One of the very best things about running a small business and trading at events is meeting, hanging out with and becoming friends with some amazing folk who also run incredible businesses all across the country (usually making great food. I love food.) Below are a handful of my absolute fave vegan businesses I think you need to know about!
Got No Beef The best vegan burger joint in the world, I often have dreams about the vegan shrimp (Cardiff)
Mr Nice Pie Maker of fine pies and all round nice guys (Events + South Wales based)
Iuvo Skincare Incredible cruelty free skincare and the nicest family ever. Their rose body butter works wonders on dry and irritated skin.
VE Cosmetics One woman empire creating magical vegan and cruelty free cosmetics
We were chuffed recently to be asked to feature on the Bristol Pound blog, to chat business, brownies and Brizzol. Check out my recommendations at the end of the article, and maybe even a cheeky discount too!…
We spoke to Gemma Ann Lewis, who runs Dark Matters – a vegan friendly, anti palm oil independent brownie business.
Veganism is no longer a niche food movement, it’s growing rapidly throughout the UK and globally, with recent research suggesting that over 7% of the UK’s population now identify as vegan. After turning vegan herself, Gemma saw the potential to change the direction of her company and worked hard to ‘veganize’ her products without her customers noticing a difference to the taste! She replaces eggs and milk with high quality alternatives and she doesn’t use any margarines or vegan spreads that may contain palm oil.
Gemma tells us about the highs and lows of running an independent business and tells us why she loves Bristol.
Hi Gemma, tell us how you got your business up and running… I started trading as Dark Matters in Spring 2013 when I was looking for a way to supplement my minimum wage job in Bournemouth. I had run another small chocolate business when I lived in South London and loved the freedom and challenges that come with working for myself, so was keen to see if I could make it work elsewhere with a new business. Delighted to still be here after 6 years, but it’s not been stress free.
What makes your business unique? We started simply as an artisan chocolate brownie business with a focus on dark chocolate (hence the name), which was unusual at the time, but as the brownie market grew (and I became vegan myself for a number of reasons) I saw that there was definitely a gap in the market for us to convert the business to being vegan also.
This was in late 2015 and its one of the best things we’ve done business-wise. I worked incredibly hard to ‘veganize’ our existing recipe, taking out the butter and eggs and replacing them with high quality vegan alternatives but without our existing customer base noticing too much of a difference. We’re also a palm oil free business, so don’t use any margarines or vegan spreads as people might assume.
The real secret is we’ve actually increased the amount of dark chocolate couverture that goes in every batch, so our customers are getting even more of a chocolate hit per bite! For this reason we believe that our brownies are definitely not just for vegans (I would say our customer base is probably 50/50) and think the only real requirement is that you really love chocolate
And what do you love about your job? What’s your favourite thing about running an independent business? As I mentioned above, I love the freedom that comes with running my own business. Once I’d had a taste of that it’s very difficult to be an employee again! The job satisfaction that comes with a really great market day is indescribable, especially if we sell out early and get the chance to grab a drink with the other traders or have a good chat with our ace customers.
The real secret is we’ve actually increased the amount of dark chocolate couverture that goes in every batch, so our customers are getting even more of a chocolate hit per bite!
What are the challenges? I think the hardest things about running an independent business is also one of the best, I can take time off whenever I like, but I won’t get paid for it, so this is definitely a motivation to work hard in order to play hard! Not having a set reliable wage is always a worry, but in the current economy I don’t think anyone can say their job is 100% safe anymore, and the freedom and control that comes with running a small independent is definitely worth the sleepless nights in the early days of building the business and becoming profitable.
How do you keep it going? Being in a community of like minded business owners is the best way to feel continually inspired and motivated to keep going, even in the toughest of times. Most weeks I work 6/7 days including markets, so it can be very isolating, but the comradery and support, both in person at markets and on social media is honestly one of the main reasons I’m still trading. Being able to reach out to people who are experiencing similar things in similar industries and ask for advice or feedback is absolutely priceless. We’ve also built up a brilliant customer base in the last few years, many of whom I would now consider friends (even if they only want me for my brownies!), so having that is incredibly motivating to keep baking.
Are you from Bristol? If so what part? If not – when did you move here and why? Originally from North London but came to Bristol via Dorset two years ago. I’ve always loved the fierce independence of the city, its individuality and diversity, and support of small businesses and local enterprise. I also love being so close to nature, despite living in a city. Plus my family live in West Wales, so being closer to them is a bonus too!
Why Bristol Pound? Whenever we visited friends who lived in Bristol before we moved it was the Bristol pound that stood out to me as one of the many incredible things about the city. I loved the idea of a circular currency, that would ensure money stayed within the city and was spent with small Bristol businesses, so I think I signed up to accept £B only a matter of days after we moved!
Where do you like to shop and where do you spend your Bristol Pounds?Are you even a vegan in Bristol if you don’t mention Cafe Kino? Still one of my favourites, no matter how many times I visit, although Bun Fiction at Kongs is creeping up to the top spot. The Portcullis pub for Sunday afternoon board games and Belgian beers after a busy market day, or the Vegan Vend vending machines in The Island or Galleries for a quick snack on the go (you can also buy our brownies!).
We’ve only recently started trading regularly in Bristol despite being located here for a while, so we’ve not had a huge amount in via £B, but when we do I tend to excitedly save them for the two things most crucial to the smooth running of the business…coffee and beer. So Grain Barge for bevvies, or Small Street Espresso for brews!
Do you have any special offers for Bristol Pound customers? Or any other offers on at the moment? Nab 15% off our whole website range with offer code B15 and have them delivered to you, or save on postage too and collect from us (BS11) with code BRISTOLPICKUP
When I registered our interest to hear more on the new Virgin StartUp webpage I honestly didn’t think it would amount to anything. It was March 2014 and I’d been running Dark Matters for almost a year alongside my part-time cafe job, where everything I made on top of what was needed to basically stay functioning was ploughed back into the business (including tips!).
The idea of getting a Start Up loan seemed terrifying, and a huge commitment, so when I got a call the next day from Alyson over at Business West (a delivery partner for VSU) I was fairly overwhelmed. Luckily she was well versed in talking to stressed out start-ups, and in the 20 minutes or so that we chatted I became more and more aware that this was exactly the opportunity we needed in order to reach the next step in our business.
I was paired up with an amazing mentor who held my hand through writing an absolutely kick-ass Business Plan and we had the loan in our bank account within three weeks. Bonkers.
Obviously, the money was a HUGE boost to the business. We were able to book large (and costly) Summer events, buy more much needed kitchen equipment, finish driving lessons (then pass my test!) and buy our first Brownie Mobile! When I first sent off an email to Virgin StartUp I had been focused on what the loan could do for my business, I hadn’t factored in the amount of support and mentoring (Hi Matt!) VSU would continually offer over the two years after receiving our loan. From paying for our pitch at Jamie Oliver’s Big Feastival, inviting us to Virgin HQ to flog our brownies to their staff at Christmas, having us cater their incredible Women In Business events and featuring us numerous times on their blog, they’ve continued to go above and beyond for us, and I couldn’t be happier that we took that step two years ago!
Search the Virgin Start Up Blog for lots more advice and articles about setting up your own business, with the right support its easier than you think!