In Conversation with HappyCow Founder Eric Brent

HappyCow is quite simply one of our favourite websites and apps. Whenever we visit a new city or country, it’s the first thing we look to. From helpful reviews, to localised insights and a bird’s eye view of all the vegan treats to be found nearby – HappyCow we salute you!

We asked Eric Brent, founder of HappyCow, what inspired him to create such a platform.

1. What inspired you to create  HappyCow?

The idea of HappyCow as a website started in 1997 when I first learned that the only world guide to vegetarian restaurants on the internet at that time (now defunct) was no longer being updated. However, I had put the idea on hold until November 1999. I had a friend in Bangkok, May Kaidee, and wanted to help her promote her little restaurant. After waiting a while for someone else to do this job, I finally stepped up and decided to do it myself. I was living in Rishikesh, India at that time, and although I wasn’t sure exactly how a project like this could be managed, I felt compelled to take it on. So, I taught myself html, paid for web hosting, and HappyCow was born.

The idea came from my personal journey towards vegetarianism/veganism which started in 1988 when friends took me to eat at a vegetarian restaurant in Santa Cruz, California, then called McDharmas. Upon eating my very first veggie burger ever, I was overcome by a flash of revelation about the connection of the food I had previously been eating (flesh meat) to the source from which the food came (live animal beings). After college I travelled in China and Asia for some time, and that experience solidified my exclusion of animal products from my diet. From having lived in Taiwan and studied Buddhism, I became a stricter vegetarian (vegan) and excluded all animal products from my diet and life. As a world traveller who’s lived, worked, and visited 50+ countries, I had encountered much difficulty looking for “safe” food each time I arrived at a new town or city.

The name “HappyCow” itself came from my days as a student in Santa Cruz (UCSC). There was a highway from there with a section of really horrific cattle ranches. Every time I went home to LA from college and then back to school, I would pass the ranches. They affected me and made me want to look for ways to prevent what went on in those ranches. I liked the name HappyCow because I thought it implied that fewer cows would be eaten.


2. What were the most challenging aspects of setting up your business venture?

The most challenging part of the running a dynamic community-oriented website is having to constantly maintain, fix, and improve on the technical aspect of the site (behind-the-scene programming and design).

When I started the website back in 1999 the Internet connection in Rishikesh wasn’t great. When I was ready to upload the very primitive, basic website, it took me a full two days to do so because the dial-up internet connection was so bad.  I went on to create some 2,000 static pages on the web, which made updating a listing terribly problematic.  A year later, a friend helped me rewrite the script and convert the content to a dynamic database, and that’s really when HappyCow was enabled to flourish. Nowadays our tech side is cutting-edge, and we have an International team working 24/7 to bring a better service to the community.


3. Can you give some advice to budding vegan businesses about surviving in the ever-increasingly competitive market?

See what’s out there first and do what you can to work with people who are already doing something. Relative to HappyCow, it frustrates me when I see a new site which is a clone of HappyCow with stolen/scraped data and the people behind it didn’t bother to connect with us first to see if there’s any synchronicity. To be strong we need to work as a community and build the most robust and creative resources in order to thrive. I’m always open to partnerships and new concepts, and I feel a lot other business will be too.

Another point is persistence. Even if you have a great idea, it can take a long time to get it going, so find ways to pace yourself.


 4. What do you predict to be 2019’s biggest vegan food trend?

So far it seems that Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are dominating with their mock meat options. They are managing to get inside all of meat-based chain restaurants at a rate like we’ve never seen before. Incredibly, these items are out-selling real meat in many locations, and fast-food chains and supermarkets are giving them priority and additional free promotion as a result.


5.  Which country has the most HappyCow locations? Where are your top searched for locations?

The top country is still the USA, but the UK is moving at an amazing pace. London is in the lead as a city, far outpacing other top vegan cities like Berlin. Other popular cities include; New York City, Ho Chi Minh City, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Berlin, Paris, Toronto, Mexico City, Bangkok, Taipei, Prague, Warsaw, Portland, Los Angeles, Sydney, Melbourne, Montreal, Brooklyn, Hanoi, Kyoto, and Singapore. 


6. Where has seen the biggest growth in vegan food locations, on a global scale?

As mentioned, London is off the charts currently. We’re seeing new vegan places open every few days there. In past years Warsaw has been at the top with Berlin and both those cities continue to grow in options. Also, there are a lot of new places opening in Sao Paolo, Brazil. I hope to make it there soon to personally check out the scene.


7. Vegan Tourism is a new and emerging trend for conscious holidayers. Where would be your top five destinations?

1) I just love Sri Thanu on Koh Phangan in Thailand. It’s continually getting better, with an amazing fusion of international cuisine, beautiful beaches, community, activities, and more.

2) Next is Warsaw since you can easily reach almost 50 excellent 100% vegan restaurants within a 15 minutes’ walk from each other.

3) Berlin can’t missed if you’re vegan, plenty to explore.

4) London, OMG, so many great options. Best to plan your visit around one of their many vegan festivals.

5) Prague (close tie with a number of other cities), but since there is so much culture, and a recent growth of vegan eateries, it’s worth a visit.    

8. Lastly, what do you predict for veganism over the next five years?

I feel it really can’t hurt to be optimistic. I believe in the next five years we may come close to ending factory farming in the major countries. It’s not that everyone will suddenly be vegan. Things are moving quickly in the vegan world though, and although we may be seeing a real tipping point, with vegan meats gaining huge popularity, many vegan related organisations doing awesome work, new documentaries changing millions of people’s diets, huge vegan festivals, and so on… I don’t see everyone going vegan anytime soon. However, clean meat is coming, and for those who are unwilling to give up eating animals, the choice will likely soon be made for them, since clean meat (lab grown meat) aims to beat conventional meat on price. Once the major fast food chains adopt this, it will likely result in an end to conventional animal agriculture. Hopefully many people will start questioning where meat comes from and in the process get Vegucated, like I did back in Santa Cruz.

Download the HappyCow app now from the app store via the HappyCow website. 

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