What The Pitta – the UK’s firt all vegan doner stall – all began in the summer last year, started up by good friends Cem Yildiz and Rojdan Gul. Having grown exponentially since then, What The Pitta can now be found at Boxpark Croydon, Boxpark Shoreditch, and soon Camden as well. It’s safe to say that London is loving the vegan doner. One half of What The Pitta founders, Cem, kindly agreed to do a quick interview over the phone with me so we could learn a little bit more about these great business owners.
This might seem like an obvious question, but are you vegan?
Yes, but my business partner, Roj, isn’t.
So when did you go vegan and why?
There was a little café that I used to go to in Chingford, and the guy that worked there asked if I wanted to go see Dr. Michael Greger. I think that was sort of the thing that, and his book ”How Not to Die” nudged me over the edge to really take veganism seriously. He gave an hour speech where he was breaking down stats and why veganism can reduce the risk of all sorts of diseases; I thought I’d be an idiot not to try it.
What made you start your business?
Last July I was on holiday in Turkey with Roj, we had been on the beach all day so we decided to go and get some lunch at this restaurant. I just ordered a salad, and he said, “What are you doing?”
I said, “I’m just trying this vegan thing.”
He was a bit confused at first, but then he said, “Oh, my uncle does a vegan doner kebab in Germany.”
I said that it sounded interesting, and mentioned that I hadn’t heard anything like that in London before. Then we kind of got excited over lunch, and as soon as we got back we booked our flights to Freiberg, Germany. We tried the food and we couldn’t believe it wasn’t meat. Within 2 days of being back in London, we had learned how to make the bread, marinate it, everything. Then we opened in Shoreditch about 2 weeks later.
So it was between 2 – 3 weeks from having the idea in Turkey, to actually opening up on Shoreditch high street.
What do you think is the hardest part of running a vegan business?
I think the main things are like the daily fires that go on – staff feeling sick, making sure products are delivered – stuff like that. It’s mainly the logistics and making sure you have staff that are happy. Roj and I were speaking today about Boxpark in Wembley, we’re thinking “Should we go there, should we not?” The only thing that holds us back is logistics of deliveries and whether we can hire the staff that can manage it.
And what do you love about running a vegan business?
Number one thing for us, especially from the early days, is the community and just getting to meet customers. Obviously, we aren’t in there as much as we used to be as we’ve got staff and we’re trying to grow the business. We still see the same customers, and they see us and they say to us, “Oh I remember when you had the little green shed, and now look at you guys in Boxpark and going to Camden.” So for us, the biggest thing is that the vegan community is so strong. A lot of the vegan influencers such as Fat Gay Vegan, Vevolution, and different festivals really helped us get our name out there from day one. It’s nice to see the same faces messaging us on social media; we always ask for their opinions on certain things we’re doing, where we should open up, what products we should get in, whether we should try something new on the menu. It’s really good that it feels like we can just ask our audience anything and they get back to us, and they can feel invested in what we’re doing.
Do you get many non-vegans coming in to try your food?
A lot of our audience are non-vegans. We have always said from day one that we didn’t want to be an exclusively vegan brand. We didn’t want to say, “If you’re not vegan, you’re not welcome here.” Our slogan was, and still is, “Meat-free, more often”. We just want to support anyone who’s trying to cut down on meat consumption, and we’re an option that tastes good. You’re not going to feel like you’re missing out because you’re still getting your fast food fix. My business partner Roj isn’t a vegan, but he’s a massive meat reducer. It fits well because we can understand the psychology of someone who doesn’t want to go fully vegan but does still want to reduce the meat they eat. We have found that a lot of our friends around us have reduced their meat consumption massively. I think we see that as a bigger win than trying to make everyone strictly vegan – obviously, that is the goal, but actually having a population where around 30% of people are eating less meat is going to have a bigger impact than around 5% being vegan. We always see vegans bringing their friends or family in to try the doner, then the next week we see the friend/family member come in by themselves and have it. It’s really just about having good food – as long as it tastes good you’ll have all kinds of customers coming in.
Finally, what are your 3 favourite vegan meals?
My favourite meals aren’t really too fancy. For me, I like quick meals. People always worry that cooking as a vegan is going to be hard because it’s all fancy, but I actually like to make quick and easy recipes. I like chickpea curry/chana masala. Burritos are also easy to do, beans, hot sauce, guacamole. The last one is probably like a veggie roast; I think people think that you’re going to miss out on Christmas dinner or roast dinner. And obviously, a vegan doner is great once in a while.
These guys are a huge inspiration; it’s truly incredible how quickly What The Pitta all began, and grew in popularity. Just last year they opened up, and now they’re already starting up their third location – who knows what’s to come next! If you are ever close by I would strongly recommend giving their vegan doner a try.