Interview | Fish farmer’s daughter turns vegan businesswoman
Sahara Lara Casteel is the founder of The Vegan Dinosaur, the first whole-food vegan restaurant in Davao City, the Philippines. She also founded Croft Bulk Foods, a vegan zero-waste store. In this interview, she reveals the path that led her there, the challenges she faced along the way and her plans for the future!
Let’s start at the beginning, in what kind of environment did you grow up?
I grew up in the Philippines in a small close-knit neighbourhood of predominantly fish farmers. My father passed away when I was young, so I was brought up around my cousins and sisters by my uncle and auntie. Although my family are fish farmers by trade, they have had the opportunity to study and have always encouraged me to receive higher education.
Most of our readers are from Western countries, can you tell them what it was like to grow up in the Philippines?
During childhood, having only known the Philippines, you don’t’ compare what you’re experiencing to anything else. So, growing up in the Philippines, although more primitive than progressive countries, is normal. I grew up a few kilometres from the nearest town, so we would have to walk quite far to get to school. A lot of my free time was spent around the farms which my family owned and the foods we ate would be simple dishes with mainly rice and some type of fish.
As I got older, I began to read a lot of literature and moved to the nearest progressive city, which was Davao, to study. Coming from a business orientated family it also encouraged me to start my own business, which I did at a young age, buying fashionable clothes and selling them to the UK. But to conclude, having seen the way that children are raised in Australia, I can say that growing up in the Philippines is more gritty, meaning that we don’t always have the luxuries or we’re not always able to afford the latest technological advancements, but we get by with what we have and often create a good quality of life for ourselves and families.
Can you tell us a little more about your family?
As I mentioned, I come from a family of fish farmers. My grandfather established a large space of land where he would raise fish and sell them. From there, my father, uncles and aunties inherited this land. It is still operational today. So, growing up in this kind of environment meant that I witnessed the hard work and commitment of my uncle to provide food and education for us, as well as the hard work of my auntie to upkeep the house and raise multiple children. This certainly instilled in me a work ethic which I continue to have to this day.
Which events inspired you to go vegan?
Growing up, I was always curious to learn more, so that drove me to read many books and study in many areas. This then led me to encounter environmental activist organisations like Greenpeace. I wanted to help the environment, and upon discovering that consuming animals was one of the greatest contributors to our environmental demise I took it upon myself to go vegetarian, which was almost unheard of in the Philippines at the time.
After this period of change and finishing my studies in the Philippines, I was given the opportunity to study in Australia. This was at a time when veganism was gaining momentum there. I moved to Sydney, one of the most vegan cities in the world, and that’s where my understanding of veganism began. It soon became apparent to me that veganism had a greater benefit than just following a vegetarian lifestyle. I was part of many groups encouraging veganism, and restaurants and products were sprouting up all over the city, which made the transition so much easier than it would have been back in the Philippines.
What motivated you to start your own vegan businesses in the Philippines after that?
When I moved back to the Philippines several years later, I realised that there weren’t any vegan restaurants like I had experienced in Sydney. So I decided to start my own café, The Vegan Dinosaur, in 2015. After operating for three years I had also learnt about the effects of plastic pollution, which are drastically affecting the planet, so I set up Croft Bulk Foods, a zero-waste store which sells items loose with no packaging. This helped The Vegan Dinosaur to reduce its plastic use by more than 50 per cent and also helps customers cut down on plastic in their personal lives.
Why did you call it The Vegan Dinosaur?
As a child my favourite movie was The Land Before Time, an animated movie based around the lives of dinosaurs. As it turns out, all of the main dinosaurs in the movie were plant eaters, hence the name The Vegan Dinosaur. English isn’t my first language so sometimes I couldn’t understand what they were saying, and I always thought that one of the main characters’ names was Sarah, an alternative of my name, Sahara. But it’s actually Cera, a name taken from the word ‘triceratops’ which was her dinosaur type.
Did you notice any significant differences between the way people in Australia do business and the way people in the Philippines do business? And if so, has that affected your own style of doing business?
There are many differences between operating a business in Australia and operating a business in the Philippines.
• Firstly, the availability of vegan ingredients in Australia is much greater and cheaper to source. This is due to the large import taxes on foreign ingredients into the Philippines, which restricts the options when making food.
• When it comes to staff, I found that the competency of employees in Australia was higher and the colleagues I worked with were able to work independently without requiring much direction, whereas here, we require a large number of workers to do the routine jobs.
• Also, when it comes to staff, it is unheard of to work part time in the Philippines, which means everyone who is searching for a job wants to work eight hours per day and as an employer this limits the flexibility of shifts.
• The high import taxes not only affect the availability of ingredients but also equipment, furniture, and store fittings. Therefore, the creativity of design is much less than that of the establishments in places like Sydney.
• When it comes to health and safety as well as hygiene, the governing authorities are much stricter in Australia and establishments are keeping close to the guidelines, otherwise there are hygiene ratings and subsequent closures of businesses that don’t comply. While there are governing bodies in the Philippines which impose regulations, it is much less adhered to and infrequent checks mean that businesses have much leeway.
• Staff in Australia is more attentive and disciplined in order to avoid serving allergic customers gluten or other allergens, whereas in the Philippines there isn’t such segregation in kitchens and establishments aren’t looking to cater to such allergies.
• Generally, it is well-known that Filipinos have a much more laid back approach than people in Western countries, and this often shows in the quality and service which is offered.
During my time studying, working and living in Sydney I learnt a lot which I could bring back to the Philippines. Because my university courses were business related and because I was a keen reader and had read many books from successful entrepreneurs, I was well prepared for establishing a business. When I first opened The Vegan Dinosaur, I had developed a strong work ethic and was able to work efficiently right from the start. Aside from the operational side, having travelled around Asia and having lived in Sydney, I had gained many ideas for design and the type of food which I wanted to offer here.
How has your decision to go vegan and start a vegan company affected your relationship with your family? Given that you now have moral objections against the family business and are actively competing against them.
Because I lived in Australia for a long time, the relationship with my family has naturally become distanced, but with regards to their thoughts on veganism, they have very little understanding of it and see it mainly as a dietary choice rather than an environmental and compassionate decision. Like most people living a vegan lifestyle, their families just accept the decision with the occasional jokes from family members and added strain on social gatherings, which becomes more difficult when there are limited food options. But overall, they accept my decision to follow this lifestyle, due to the large meat-eating culture it could be seen as a strange choice as it is going against many of the traditions, and few family members actively visit the restaurant, but with the increase of understanding and available information this will certainly change in the coming years.
What’s the best part about running your own vegan restaurant and store?
The best part is that I get to meet many likeminded people who share similar or the same views, people have come from all over the world and have remained friends for life. I get to be creative and make new food every week whilst promoting the lifestyle which has changed my life and allowed me to see animals in a different way, while also helping the environment.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and how did you overcome them?
When starting a new business there are always an abundance of challenges, including finances, dealing with quiet periods, and uncertainties — these are the normal challenges for businesses. But the biggest challenge was igniting a movement in Davao City, where the majority of people are meat eaters, somewhere where veganism was almost unheard of at the time. To overcome challenges, it always requires perseverance, hard work and commitment, these are core to success. But I also had to work very hard to make vegan food exciting and tasty, using social media as a platform to attract customers and make them understand that vegan food is not just leaves and vegetables but can be pleasurable, varied, and delicious.
What are your plans for the future?
To continue spreading the vegan message as well as the zero-waste lifestyle. To do that I hope to expand and open more stores and new restaurants which can offer different kinds of food to attract a variety of new customers who haven’t necessarily experienced plant-based food before.
What advice would you give to readers who are currently considering starting their own vegan restaurant or store?
If you’re passionate about it and if it is your dream, and you believe that you can do it, then you should do it. Do not let anyone talk you out of it. There will be doubters but you have to push forward with your dreams and when it comes to veganism, its popularity is growing at a rapid rate so opening a vegan business isn’t as risky as it once was anyway. If you’re passionate, hardworking, and have the grit, then I don’t see why it can’t be done. If I can do it, everyone can!