Written by Melody Cao
Edited by Adriana DiBenedetto
Story shared by Vegefarm USA, a partner of the Very Veggie Movement: “Entering the vegetarian industry, I found that the world is vast.”
Over the past few months of the pandemic, Eric Chu, the owner of Vegefarm USA in San Jose, CA, had been contemplating a series of transformations. “Our business has been impacted by the pandemic,” he explained to Tzu Chi volunteers. “We lost at least half of our revenue, but I think this is also an opportunity for us.” Unlike many businesses that are currently downsizing, Eric had resolved to take a decidedly different approach — investing hundreds of thousands of dollars into renovating stores, and improving warehousing and delivery. Eric has also graciously partnered with Tzu Chi’s Very Veggie Movement, and offers discounts to those who’ve signed up for the movement as well, encouraging more people to explore compassionate, veggie-focused alternatives.
Entering the Vegetarian Industry
Eric studied computer animation at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. After graduation, he worked with DreamWorks Pictures and earned a good salary. “The job is stable and the salary is good,” he said. “But the cost of living in San Francisco was pretty high, so I can’t save much money. Also, there are two hundred people working in my team with only one supervisor, so there really is little room for career development.” In 2005, Eric decided to start his own business, and found his opening at a restaurant in Houston, Texas. “At that time, my sister was in Houston and happened to know an old couple who wanted to retire and were looking for someone to take over their restaurant. So, I went there.” It was a vegetarian restaurant, and business was quite promising.
In 2007, as Eric Chu continued to manage the restaurant in Houston, he phoned his parents in California on New Year’s Eve, and Eric found in their voice a sense of loneliness. “I thought to myself that I can make money anywhere. Why not move closer to my parents? Of course, it was just an idea, I didn’t do anything immediately,” said Eric. He never anticipated that his opportunity would be so close at hand. The restaurant’s supplier mentioned that his brother, who was doing wholesale, was about to retire — and the warehouse was only about a five-minute drive from Eric’s parents’ home.
And so, seizing his chance, Eric moved back to San Jose. His act of filial piety not only offered him a place to work, but helped him enter into an industry that was brimming with potential.
“Vegetarian food was not that tasty ten years ago, and it was difficult to promote the products. People who ate vegetarian food were mainly religious groups from Asia or those who have health problems,” recalled Eric of the time when he’d first entered the vegetarian industry. During the past few years, however, the industry has transformed exponentially. Due to religious reasons, multiple factories emerged in Taiwan approximately ten years ago with the capacity to research and produce vegetarian foods. After years of advocating for vegetarianism in Taiwan, individuals can now find vegetarian restaurants with ease nearly everywhere.
Discovering the Vastness of the Vegetarian World
The Vegefarm operated by Eric in San Jose offers more than 200 different types of delicious vegetarian foods. Products are not only from Vegefarm manufacturers in Taiwan but also from around ten other manufacturers. “For example, we cooperate with Taiwan’s largest vegetarian snack manufacturer to launch a vegan meat jerky series,” said Eric. “We also work with a small factory importing only one product: veggie lotus ‘chicken.’ It’s so delicious. In the past, most vegetarian foods were made from beans, but beans have a beany taste, so vegetarian foods were not very tasty. However, with the developments in food production technology in Taiwan, nowadays vegetarian foods are very delicious. Eric explained the tremendous developments made by Taiwan’s vegetarian industry. “Nowadays the raw materials for vegetarian foods come from two major types: fiber and konjac. Fiber is mostly extracted from beans, such as soybeans, peas, and wheat, removes the bean taste, and mainly takes the chewiness and the protein.” This all goes a long way in expanding the diversity of dishes and flavors that can be achieved by vegan chefs.
Vegefarm’s popular “Vege Ribbonfish,” for example, is made with the finest legume fiber. It has a delicate flavor, and paired with Vegefarm’s own unique seasoning, it was sure to be a favorite from day one. The Vege Ribbonfish is cut into small sections for easy cooking, and its seaweed wrapping brings forth the distinct taste of the sea. The frozen package can be brought home and fried for a convenient and gratifying meal.
“Konjak, also known as konjac,” Eric explained, “is a rhizome plant that looks very similar to taro. After being ground into a powder and combined with water, it will solidify into a jelly. It can be made into vegan shrimp, vegan abalone, vegan sea cucumber, and a variety of vegetarian fish balls, mushroom balls, etcetera.” For seasoning the vegan food, Chinese herbs and spices are often used. For vegetarian seafood, flavors usually come from kelp and seaweed. “Of course, vegan products are dairy-free and egg-free. Vegan foods used to be not so moist, but recently, a new enzyme has been developed to make the binding, and the taste is greatly improved.” Thanks to the efforts made within the vegetarian industry over the past several years, many non-vegetarian meals can easily be reimagined with vegetarian ingredients, and without sacrificing taste.
Transformation in the Pandemic
As more and more people began adopting a vegan diet in the United States, it presented a great opportunity for a well-developed vegetarian industry in Taiwan to offer its insight. “A vegan movement is currently sweeping the United States and even the world. It is a bit like the hippie movement in the 1960s. It is a lifestyle and attitude derived from the concept of environmental and animal protection. In the current digital era, it’s easy to promote and organize followers. Because of this trend, many vegetarian companies have emerged in the United States, and restaurants are more open to veganism. They’re willing to develop a vegetarian menu, just like the kid’s menu, as an add-on to the main dishes.”
Vegefarm’s business has suffered during the pandemic in the past few months — dropping by two-thirds at the beginning, but Eric was very confident about the future of the vegetarian industry.
Eric invested almost $300,000 to improve warehousing and purchasing methods, to renovate the store, and to make a shift from the original wholesale method to that of retail. “We did not pay much attention to retail before because wholesale is more efficient. A single customer may spend $30 or $40, while a restaurant can easily buy $2,000 worth of products at a time. But after we opened the San Francisco store, we found it’s really important to communicate with our customers. We used to sell whatever we have. Now, our customers tell us what they like, where they had really good vegan food, and then we contact the factory and have a tasting tour, examine the production conditions, and then we can apply for FDA certification and import the products that our consumers love to the US.”
During the crisis, wholesale purchases had been slowing down, and Eric had time to develop ideas and strengthen retail. At the same time, he also looked for new clients — visiting restaurants to chat with the owners and recommend they add a veggie-focused menu alongside their original one. “I see the pandemic as an opportunity to reflect on our business and explore new possibilities. Now we hope to balance the retail and the wholesale, making Vegefarm a comprehensive vegetarian platform.”
“Since I started Vegefarm, I have been enjoying my relationship with Tzu Chi. Many members came to buy things and also order for events. So basically, as long as Tzu Chi organizes activities, we all want to help.” During the pandemic, it was not easy for business, and many Tzu Chi volunteers and members wanted to help Vegefarm. They talked to Eric about Tzu Chi’s Very Veggie Movement, and Eric readily took part, placing promotions on the store’s website and Facebook page, and providing a 10% discount to those who sign up for the Very Veggie Movement.
“We insist on a healthy vegetarian diet, and do not add preservatives, but use freezing technology to keep food fresh, so the transportation price is extremely high. We plan to open a new store in Sacramento early next year, and hope to establish more stores in major cities to serve the surrounding customers.” Eric looks forward to the future of Vegefarm, as well as the future of veganism as a whole.
Learn more about the Very Veggie Movement and join us by transforming your diet into a vegetarian one, or take part as a partner of the movement!