Philippa Stephenson is passionate about tasty food, but even more passionate about animal rights and the environment. GARY STEEL talks with the owner of the extraordinarily popular vegan Tart Bakery in Auckland’s Grey Lynn (and now a second one in K’Rd’s St Kevin’s Arcade).
Gary – How long have you been vegan? Are you vegan personally?
Philippa – Absolutely, absolutely. It wasn’t an overnight decision, it gradually crept up on me. My son came home from university with a vegan girl, and her whole family were vegan, and it was non-negotiable. He said if we wanted to see him socially, that was it. What do you do? Young men fall in love with young ladies, and they’re the leaders of these things. And what happened with the other children as they got older and could understand what he was talking about, they took it up with just as much fervour, and I think as a parent if you try to stand in the way of your kids you’re mad! It’s much better just to give in and do whatever they want!
Tart has been completely vegan since World Vegan Day, which was November the 1st last year (2016). But before that about 94 out of 97 products were vegan. It’s been heading in this direction for a number of years.
Gary – It’s crazy-busy, isn’t it? The day I came by I could barely get in the door.
Philippa – That’s good, that’s good. That’s what we’re after. From where we stand, because we are very much environmental vegans, the horrendous state of the animal industry is one thing, but when there’s no planet for the animals to live on, all bets are off. So what we’re primarily concerned with is if we can send Fonterra a message and say… What we say to our customers is that every single coffee you have that’s not made with cow milk, you’re sending a message to Fonterra and to the farmers that we’re serious about taking control of our climate. They’re not taking control, they don’t give a fuck. They don’t care. They’re just happy bouncing to disaster with sea level rise and all the stuff that goes with it, pollution of the waterways. They don’t give a toss as long as they make their shareholders happy, so if we don’t stand up for our planet and the animals no one else is going to. It’s a very strong message to the rest of them to get on board.
Gary – The kind of food you do has that old fashioned Kiwi thing going on.
Philippa – My aim is to not frighten the horses. If you can be a vegan and respect animals and the planet but still have a custard square or a ‘mince and cheese’ pie, or a donut, or a piece of fudge cake, then it doesn’t take much effort for the customer to move over. It tastes great, it looks great, it’s cheap, it’s equivalent to any bakery you’ll find out there. It’s just better. And the reason it’s better is that our food costs are way higher, because we’re trying to do a better job.
So we’re trying not to make it culturally odd. If people can write-off veganism then that will give them a reason not to look at their food, but if you make it culturally acceptable… that’s the aim of the game. So we go for making it accessible and yummy.
Philippa – Oh yes.
Gary – Professionally?
Philippa – No, not at all. I brought up my children, and you know what happens when women [finish raising their kids]. They’re completely unemployable because they’re old. Seriously, you try being an older lady, it’s just crap, it’s really bad. So I went to MIT, marvellous place, I was the oldest student, and then when I came out of tech I was entirely unemployable because I was so old. What are you gonna do… give it a go… what’s the worst that can happen, you’re unemployed now.
Gary – How did you work out how to turn things that are traditionally meat or dairy into vegan?
Philippa – It’s so easy, the internet is heaving and groaning with it. And if you go on a vegan website and say you’re really stuck for a bacon flavour, you’ll get 200 replies in one minute. Vegans are the most amazingly inventive, innovative group of people, and they’re really keen to share their knowledge with you, there’s none of this business where ‘I know how to do this but I’m not telling you’. There’s none of that. I buy a lot of books, because I have an obligation to keep abreast of stuff, and I reckon at the moment there’s probably between four and eight new vegan titles a week being published. The stuff is out there, and don’t forget that China and India have been doing this for millennia. It’s just us who are a bit slow.
Can I do a plug about my vegan people? I just want to say what magnificent people they are, they are just so extraordinarily lovely. I’ve been at this for five years and can count on two fingers the number of bad people we’ve had, and both of them I’m pretty sure are meat eaters. The vegan community, absolutely extraordinarily marvellous people. I’ve just got this feeling that it might be something to do with this: If you’re the sort of person that feels compassion for an animal, then you’ve probably got it in spades for people.
You see I’m old now, I’ve put the kids through university, apart from the little one, and I’ve got something that passes for a house and I don’t need any more. So the money, half of it goes to the Sustainability Network which is the planting out… wherever the dairy is hideous, so we’re concentrating on the Waikato at the moment, and the aim is to fence off and plant trees to stop the stock getting in the river and defecating, and after that we’ll get down and do Southland. Because if we don’t look after the waterways… So half the money goes that way, and the other half goes to SAFE. We’re a bit ambivalent towards the SPCA because they’re welfarists – let’s make the animals comfortable while they’re in purgatory, whereas I’m more down the end of ‘let’s not do this, eh?’
It just seems to me, if you can eat something delicious and yummy, and it didn’t cost the earth too much in terms of pollution or methane or excessive water use, then why don’t we do that. It just seems mad to go on creating this methane which is heating up the world when there are other alternatives, it’s just a no-brainer. It’s actually on the intersection of political change, because if we don’t change it… it’s no good waiting for the shareholders of big business. Right until the water is lapping around their laptops they’re not going to say ‘yeah, you were right’.
Gary – Have you got plans for expanding the bakery over time?
Philippa – No-no-no-no-no! Crikey! We have an obligation here to spread the message. It’s not just okay for the people of Grey Lynn to have a brain. Everybody’s got to have this message. When the glacier melts in about seven years, that’s going to potentially give us down here a sea level rise of about 13 centimetres. That’s enough to lose [places like] Samoa and Fiji, and all those people are going to move here, and they’re going to put unbelievable pressure on us. Then we’re going to have more violence and things we’re not happy about. So we’ve got to spread this message, we can’t just sit on it, we actually have a moral obligation. It’s like slavery or women’s rights – oh, let’s give women rights in London, but not worry about the rest of the country. You’ve got to worry about animals everywhere, you’ve got to worry about the methane everywhere, not just us.
Gary – So you’d like the idea of maybe new branches opening up elsewhere?
Philippa– Absolutely, absolutely. But the key thing is I think you’ve got to stay humble and say look, this is not about profit, it’s about doing something. It’s a bomb that’s ticking and it’s going to go off in our faces, and whether it’s the water quality that gets us first, or the methane that gets us first, or combination of all of it, if we don’t take this bomb seriously…
As long as Tart pays its staff, pay the creditors, that’s what keeps the prices down. Because you see veganism has got a bit of a bad reputation as being an elitist, expensive thing. Like Little Bird bakery… Who’s got that sort of money for a bit of cake and a cup of tea, that’s crazy money. If we can get somebody lunch – a drink and a pie and a piece of cake for 10 or 12 bucks, that’s where we need it to be. As long as we can find the rent we’re in. Now we’re actually extraordinarily fortunate because our landlord is a Jain Buddhist, and in his properties he cannot have meat or milk or anything like that. He will not have alcohol, he’s a very spiritual man. He’s what we leverage off to make this work. At least it doesn’t have to make profit because that’s not the name of the game. The aim is to get the chickens out of the cages and…
Gary – But surely any profit you make is good because that’s more money to feed back into the causes you believe in.
Philippa – Yeah, technically, but we’re far better to feed more people and change more people’s ideas. That’s ultimately where the power resides. As I say to people, every single sandwich you eat that didn’t have ham in it, didn’t have an egg in it, you’ve saved somebody’s life. All farmers need to do is look at some other way of making money. It’s very important to me that in your article that you do not bag farmers, because they’re good people and they’re just trying to do what we’re doing. They’re just trying to put food on their plates, send the kids to university, pay off their house, and live happily ever after. They’re not bad people, it’s just that their choices are a bit bad. If we send the economic signals that we’re much happier to each spinach and cabbage, then that’s where they’ll go. They’ll just follow the money. And there are things you can grow that have much less of an impact on the earth. It doesn’t have to be about polluting the waterways and crushing the texture of the soil and all those bad things that go on.
When I was a little girl you could have 100 cows and keep your family alive. Now that figure is 800. You can just imagine the weight of 800 cows compacting the dirt, and once dirt gets compacted, the soil structure changes, and the water hurls its way much faster to the aquifers, and this is what happened at Havelock North last year. The origin of that was identified as bovine. So a piece of land that had been used for mixed cropping, the price of dairy went up and they moved across to dairy, and when there was heavy rainfall it got into the aquifer that fed Havelock North, and whammo! All those people were sick.
You watch this space. This is common sense. I haven’t got words for it, it’s a no-brainer. The French prime minister says ‘there is no plan b, because there is no planet b’. We’re at least 40 years from any sort of habitation on mars, we haven’t got 40 years, and the crazy thing is it’s not like the dinosaurs where they were just sitting there and something crashed into them, we’re doing this ourselves!
Sorry, I get a bit carried away. But I’m passionate, mate. I’ll tell you what gives me great hope. At the beginning in the 18th century, to own a plantation in Haiti or anywhere over there was considered to be really smart business practice. But there was this guy called William Wilberforce who got a bee in his bonnet, 80 years campaigning to get blacks not to be slaves, and by the time he died at the end of that century, to own slaves was seen to be quite socially off, quite unacceptable. He did that in less than 100 years. So if one guy without the internet can manage that, imagine what we could do! If he wanted to address a meeting in Hull – he lived in London – he had to get on a horse and travel for four days! But he did it, one man, and a truck load of cash made it social smelly. And that’s all we have to do, to make meat and dairy dirty. And then posh people will go ‘ewwwww!’
Gary – One of the things I wanted to ask about was the fake meat thing. What’s the idea behind that? To me, as a vegetarian I’ve never felt like I needed to remind myself of dead animals.
Philippa – Yes, but I’ll tell you what it’s really good for: it’s really good for people in transition, or kids. A kid at school he doesn’t want to get hassled by his mates, he’ll have a pineapple ham and cheese pizza. It’s all about making everybody comfortable. I mean I’m with you personally, it wouldn’t bother me if I never used it again, I just don’t see the need for it, but there’s a bunch of people that you want to get, that you want to convert, that you want to go ‘well this is tasty and affordable, and why not?’ It’s a ham and cheese toasty but it’s not made out of a pig. And what tends to happen is the longer people have been vegetarian or vegans, the less they consume that type of stuff. But for people that have just got there, something salty and crispy like bacon… That’s the prejudice I face, people sticking their heads in and going ‘where’s the meat?’ I say ‘you just take it and if it’s shit, don’t pay’. And every single time they come back and pay. It wouldn’t be in my interests to make shit food. That would be dumb. I know it’s good, I choose the ingredients and know the care with which it’s produced. So that’s what the fake meat’s about, keeping people comfortable. One third of our products would be with the fake chicken and ham, and the rest of it is completely vegetable based rather than fake meat.
Gary – One chap told me that most vegan pies use palm oil.
Philippa – Won’t touch the stuff. What you’ve got to watch of course is that manufacturers are getting bloody clever, even the manufacturers of Olivani. They say ‘vegetable oil’ and you ring them up and say ‘come on, what is it?’ and they say ‘because of the fluctuating market price of international oil, sometimes we are forced to use a tiny bit of palm oil’, and I’ll say ‘well, can you tell me when that is?’ and they’ll say ‘oh no, it’s a commercially protected secret.’ I’m terribly anti palm oil. I don’t want my kid to go to a zoo to see an orang-utan, I want him to go to Indonesia and see an orang-utan. Cutting down rain forests and putting in palm oil trees…
Gary – So what do you use in your pies if you don’t use palm oil?
Philippa – We make a fat blend which is a floating mixture of what’s on the international oil market, but we can’t use soy because it has a really nasty smell when it’s cooked. So we make a fat blend and chill it down and proceed exactly like you would if you were making it with butter. It’s a bit harder to work, but it’s not rocket science.
Philippa – I have a divine front of house called Ashley, and she’s staunch, don’t get in her way! I leave the burgers entirely for Ash. Burger night is the Friday night. The demographic of the burger shift, the customers are all 16 to 20, so they don’t like old people like me, they want younger people. So in the entire burger shift there isn’t anyone over the age of 20 working. They only work once a month and have a really good time. It’s like a little subculture. But it’s just the nicest group of kids you could ever hope to find. Vegan teenagers are spectacular, because they face so much pressure from their families and their peers, but they are staunch and they stick to their guns.
Gary – It sounds like you work extraordinarily long hours and it’s such a passion for you. How do you keep it up over time?
Philippa – That’s a strange question! You just don’t get any news in the paper or on the radio without this being relevant. This is real, this is catastrophic…
Gary – It’s more of a question of… I couldn’t work those kind of hours, I’d be exhausted and then I’d be grumpy and then I wouldn’t feel balanced within myself.
Philippa – You would if there was a fire under your bottom. The people are just lovely, beyond your wildest dreams, and they’re just a pleasure to serve. My staff are lovely, and it’s just not like work, it isn’t. It’s a pleasure. These people are educated, widely travelled, literate… it’s an interactive process, they want this to succeed as much as I do, because they can see that if the planet wins, animals win, we all win. It’s a pleasure and a privilege mate, it’s not hard at all. I can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning!
Can you make me not sound like a plonker, please? Or a nutbag?
Tart Bakery will have a stand at this weekend’s Whangarei Vegan Expo, 10am to 4pm, Forum North, 7 Rust Ave.