How a Taipei Restaurant Turned a Meat-Filled Street Snack Vegan
Taiwan's luwei involves braising ingredients in a hot broth and then adding spices and sauces to the finished product. While it almost always involves pork or other meat, Vege Creek has found wild success with its pick-your-own vegan version.
In Taiwanese cuisine, pork is a common ingredient and swine farms sustain much of Southern Taiwan's agricultural sector. But Taipei's Vege Creek is changing the widely held perception that Taiwanese food can't be vegan and modern.
"We knew we'd only be competitive if we differentiated ourselves," said Paul Hsu, Vege Creek's co-owner, who started the brand with earnings saved up from an 11-month working holiday in Australia.
At Vege Creek, diners walk in and take a basket to start their meal. With this basket, they "shop" the store from a wall of daily stocked leafy greens and a display of individually packaged produce that uses biodegradable plastic. What you see, and take, is what you get.
"Luwei is very representative of Taiwan, but we strategically wanted the design of our stores to have that shock value," Hsu added. "And luwei's been around for so long, it must have its demand."
A distant cousin of hot pot, luwei involves braising ingredients in a hot broth and then adding spices and sauces to the finished product. Vege Creek's broth, developed by Hsu's co-owner and college buddy Kent Chiang, has a delicate Chinese herbal aroma and is mildly sweet from its chosen spice mixture.
Luwei's a common Taiwanese snack, but could also be an additional dish at dinner. It's categorized as comfort food, usually sold by street vendors and is available late into the night. Generally, it's convenient, affordable, and always dependable. In traditional road stall settings, customers pick and choose their order from an assortment of veggies, braised meats, processed products (like pig's blood cake and tofu) and instant noodles before handing it over to be diced up and heated in a hot soup. A sneeze guard may or may not be present, and the vendor cart's fluorescent light often reflects onto the customer's hungry face while they pace around for their to-go order.
After both dropping out of their master's programs to the dismay of parents and professors, Hsu and Chiang spent their first few weeks on Australia's Gold Coast, sleeping in a car and knocking on doors for work. In Australia, they picked watermelons and worked in factories.
"Most Taiwanese parents believe that the higher your degree, the better your job will be," Hsu said.
But graduating with an industrial engineering management master's degree would only earn Hsu $945 a month, he said. The duo wanted to break out of the salary slump that is synonymous with Taiwan's Millennials. According to data released earlier this year by Taiwan's Ministry of Labor, the average monthly salary for a master's graduate is $1,030, while a college grad would take home $873.
With $30,000 saved up between the two of them from their time in Australia, Hsu and Chiang signed a lease two weeks after returning to Taiwan in October 2012. Four years later, they have five storefronts, a central kitchen, and a creative lab that is currently under construction. In Taiwan's young entrepreneurial circle, they are a success story.
In Vege Creek's nascent stage, there was only one store and two employees: Hsu and Chiang. At four in the morning, they would scooter over to a neighborhood wet market and learn the names of Taiwanese leafy greens from curious farmer aunties while most young people were still snoozing away at home before sunrise. Vege Creek's demand for produce and leafy greens has grown so much they now use a wholesaler.
Splitting up the work, Hsu focuses on Vege Creek's branding, design, and packaging while Chiang takes care of the food.
"Our initial goal with Vege Creek wasn't for environmental reasons," Chiang said. "We just wanted to promote eating vegetables."
Taking inspiration from road names in Australia, Hsu said Vege Creek's name is a sentimental reminder where their startup fund came from.
And with Vege Creek's success also came the copycats.
"At first we were very upset," Hsu said. "But if you translate that anger into productiveness, you'll continue working hard until customers know that the other stores are copies."
During a busy lunch hour at Vege Creek's Yanji store, Lia Lankford and her boyfriend visiting from Boston were eating there for the second time in a week.
"We have nothing like this in America," Lankford said. "It's such a cool concept, as if our dishes were made just for us."
Though it initially started as a money-saving scheme, Hsu and Chiang's commitment to doing all of Vege Creek's construction (except the plumbing and electrical work) is now a constant learning opportunity and creative outlet. Flipping through photos on his cell phone, Hsu shows off the wooden window frames he's finished making for their creative lab.
"We're just doing what we like," said Chiang. "We're not particularly talented. There are people better at design than us and there's also a lot of people who can cook."
"We're definitely lucky," Hsu added. "We know we're not special."