CREATIVITY IN HOSPITALITY: INTERVIEW WITH ANNA MACDONALD, FOUNDER OF HAPPY MAKI
A frank and inspirational interview with Anna who takes us on her journey setting up a successful self-funded festival food business from scratch and opening the first shop. She has big plans to change the world while maintaining a joyous work-life balance.
Can you tell us what Happy Maki is in a few words?
Fresh, health and happy sushi. We always roll to order, we’re vegan and big on healthy food, and full of positivity when it comes to customer service and social and environmental impact.
When did it launch and what led you to the idea?
We launched in 2014 with the idea of fish free sushi after watching the docufilm ‘End of the Line’. Initially we were using meat but a year of catering with meat turned me and the business vegan. It transformed the business - I was happier in what I was doing, driven by environmental causes, health and animal welfare.
How did you start?
We had a street food van in London and then hit the festival circuit for a couple of years. At the time no one was doing sushi at festivals and the demand for vegan food was increasing, so we found it quite easy to get in. I had a fear of the financial and time commitment of having a shop, but because it scared me I decided to experiment and give it a go and that opened in 2017.
Your customer service at festivals and in the shop is always on point, how do you achieve this?
The brand attracts a certain type of individual and we have a fun recruitment process. Ali, my partner (in business and love), and I interview everyone and try to get to know them. We look for details about their character rather than just work experience. We love working with younger people and students - it suits the type of work we do and they come with energy and positivity, they’re on the ball, driven, and always thinking about alternative solutions. We also attract people because there are more people turning vegan and not enough vegan jobs to go around.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
We won Best Festival Caterer in 2017 (up against everyone, not just vegans), so that recognition was great. Also getting to the stage where the shop was open - becoming a limited company, signing the lease, sorting the utilities, setting up a professional kitchen and training all the staff. We went on holiday and they were really busy so it was also great knowing that you didn’t have to always be there.
What have been the biggest challenges?
Getting through our first ever event not having a clue what we were doing! But I loved coming up with systems, the trial and error, and the intensity of it. In the first few years it was so hard without the word of mouth. We didn’t think the amount of customers we had was representative of how good our food was and it was hard convincing people to try it. We had to fight the stereotypes that it wasn’t going to fill people up and that sushi has to have fish in it. But then reputation builds, word spreads and queues form. I also feel that my fear of expansion, fear of commitment, fear of failure, fear of letting go, has maybe slowed down the pace that we could’ve expanded, although due to this slower speed of growth I was able to stay completely self-funded which I think is a plus. I think it's important not to grow too quickly in the early stages until you have all your processes and ethics down, this way lessons are learnt and mistakes are made on a smaller scale.
What insight can you give us into festival food trading?
Food stalls are a great place to test brand ideas, develop menus and get feedback. The quality of food will keep increasing, with people willing to spend more, but festivals are becoming more saturated, monopolised, over-catered, and pitch prices are going up, making it much harder to make money. Be super careful about checking what you’re signing up for and find out where your pitch position is.
What drives you?
Offering healthy options, promoting veganism, and showing people the problems with eating fish and what it’s doing to our planet. Our flavour and texture filling combinations are fighting the stereotype that vegan food can only be a plate of steamed veg. We also believe in using business as a platform for social change. We partner with the feeding programme Mary’s Meals who do amazing work and are so efficient with their money. Global hunger wouldn’t be a huge problem if everyone made a small change and businesses took more responsibility. I also really enjoy the design and creative side of things - making systems efficient, branding, doing the website.
What’s your best piece of advice for being successful in the hospitality industry?
Make your product great and believe in what you’re doing. The passion of your staff should come through in the food and then your customers get more than just a meal.
What do you cook for yourself at home?
Ali is a such a good chef that I’m almost redundant. We are really healthy and eat a lot of fruit, juices, smoothies, world foods and big flavour dishes. Check out his Instagram @plant.based.adventures.
What’s next for you and Happy Maki?
We’re looking at different options for growth. There’s a lot of demand for us to open somewhere in London - maybe with Market Halls. Or we’re considering franchising so we can grow a lot faster with the investment coming from the franchiser and to keep the direct team we manage small. We’re conscious that we also have lots of other things we want to do and don’t want to get completely consumed by a growing business. We want to retain the passion.
Find Happy Maki in Brighton city centre or visit the Happy Maki website.