Interview with Susan from The Breakroom Cafe! Plus, they’re serving VEGAN BRUNCH!! »
Have you ever wondered how one of your favorite vegetarian restaurants got their start? Here’s the story of The Breakroom Cafe in downtown Oakland! Susan, a 10-year veteran of working in bars and restaurants (and a kick-ass, awesome girl), and her partner Jason, a former department store manager (and all-around really cool guy), dreamed about opening a vegetarian restaurant and went for it! Coming up on the fourth anniversary of The Breakroom, Susan and Jason reflect on starting their veg business.
Vegansaurus: What was your opening date?
Susan: July 14, 2007. You were there, Anne! I think you just happened to be walking by or something, and you saw we were finally open. I remember us forcing all these free pastries on you.
What made you want to start a vegetarian restaurant?
While living in Cleveland, I always fantasized about moving to another state and running a vegetarian restaurant. After moving to Oakland, I served at a vegan restaurant for a few years, where I learned that there was definitely a market for vegetarian food out here. While browsing Craigslist, Jason found a space available, and voila! To be honest though, I thought this place would be more of a coffee shop that sells veg sandwiches. It turned out to be a sandwich shop that sells coffee.
Where do you draw inspiration for your menu items?
I guess it’s different for each menu item. I remember loving Sloppy Joes as a kid. Remember that Manwich stuff? Loved it! And since becoming vegetarian at 16, I had a craving for it, so I knew we had to have a vegan Sloppy Joe on the menu.M ost of the menu items are veg versions of familiar standard American sandwiches that people may miss eating since becoming vegan/vegetarian.
What’s your most popular dish?
It’s a toss-up between the Meatball, Club and Turkey/Bacon.
If your Sloppy Joe sandwich was a song, what song would it be?
Maybe "Cool It Now," that New Edition song—for those that think it’s too spicy!
Tell us a funny story about an unwitting omnivore who ordered one of your veg sandwiches.
None specifically comes to mind, but there are those that just don’t understand the imitation meat concept. We’ve had people say, “So when it says bacon, it’s not really bacon?” We say “nope,” and the next question is, “But what about the Ham & Swiss sandwich? That’s real ham, right? We answer “No,” and then they move on to questioning the “turkey.”
I noticed that there’s a cock on the front of your building, what’s up with that?
I guess the owner of the previous business Zodiac Desserts put it there. I didn’t even notice it until a few months after we bought the business, a friend and I were walking by the shop and we both noticed it at the same time. I was like “Where the hell did that rooster come from?”
If you could give one piece of advice to someone who wants to start a vegan business, what would it be?
Make food that NON-vegan/-vegetarians will like, and make them believe they could survive not eating meat.
This is Laura here and I just want to chime in because Breakroom just started doing Sunday brunch! It’s from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and it’s the BOMB! A huge plate of potatoes, veggie ham, tofu scramble, fruit, AND french toast for like 10 bucks! You’ll be full for days! MORE VEGAN BRUNCH IN THE EAST BAY, Y’ALL!!! Oh, and here’s a shitty camera phone picture because I love you:
Uh, and you can check out their Facebook page for more updates and better photos!
Breakroom Cafe: 300 13th Street, Oakland. (510) 836-3864. Mon.-Fri. 10 a.m. - 3:30 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m. - 2 p.m.
Anne Martin is an eater of free pastries and a lover of veg restaurants. She is a Ph.D. Candidate at UC Berkeley’s City & Regional Planning department, and is a member of the Berkeley Organization for Animal Advocacy. When Anne is not researching or eating vegan Hearty Bagel sandwiches at The Breakroom, you will find her volunteering with Harvest Home Animal Sanctuary.
Five tips for starting a vegan business! »
You have to admit, the vegan community has come up with some pretty awesome ideas and businesses. Ten years ago, we didn’t have Souley Vegan, Pepple’s Donuts or Never Felt Better Vegan Shop. But now, there are vegan businesses and vegan products popping up all over the place. But what is it,exactly, thatmakes vegan businesses different (ie- more special) than other business ventures? Over the past few months, my best friend and I have been going through the steps of starting our own vegan business, and it’s been quite the learning experience, lemme tell you.
So, if you’re thinking about starting a vegan business, here are some tips to help you get started:
1. Be legit.
I’m sure you read that and thought “oh, OK, sure! Check!” but that’s not what I mean. This is one of the most important pieces of advice that I’m going to give you, so if you decide to stop reading this article at any point, just make sure you get through this point.
By starting a vegan business, you are representing the vegan community as a whole. You might be the first real vegan or the first exposure to vegan products that one of your customers experience, and you know how quick omnivores are to write vegans off. Here’s your chance to stick it to them.
Step 1 in being legit: Make sure you have a plan. Call it a business plan, call it a DIY guide, call it your business [insert religious book of choice here]. I don’t care what you call it, just write one. Your business plan will help you map the ins and outs of your business before you get started, and will help you predict situations and, that’s right, plan for them. You can be as detailed as you want, but just having something is a start. This will force you to realize what you’re about to do, how big you want to do it, and what you need in order to get it that far. What happens if you don’t make enough money to keep your business afloat? What are you going to do to market your business?
Starting a vegan bakery or restaurant? OK, what forms do you need to turn in to the county? What protocol do I need to go through so I can avoid being shut down? A lot of vegan businesses involve food, and rightfully so because we love food and we make awesome food! So make sure you follow your county’s specific regulations. This will probably involve finding a production kitchen or cafe/restaurant space, taking some food safety handling classes, getting an inspection of your production space or storefront location, and turning in a buttload of forms.
Step 2 in being legit: Make a solid budget. It’s important to plan ahead in these types of situations. Don’t expect to start a business and suddenly be rolling in money. A good budget will include things like startup costs and the first six months to a year of production. Add everything into your budget, like business cards, internet hosting and domain names, marketing supplies, ingredients for your food, the costs of any certifications or forms that you’ll need to turn in to your county, insurance, etc. Another thing to account for is employees! Will you need help? Is it feasible to do this all by yourself, or will you have to look at hiring some help? If you’ll need help, then make sure you account for a competitive wage for your employees. You don’t have to pay them $100 an hour, but make sure you offer them enough to where they can live comfortably, and represent your business happily.
If you’re budget is suddenly huge, and your having a hard time coming up with the money, your business plan will be a key solution. If you are going to apply for a loan, a lot of banks will ask to see your business plan to make sure that you’re not just going to take the money and blow it on a lifetime supply of Pepple’s or something.
2. Be a proud vegan business, but don’t be obnoxious.
Here’s the kicker: don’t be an asshole. Use your business to spread knowledge about veganism, but don’t shove it down your customer’s throats. The vegan community is really tight-knit and supportive of each other, so you’re almost guaranteed to have vegan customers, but you have to consider your omni customers as well. You don’t have to praise their dietary choices, but don’t alienate them. If you force-feed them vegan information or make them feel stupid for not being vegan, they won’t be regular customers. Also, I’m sure they’ll leave a detailed comment on Yelp, and we all know that word of mouth is huge in recruiting new customers to your business. Enlighten, don’t alienate.
If you’re not sure about how to go about doing this, turn your passion toward your product. What are the benefits of your products being vegan? Maybe it’s that your products are naturally cholesterol-free. Maybe it’s because you donate a percentage of your profits to a vegan charity.
3. Start small and expand.
Starting a business is really exciting, and once you really starting thinking about it, ideas start piling on top of each other. But don’t get in over your head. Start with a reasonable goal or product base. Not only will starting small help keep your budget small, but it will also allow for easy expansion. Also, don’t burn yourself out too quickly. You’re starting a business because you want to enjoy the benefits of loving what you do, not hating every moment of your life because it’s too much to handle.
If you start small, it will also be easier for you to network without being overwhelming. Find out what other vegan businesses in your area can help you with, and what you can do for them. Get involved in vegan events, and build up a strong following!
4. Know your competition.
This one is easy: If you know your competition, it’s easier to do things differently or better. There’s nothing simpler than doing competition research with a quick Google search. If you make vegan muffins, Google “vegan muffin companies” (be location-specific), and see what comes up. Finding your competition will alsohelp you set your prices. You may think $10 for a cookie is a good price, but if someone else is offering the same flavor cookie for $2.50, well—you know how it goes.
5. Love what you do.
Starting a business involves a lot of hard work, but it can be really satisfying when you make progress. Celebrate your little achievements, and remember to reward yourself. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed with the stress, and don’t feel like you have to do everything overnight. Give yourself time, and don’t forget to factor in time to do things for yourself.