As veganism grabs more and more headlines in mainstream media outlets, it is still very much in its infancy, and at its core a grassroots movement. Having relied on the work of dreamers and trailblazers to get it to where it is today, and year on year, veganism takes bigger leaps towards wider mainstream acceptance as a result of these actions.
One such person is Rudy Penando, owner and visionary behind Vx – the United Kingdom’s first fully vegan supermarket and one-stop shop for all things vegan.
Cutting his teeth in the 1990s in the Belgian hardcore punk scene, teenage Rudy was captivated by the social issues raised by the bands within it, prompting him to take on a vegetarian diet, and to consider a more ethical and self-sufficient approach to life.
“It started because of music really, there were lots of cool bands and they all had a pro-vegetarian message, so that’s how it started. It proves that with a positive message you can influence a lot of people by just being yourself and being a cool guy. You can change a teenager’s entire perspective, the same way punk rock changed my life in many ways with the whole DIY mindset: don’t wait for other people to do it. That’s what I’ve applied to my life.”
This in turn set the tone for his future endeavours when he moved to London in the early 2000s. With far more opportunities to embrace ethical choices than on the European mainland, Rudy transitioned to veganism, and set about establishing London’s first ever cruelty-free coffee shop, Pogo in 2004; a project that Penando himself described as “total chaos”. Funded entirely his very own clothing brand Secret Society of Vegans, Rudy’s success can be rightfully attributed to no one but himself and his colleagues. With the likes of Indiegogo and Gofundme being a mere speck on the horizon, it was only logical for him to follow his the DIY ethics imbued upon him in his teenage years.
“I’m old school, so when I see people these days begging for money online I’m wondering how I managed to get so far without begging, I was always trying to raise money my own way by producing stuff.”
By 2008, Rudy was trading internationally with SSOV and although in many ways he had exceeded his own expectations, he was disappointed by the lack of opportunities to trade in the UK. It was at this point that he decided to break away in order to create his own vegan store, and just as it was with Pogo, this endeavour came with its own set of trials and tribulations.
“People were always trying to say it was never going to work. It’s like skydiving, don’t think about it before, because if you start thinking you’re going to be so scared. I’ve had so many people say it’s never going to work and that it was crazy. That’s why you don’t have many people doing great shit because they’re not creative and they don’t have very much imagination.”
Grafting for two years in a small unit in Camden Town, Rudy set about determining what kind of market existed – if any – for such an establishment, and by 2010, he managed to acquire a larger premises in Kings Cross – a premises that would soon become Vx. While business was slow on the uptake, things began to pick up considerably as word of mouth spread, so much so that a second Vx in Bristol was opened in 2015 with the help of business partner Amandine Tchou to immense success.
So what makes Vx what it is? Why has it succeeded when its forecasts were so gloomy? The answer, Rudy believes, is in the strength of its vision, and its efforts to be as inclusive as possible to those outwith the vegan community.
“The shop has always been about how to try to get people in. The shop looks like a skate shop- nothing like the vegan cliche. Let’s say you’re not vegetarian or vegan, and you think about veganism – especially back then – you don’t associate the word with winning or being cool, so basically from the start we were like ‘we’re going to make this cool and appealing and try to erase all the negative preconceptions.’”
Indeed, Vx is keen to separate itself from the idea of veganism as a limiter. Proud proprietors of vegan ‘junk food’, Vx embraces the idea that vegan food can still be fun while still being good for you health, a belief that is reflected in the food they serve.
“You can do vegan junk food in quite a healthy way, we use a lot of vegetables, but by pouring a bit of melted cheese on top, you turn that into fun food.” enthuses Rudy. “The stuff we do is really packed with a lot of fibre and is pretty healthy and all organic. My favourite thing on the menu right now is the sloppy curly fries with smoky tomato salsa, ground ‘beef’ and a big splosh of melted cheese.
We have to admit, that does sound pretty amazing.
“That’s what I mean, imagine when you tell people you’re vegan and you show them this is what you ate today, not eating rocks or grass. That’s why it’s important to have this choice, when you think about vegan food you think “this is going to be boring, I’m going on a diet, the fun is over, my life isn’t fun anymore” but there’s lots of fun food and that’s what we’re here for.”