia expo, which starts today!
Hence it's the perfect opportunity for Ecozine to sit down and have a chat with the two founders – Bobsy (a force to be reckoned with, sporting Lebanese charm and enviable hair) and Christian, professional chef, restaurateur and athlete (and noticeably so). They speak of the future for MANA!, and the sacrifices involved in being a pioneer of sustainability in one of the most wasteful industries on the planet.
ECOZINE: Each new MANA! venue seem to have a fundamentally separate character from the last, why is that? 
BOBSY: We’re very glad you noticed. We’re pretty much doing business as unusual. Business as usual when you create something successful like MANA!, Starbucks, Pret, is to replicate that. We’re not doing that. We’ve kept it creative. We’ve go and make another first for Hong Kong instead! That's what we did with MANA! Raw – a fully raw, vegan, eco friendly, zero food waste restaurant. It really was like reinventing the wheel. Business as usual would tell you not to reinvent the wheel. But we have reinvented the wheel with MANA! We like to push the boundaries.
With MANA! Raw we’ve put raw food on the market in an easy, accessible, inexpensive way. Basically it was really Christian who was at the helm of that one. MANA Café, yet again, is a new concept for our city. It’s a café, with a strong emphasis on the all-vegan, organic coffee, and chilling out. Plus we’ve put something new on the map – open flatbreads, which has never been seen before in Hong Kong.
We’re taking the creative route. We’re climbing the mountain instead of walking into the sunrise.
CHRISTIAN: We do, however, plan to roll out MANA! Fast, Slow, Food in new locations soon! We will of course maintain our manifesto, but make improvements. We will make it more efficient, and bring in more partners – both local and international. MANA! Café is just what we felt was needed in this area, it fits the location well.
E: Has MANA! Café experienced good business since opening?
C: We still haven’t launched the marketing campaign, it’s really word-of-mouth type thing. Even so the response has been quite positive so far. This area is changing a lot, but there's still a lot of people who have been here for a very long time, so it’s got a kind of authentic ‘Hong Kong’ vibe. This venue has a really comfortable, inviting feel to it, which I think appeals to people. There’s a library where you can access information about the raw, healthy eating movement.
E: Something that I always notice about MANA! when I go to the venues is that the recycling is so thorough and easy. Tell us more about how that works.
C: The recycling bins are right under the logo, to demonstrate how integral this is to our brand.
We’re always looking at ways of improving the recycling. In MANA! Café we are using pizza boxes made from biodegradable material, but we still think it’s too much packaging so we’re looking at using plates made from palm leaves that are still food grade. That would be even lower impact, but still maintain the 'take away' aspect. 
People may not notice but it’s to our cost because Hong Kong doesn’t really have the infrastructure so we have to pay for special cleaners, eco-packaging, and we have to pay a full-time driver to drive the MANA! Mobile to take the food waste out to a farm in the New Territories five times a week. We’re really striving to become a zero waste restaurant in every area that it is possible. It's a really huge endeavour. But it is one we are committed to.
We really want the people to do the physical sorting so that they understand more about the processes. In Nordic countries it’s commonplace, and we’re trying to bring that mindset here.
E: In your experience, how does what you eat relate to how you feel?
C: Actually it was my experience with high-level athletics, particularly rowing, where I discovered nutrition and the importance of eating well as a fuel. I didn’t really understand it as I do now but it really kick-started my understanding of how I could eat a certain way and I would feel a certain way. It improved my performance and mentality. For me it was a huge breakthrough, at 16 years old, I was like ‘wow, I have superpowers!’ I discovered the healing, spiritual aspect of food, as well as the environmental impact of food – it just opens up this whole new dimension.
Eating is such a fundamental part of our lives. And the restaurant industry is so massive - with that comes massive responsibility.
E: Well they say the stomach is the way to the heart! 
B: Indeed. I’ve been raising awareness about environmental impact for over 20 years in different ways: fashion, art, culture, tree-planting, public speaking – but food is where you can really make a difference. People care a lot about food. It’s intimate. It’s something you do 3-4 times a day. It’s something everyone does. Then we discovered the enormity of the food waste problem – not necessarily just food that’s wasted, but waste associated with the food industry.
People need to know. We have to tell them. Let them know, and they have a choice.
E: In environmentalism sometimes you’re preaching to the converted, but food seems like a great way to reach the mainstream consumer.
C: We’re also hoping to spread this message to the rest of the industry, and that other restaurants start doing what we’re doing, so that general impact can go down – as well as costs! Our packaging is 100 times more expensive than polyester, and I don’t think most businessmen are interested in upping their costs. But we hope that as the movement grows this becomes a more plausible possibility.
B: We must be the only restaurant group that talks more about our rubbish than our food! But the message is in the food too, because it’s so good – and healthy! Health food is generally not perceived as tasty.
C: The vegetarian aspect is always considered with all these connotations – it’s going to be tasteless, not exciting, and that you don’t crave it. Here we really try to bring the professional chef aspect and real craftsmanship to this food, and movement, and make it as a fast food should be – quick – but we make it in a format that is respecting the home-made, fresh, daily aspect. We also try to make food that you’re going to crave and want to come back to. That’s where we feel like we have an edge.
E: You certainly have achieved that with MANA! Fast Slow Food – it’s always packed, and people are always coming back.
C: Yeah, there’s a lot of regulars there. When we first walked in to that venue we thought ‘wow, this is perfect.’ It’s such an interesting venue with the open-air, L-shape and a back garden that has natural beauty and simplicity. The bottle-neck shape is quite a challenge, but we managed to make it very successful, and made it as efficient as we could there.
That’s why it’s exciting to roll out this specific MANA! brand in more locations, where we don’t have to adapt to the space, instead the space can cater to our needs. That’s the dream - to design it and do it exactly the way we see fit because it’s been three years since we opened it, and we’re in a great position to replicate it.
E: If I know something is organic and responsibly produced, I expect to have to pay for it, but MANA! manages to keep things affordable.
C: We have very small margins. A lot of people still perceive us as expensive, but we’re not – all our prices are under HK$100! Operational and food costs keep going up but we try to earn just enough to keep doing what we’re doing - the way we do it!

By: Ecozine Staff


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