A new city and a new business might have been daunting for most people, but Louise has taken it on in style.
Louise Abel, founder of food van The Spotless Leopard, shares how she established a small but far-reaching vegan business and how turning vegan completely changed her life.
Perhaps you could tell us a little bit about how you set up the van…
It was actually a compromise. I initially wanted to open a café, but it wasn’t going to plan, so I went back to the start and it finally crossed my mind to try a food van. It sounded less financially risky and more flexible; an important factor as I was considering a move from York to Bristol with almost no experience of the place.
A van felt like a good way to learn the ropes on a small scale. Luckily, the first few people I mentioned it to were enthusiastic, particularly my dad who is a pro at making the unconventional happen. He had a van he was using as a camper, so I borrowed the money I needed, bought it off him and we started work planning a conversion.
I would never have done it if I hadn’t gone vegan. When I started planning my business up in North Yorkshire, I’d been vegan for about three years and vegetarian for a decade before that – I felt like one of the only ones to exist up there! Funnily enough, when I first decided to try veganism, I told myself two things: I’d never say I couldn’t have cheesecake again and I’d only do it if it didn’t take over my life. Now it’s the most important thing to me.
How have things in the van changed since the early days?
I started off on Gloucester Road at this tiny little Saturday market on Pigsty Hill. I quickly gained some regular customers, some of whom still come to the van today. I was already on the lookout for a permanent pitch, because I felt that’s where the business would thrive, hence our current Alma Road spot.
Back then, delicious things like tempeh, seitan and vegan macaroni cheese hadn’t appeared in Bristol, so it wasn’t long before I put them on the menu. Another big difference now is in how we market ourselves. To start with, I knew I wanted to be out and proud, but I learnt to hide it, because it was obviously putting people off. They’d walk past and say things like “oh, I don’t eat rabbit food”. Now it’s out there.
Have you got any advice for people who are thinking about going vegan?
There will always be people who will go and show the demand at fast-food chains and we don’t have to be responsible for that as ethical vegans. If you can afford it, it’s important to support the smaller businesses, the ones that are doing less harm in the world.
My main reason to be vegan will always be to avoid animal suffering as much as possible. For me, looking after the environment is a massive part of that. The other side is trying to minimise high consumption. I want to live a more low impact life and anything that supports mass consumption is, at the end of the day, not good for the environment, not good for people and therefore, not good for animals.
How do you bring this into your life?
By being careful. I think that’s a really underrated quality. We really take care of things at the van, from food preparation to the equipment we use. It’s something we can learn from our grandparents’ generation; looking after what we have rather than buying something new to replace it.
So many people think of veganism as a restriction, but the amount of times that I’ve seen an item of clothing containing silk or wool and I’ve felt relieved that it isn’t an option. It limits your choice, which can be a good thing. Before veganism hit the mainstream, you’d go out for dinner and just ask for the vegan option – that was really nice!
These days, I don’t think I could survive without veganism. Even though it can be really alienating, when it feels difficult to get through, being vegan is a reason to carry on. If we’re not going to speak up for those who are suffering, who is?
Check out thespotlessleopard.co.uk