The Spotless Leopard: Setting up a vegan food van business

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» The Spotless Leopard: Setting up a vegan food van business

Establishing a vegan business in 2019 doesn’t seem all that controversial.  Seven years ago, however, it was a different matter entirely but this didn’t stop Louise Abel, founder of The Spotless Leopard, from starting her own vegan food van.  

In 2012, Louise was living up in Yorkshire and had already been vegan for a few years.  Her reasoning for opening up a food van was largely due to her desire to run a cafe - one that didn’t compromise any of her ethics.  She was working in one of the few vegetarian places in York but as they wouldn’t cut out all animal products she needed to take matters into her own hands.

Black and white image of two women sat outside of a vegan food van image talking and smiling

Her initial plans to start a vegan cafe fell through, which meant going back to the drawing board until finally it crossed her mind to try a food van. It sounded less financially risky and more flexible.  She had also decided to move down to Bristol so a food van seemed like a good way to get a feel for popular locations before getting weighed down by bricks and mortar.

Initially the food van would pop up at a weekly market and quickly built up a following of committed regulars.  All the while, Louise was on the lookout for a permanent pitch and finally she found the perfect spot.  The corner of Alma Road in Bristol’s Clifton, where the van is still based today.

Back then, vegan businesses still seemed to antagonise the general public and the van received its fair share of disapproving comments.  At the time, Louise wasn’t making a big deal out of the fact that the van sold only vegan food so a lot of people were simply attracted by the comforting menu with dishes such as creamy mac and cheese with “bacon” bits, mixed seed and lentil bean burgers and a flavoursome chilli “non” carne.  

A lot can be said for sticking it out.  The vegan food van was open seven days a week, rain, shine and even snow, and customers kept coming back for the heartwarming food.  Since the explosion of veganism in popular culture, the fact the food van is vegan is now a real selling point.  Louise no longer needs to keep quiet about it - not that she ever wanted to. 

Close up of pink metal table and chairs outside of food van with hanging plant pots

For Louise, ethics are at the very heart of her business.  Although there are many good, valid reasons for choosing to be vegan - from the environmental impact to potential health benefits - The Spotless Leopard was established as a reaction to the lack of cafes and restaurants that were putting animal welfare at the heart of it all.  Avoiding animal suffering was, and remains to be, the most important part of the business.

The other focus at The Spotless Leopard is trying to minimise high consumption.  Living a more low impact life is becoming increasingly important as we continue to burn through the world’s resources. Ultimately, anything that supports mass consumption is not good for the environment, not good for people and therefore, not good for animals.  

At the van, one of the governing principles to help avoid high consumption is “taking care”.  This extends from the way the food is prepared to the treatment of any equipment that is used. It's something Louise believes we can learn from our grandparents’ generation; looking after what we have rather than buying something new to replace it.  This ethos of taking care is one of the reasons for the van’s continued success.  

Once the van was comfortably established on its leafy corner of Clifton, Louise started to meet the growing demand for couples who wanted a decent vegan option at their wedding.  This demand has encouragingly increased, to the extent that the van often hosts entirely vegan weddings. The van now opens on select weekdays, meaning at the weekend, it can now be spotted meandering along coastal roads in Devon, on another, pulling over beside pretty Welsh streams in ancient forests - all in the name of winning over wedding guests who would otherwise have not considered trying vegan food.

White booklets titled "The Introverts Guide to Being Quiet in a Noisy World" wrapped in string on a grey fabric background

As both animal welfare and low impact living are so important to Louise, it occurred to her and a co-worker to create a small, DIY magazine to promote veganism but also to encourage people to take time to slow down and reconnect with themselves.  The zine, The Introverts’ Guide to Being Quiet in a Noisy World, is filled with recipes from the van, along with illustrations and suggestions for navigating this fast paced environment.

The zine went on sale in Spring 2019 with all profits going to The Dean Farm Trust, a truly special vegan animal sanctuary just outside of Chepstow in Wales.  The fact that there are very few entirely vegan animal sanctuaries seemed so at odds with the principle of rescuing animals that Louise felt it was important to use the presence of her business as a way of raising awareness of the important work The Dean Farm Trust is doing.

Back at the van, Louise often gets asked by customers and passers by whether she is still hoping to open up her own cafe.  Since seven years have passed since the business was established, it’s more than evident that the food has proved to be very popular and keeps people coming back.  For Louise, a cafe now feels too limiting.  Although she started the business to provide herself with an ethical income, keeping the van running enables her not only to keep encouraging locals to choose a vegan lifestyle but she also gets to take that message with her wherever she goes.

Written by O J Stephenson

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