MANA! is a restaurant of many firsts. From being one of only a few establishments in Hong Kong to take responsibility for their waste through recycling and composting – a whopping 3,000 tonnes a month in food waste – and moving away from PLA plastic into glass-focused packaging, straws made of potato starch, fully compostable coffee cups made completely from paper to packaging and selling their own homemade za’atar in-store, it takes a lot of vision and drive to fuel this movement.

With a newly launched “build your own plant-based burger” concept at their Sheung Wan café, we sat down with MANA!’s founder, Bobsy Gaia, to find out what makes this veggie train chug.

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MANA! has a strong stance on plant-based alternative meat. Could you elaborate on your thoughts on lab-grown plant-based meat and why you oppose it?

We don’t oppose it. We just don’t do it [here at MANA!]. We don’t think there’s a need for that. The question is, why would you want to eat a lab-produced patty or pork or sausage? Why would someone want to eat that in the first place? And in that question lies a million answers.

For a lot of people, the interest in alternative meat is the reduced environmental impact, but also a lot of omnivores and carnivores are looking for a transition into a more plant-based diet and lifestyle.

There is a draw; transitioning people could be one of the draws. It’s very practical; you go to the supermarket, you buy some sausages or patties to take home and give them to your kids, and they wouldn’t know the difference. That’s why we don’t oppose it, but we don’t find a need to do it, because we still champion whole foods. And how are these fake meats made? You can call them alternative meats if you want or you can call them what we’ve traditionally called them in China and Taiwan, which is fake meat. How are they made? There’s controversy there. They’re genetically engineered. Are they fully made from natural ingredients? Would you wanna eat them every day? Once a week? Depends on who you’re talking to.

If you’re talking to people who want a healthy diet, then why don’t you just eat plants? And not have to worry about what’s made in a lab. We support and champion wholesome, complete food, slow food and plant based. That’s who we are, and we want to stick with that. It’s not a trend. It’s integrity and Mother Nature. But foods that are made in labs – they are a trend, and it’s a Western way of looking at what the Asians call fake meat. Beautifully packaged, sexy and meat eaters would love them. But it’s not something we want to do. We would rather use chickpeas, lentils, soybeans and make patties that taste equally good – some might say better than the lab-made ones.

If their intention is to save the planet, that’s what they’re advocating with these products. But nobody wanted to talk about that. They wanted to talk about animal cruelty and their own health. It’s only recently that they started talking about the environment. It’s very clever marketing. If you really cared for the planet, why don’t you switch to a plant-based diet?

MANA Burgers

Photo credit: MANA!

A lot of people who are used to eating meat would argue that there’s a lack of flavour.

I understand the transition purpose, the taste. I understand the sex appeal. I understand all of that. Each to their own, but we would rather do it the natural way.

Would you consider offering alternative proteins like JUST Egg, made from mung beans?

No, because we can do all of that here with what Mother Nature provides. We don’t need to revert to laboratories and Silicon Valley companies. It’s a commercial move, first and foremost, because if you look at the people who are behind this, you might want to visit their lifestyles and see how they live and what they were doing five years ago, 10 years ago. It’s a very big, growing market.

A lot of these Silicon Valley companies are launching in Hong Kong as the gateway into mainland China. How do you think this will affect us?

Correct. They all have their eyes on China. It’s a huge market. So that’s the truth of the matter. We don’t want to criticise the people who go down that route, but all we’re saying is that Mother Nature is forever and Mother Nature knows best. Who knows, five years down the line, when there’s more research, that we’re gonna find out that some of these isolates from plants are harmful to your health? Why take that risk? We’ve been down this road so many times. DDT, in the 50s in America, being sprayed in schools, on people, and then we realised it’s carcinogenic. We better learn from the mistakes of the past and not all jump on the bandwagon of fake meats so quickly until there’s been more research done. It’s quite a new product, coming from Western companies using plant extracts to fill lab-grown products. Research is quite limited on that, and there has been controversy on the subject. Is it better than eating meat from an eco stance? Yes. From an ethical stance? Yes. From a humanitarian stance? Yes. From a health stance? We don’t know.

MANA wraps

Photo credit: MANA!

It’s hard for a lot of people to make that full switch, so what suggestions do you have for omnivores and carnivores to transition to a more plant-based diet?

Be courageous. Be brave. Be the change. You’ll never regret it. Your body will feel better, your joints will feel better, your kidneys, your liver, your organs, your brain, your family, your children – it’s just a win-win-win, especially for our natural resources as well. If we don’t change, and if we never have changed, we’d still be living in caves and hitting ourselves with sticks and stones, so change is necessary. We have to move forward. And you’d be surprised at how easy it is. It’s really easy moving towards a plant-based diet now. And do it step by step. Cut out all chicken, beef and pork immediately, then slowly phase our fish, then go fully vegetarian. And then slowly start phasing out all of your dairy, but do it step by step and don‘t do it cold turkey, because your body would not understand what’s going on. That way it becomes sustainable. The change doesn’t last with people who go cold turkey. Your body gets used to it, your family and friends get used to it, your social circles get used to it. Luckily, it’s getting easier and easier. And that’s the beauty of MANA!, because most of our customers aren’t even vegetarian. But they eat it for the flavour, because it’s satiating, it’s filling and it’s good value for money.

You’re a big advocate of local and organic produce. In an ideal world, we’d all love to be consuming organic produce. But the reality of it is that it still comes at a higher price point, and most people can’t afford to eat organic all the time. What are your thoughts on that?

Patience. This is a relatively new movement, so our social and economic systems haven’t caught up with what people want yet. Our institutions of health, medicine, education, law, etc. still live in a materialistic world, where they view everything made out of matter. But what you’re talking about requires a shift in consciousness, an understanding that we live in a universe where everything is made out of consciousness, not physical matter. This is where everything starts to change. Yes, organic vegetables are slightly more expensive, but that’s just a question of time. Remember when CDs first came out? They were so expensive. Now we give them away for free and we don’t even want them. It’s the same – it’s supply and demand, it’s market economics. But this is a people-led movement. It’s people who are changing their minds and changing their bodies and then changing the world.


Photo credit: MANA!

What role do you believe the younger generation will play in all of this?

They’re being born into it. This is the norm, not the alternative. It’s important we share the truth. The old adage of if slaughterhouses were made of glass, everyone would be vegetarian. Our children are the same. If we really tell them where pork chops come from, they would not want to kill a baby pig, because pigs are beautiful animals, but we lie to them. Again, it’s about the world view in which we live. It’s important we be transparent. The Buddha said, “Three things can’t be hidden for long. The sun, the moon and the truth.” So with social media now, the truth is coming out. And, rapidly, the exponential growth and people moving towards a plant-based diet are unprecedented. Millions of people are converting every month now. Last year in the US, people adopting a plant-based diet have increased to 600%. Wait until next year comes. In the not-too-distant future, this will become normal.

What are your thoughts on more and more plant-based restaurants and cafés opening up in Hong Kong? Have you tried the foods of other plant-based establishments in town?

Of course. It’s good stuff. More and more, it’s all coming. But we must be very cautious and we must bring a lot of awareness to this. If you want to jump on the bandwagon, please get off and push it first. Don’t sit there taking credit and calling yourself a pioneer. That bandwagon’s been rolling for at least 20 years in Hong Kong. Also, don’t just serve plant-based foods; you’ve got to look after the planet. You’ve got to recycle, compost and move away from styrofoam and single-use plastic. You can’t do one without the other.


Photo credit: MANA!

Some restaurants now are looking to turn a profit first and then introduce policies that consider the environment and other ethics, such as phasing out plastic straws, for one. Is this change too little, too late?

Yes. Why did you use them in the first place? Remind people to please support the change-makers. Where you spend your dollars is how you vote. It’s very, very important. And, please, boycott single-use plastic, even if they’re your favourite restaurant and they’re still cutting corners to make a profit or not following values and principles. There are enough people in Hong Kong now doing the right thing to support it.

In the past few years, the responsibility of being eco-conscious has shifted towards the public and people have become aware and started bringing their own reusable utensils, containers and bags. But now we’re actually taking a closer look at whether this should be the establishment’s responsibility instead – to take the choice out of the hands of the consumer. Do you believe that this will make a bigger impact?

Absolutely. This has been something I’ve personally been championing since 1992: conscious business. What is a conscious business? It’s a business that gives, inspires, leads by example, doesn’t pollute the planet. And the time hasn’t come for conscious businesses yet, but you can see the momentum. You can see how it’s growing. I would much rather spend my dollar in giving it to people who care, people who’ve stood up, people who’ve sacrificed, people who’ve made a difference. It’s important that we spend our dollar wisely and be conscious consumers. In return, businesses will have to reflect that by being conscious business owners. This is something that’s coming. Traditionally, if we just want to talk about Hong Kong, people wait until they become very rich, then they become philanthropists. But what we’re saying is be a philanthropist first and give from day one. Don’t trash the Amazon and cut down all the trees and pollute all the rivers and make yourself wealthy and then ask, “How should I give back?” It’s too late. That’s something called karma. This idea of a charity cheque, which is quite liberal and free in Hong Kong, does more damage than good.

MANA salad bowl

Photo credit: MANA!

When do you believe plant-based dining will reach the levels of fine dining?

Yesterday. If you had opened a fine-dining restaurant two years ago, just think of all the celebrities – the raw vegans – who would have flocked to your restaurant. It’s time; it’s more than time. But Hong Kong has been very slow to react. Hong Kong has always been more of an imitator than an innovator. In the past two or three years, we’ve started to see more innovators with the younger generation. Hong Kong is changing as fast as any other city, but Hong Kong’s always like that. When something becomes trendy, my God, it goes like wildfire. But, globally, we’ve known all of this for decades now. We’ve known that chopping down trees is not sustainable, that industrial fishing is not sustainable. The writing’s been on the wall for a very long time. Now it’s coming to a point where it’s actually starting to harm us, and we’re reacting.

The underlying reason why people are shifting towards a plant-based diet, why yoga is so popular, why people like vintage clothing, why we have so many more NGOs, why we have a move towards alternative and sustainable technology, why we have a move towards renewable resources: it‘s all being driven by a shift in consciousness from a materialism paradigm into a holistic and consciousness paradigm. That’s the root cause of why we want to build buildings that are smart, why companies are moving rapidly towards cars that are driven by solar panels. They’re meeting the zeitgeist.

What’s next for MANA!?

A production kitchen next month, so we can start stabilising our operations and producing, control our quality a bit more, bring down our costs – that’s immediately next. Eventually, we’d like to raise capital so we can roll out MANA! as a fast slow-food concept – not just for all of Hong Kong, but all of Asia and the rest of the world. If franchising is the way, we’re open to all sorts of ideas. But MANA! is an idea whose time has come.

Diet change, not climate change.

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