Five years ago, the choices for those wanting vegan fare were either a sad side salad or a trip to a Buddhist monastery.

Two years ago, plastic straws were ubiquitous with every meal.

Today, there are vegan options in almost every major restaurant, meat-free brands such as Impossible and Beyond have become household names and diners are once again embracing paper or even strawless consumption.

In 2016, UNICEF reported that some 40 per cent of mothers who breastfed in public had experienced harassment or been made to feel uncomfortable, but in the past 12 months, more than 100 bars, cafés and restaurants across Hong Kong have backed the #Ittasteslikelove campaign to normalise breastfeeding, making a bold statement that they are willing to stand up against discrimination and drive social change.

Restaurants and bars are places where people congregate and have become spots where public opinion can be shaped and changed, offering a unique opportunity to expose consumers to new ideas and alternative views and lifestyles – whether that is vegan food, plastic-free dining or the normalisation of breastfeeding.

Consultancy firm Wolff Olins, in partnership with CitizenMe, interviewed 7,000 people across five regions and found that people want fundamental change and they want businesses to lead it, more so than even governments, charities or regulators. They found that, regardless of age, seniority, geography or gender, consumers now expect firms to push the boundaries to make the world a better place

#Ittasteslikelove campaign

At a basic level, the arrival of meatless burgers at restaurants such as Beef & Liberty, The Butchers Club, Porterhouse and even luxury hotel groups like The Ritz-Carlton and Grand Hyatt means that vegetarian and vegan diners have more choice, but it also means that a wider variety of diners are exposed to new menu options.

Gary Stokes, who runs Hemingways in Discovery Bay, which last year made the transition to a 100%-plant-based menu, explains, “The restaurant sector has played a massive role in exposing customers to the innovations of companies such as Beyond Meat, Impossible and Omnipork, to name a few. When you can provide someone with an alternative that satisfies their taste buds yet is better for the environment, involves zero cruelty and is healthier for you – it’s an easy battle to win.”

He says rather than entirely changing the menu, they simply took their old menu and “veganised” it, finding that consumers are more likely to try something new if it comes in the style of an old favourite – and if they do try it, they are usually converted to a more sustainable way of dining.

“As long as the dishes come out looking good and tasting good, it doesn’t really matter if they are vegan. Because of this approach, we found many of our meat-eating customers ordered our food, and in most cases, the reaction was, WOW, if that’s how it tastes, then I could quite easily skip the meat,” Stokes adds.

Popular burger chain Beef & Liberty, which offers meat-free alternatives on its menu, launched Leaves & Liberty because it wants to offer a broader range of choices to consumers and show how people who enjoy meat can still dine out well on vegetarian or vegan dishes as well as plant-based burgers, reducing their environmental footprint.

“F&B does create these norms within society by changing people’s diets and by making them more accessible through what’s offered on the menu, but also through what they communicate as a brand,” explains Will Bray, Managing Director of The Greater China Restaurant Company.

Liz Thomas founder of #Ittasteslikelove

Photo credit: Rosalia Sempere Pico (RSP Photography)

Consumers want to spend their money with ethical companies. For instance, Nike saw a sales spike after its collaboration with civil-rights activist and American football player Colin Kaepernick.

Last year, a sign posted on the window of one Target shop in the USA stating that breastfeeding parents are welcome to “nurse wherever and whenever they like” in-store went viral. Hundreds of thousands worldwide hailed the retailer’s forward-thinking approach and vowed to spend their hard-earned cash there.

In Hong Kong, scores of brands – from Pizza Express and Pret A Manger to Oolaa and FRITES, as well as huge groups like Maximal Concepts and Black Sheep Restaurants – have backed the #Ittasteslikelove campaign, vowing to support nursing mothers and promising that their spaces are safe spaces – whether people are breastfeeding covered up or not.

“This is an enormous step forward,” explains #Ittasteslikelove founder Liz Thomas, adding, “The quickest way to change attitudes is for people to see and experience things they are not used to being openly welcomed and accepted. People will think twice about voicing their disapproval if they know they are in a place that actively supports normalising breastfeeding, and then, after awhile, they may begin to see that there is no need to be disapproving at all.”

“Some places are reluctant to join the campaign because they fear what their customers might say or do if they see someone nursing, but actually once you reframe the conversation and show that breastfeeding is a perfectly normal part of motherhood, people embrace change very quickly,” Thomas explains.

This month, as the campaign marks its first anniversary, popular chains Pizza Express and Oolaa have joined the scheme, meaning that there are more publicly supportive spots for families that choose to breastfeed than ever before.

Managing Director International of Pizza Express Liam Colette says, “Family is one of our core values here at Pizza Express, and it’s our goal to make sure everyone who dines at our restaurants feels loved and supported. We are a firm believer that mothers should be supported to breastfeed in public without any concern, and it’s our job and privilege to provide such environment.”

With some 20 locations across Hong Kong – stretching from Yuen Long to Stanley and Tseung Kwan O to Discovery Bay – there are more options than ever for safe public nursing spaces.

Manon Pellis, Events Manager at Oolaa, which has three restaurants across Hong Kong (including a new opening in Tung Chung), agrees that it’s vital to support families, stating that “breastfeeding is the most natural thing”.

She adds, “Mothers should be able to feed their babies anytime and anywhere. This is why they are always welcome at Oolaa.”

Pizza Express Hong Kong

Globally, businesses are looking to show they are considering their social impact, and those that don’t are being challenged.

International supermarket Iceland has banned the use of palm oil in the products it sells, while rival Tesco is working with charities to reduce its food waste. French drink group Pernod Ricard has asked its affiliates to stop using non-biodegradable straws and stirrers at any company events, as has UK drink giant Diageo, which owns Guinness and exports its drinks to more than 100 countries worldwide. It has also pledged to end the use of plastic rings that hold together multi-packs.

In February, California environmental group Earth Island Institute sued Coke, Pepsi, Nestlé and other large companies for creating a plastic pollution “nuisance” and misleading consumers about the recyclability of plastic.

In Hong Kong, MANA! has been committed to social change from the outset, wanting to show consumers that there are solutions to the issues facing cities globally – food waste, pollution, eating sustainably.

Founder Bobsy Gaia explains, “MANA!’s zero-food-waste and recycling systems are visibly in place at all our outlets and are interactive so that our customers directly participate in the solution and learn first-hand. Our food offerings and pricing are equally designed to appeal to most people’s tastes and budgets, thereby encouraging non-health-driven customers to try the food and judge for themselves.”

He adds that businesses have moral, social and ethical duties to operate non-harmful and non-polluting enterprises.

Hemingways’ Stokes, who also founded Oceans Asia, launched The Last Straw Movement four years ago with his brother and says the biggest challenge was persuading businesses who feared consumers would reject switching from plastic to paper straws.

“There was resistance to changing, of course. But when you explain the reasoning and logic behind a paper straw that might go soft as opposed to a plastic straw that would be around for 100 years, this puts the minor inconvenience into perspective.”

But, in fact, Stokes says most eateries reported that consumers have responded positively to the change and were then motivated to make other eco-driven changes to their operations.

He says, “As a restaurant owner, I feel that we are in a powerful position to affect positive changes within society.”

  • If you’re a business and would like to support the #Ittasteslikelove campaign to normalise breastfeeding or are an expecting, new or nursing parent and would like more information on our work, please get in touch through our official Facebook page, Instagram page or blog detailing the highs and lows of breastfeeding in the 21st century
  • All portrait photography by Rosalia Sempere Pico of RSP Photography
  • The complete list of businesses supporting #Ittasteslikelove can be found here and is updated monthly

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