There is no doubt that the independent food scene in Cardiff is growing stronger and stronger, with Grangetown-based, socially-conscious vegan café Wild Thing bringing more than just food on the table. Addressing the lack of eateries focused on sustainability and plant-based food in the city, ethical entrepreneur Lauren Saunders opened Wild Thing at the beginning of February with the aim of inspiring people to embrace a vegan diet, reducing environmental impacts and fighting food poverty. We caught up with Lauren to learn more about her passion for food and sustainable living, and to find out what makes Wild Thing a must-visit destination for food enthusiasts.
For people who don’t know you, who is Lauren Saunders? Tell us a bit about your background.
I describe myself as a retired party girl seeking a peaceful life through yoga and tea. However, starting a business at the age of 25 definitely disturbed that peace a little.
I grew up in Bridgend, a small town in South Wales before moving to the big city of London. Despite having a pretty fun few years I moved back to Wales after feeling a strong sense of the word hiraeth. I craved being close to the sea and countryside. I completely took for granted the beauty of Wales before moving back. My first job out of university was as an Outreach Worker for The Big Issue. The role meant I was travelling across beautiful West Wales and my love for Wales and a simpler approach to life grew stronger.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
I have gorgeous memories of family holidays in caravans in Wales with my parents and 3 sisters. It was such simple fun. Enjoying sandwiches on the cold beaches and trying to cook a dinner made of mainly tinned food for 6 in a tiny make do caravan kitchen. They were the best kind of holidays as they felt so simple and pure.
When and in what context did you discover your passion for food and sustainable living?
When I was 11, I became a vegetarian. As a result of that I would help my mum out with cooking dinners to take some of the pressure off her to make something that both me and my sisters would like! I love food and was always passionate about showing my family how tasty meat free meals could be! Since the day I went vegetarian I was a bit of a hippy child and wore T-shirts saying “plant more trees” and was verbally pretty angry about issues such as overfishing and people eating animals! I went to a pretty lefty art school, UAL, which is when I went fully vegan after an art installation informed me of the environmental impacts of the meat and dairy industries. My time at university really shaped me into caring so much more about sustainability. We had a project to create a documentary for green week where we focused on ethical fashion to which I then went on to take a charity shop pledge and only buy from 2nd hand shops. I started volunteering for organisations such as Meat Free Monday and FoodCycle, as my interest in food sustainability grew! I carried out a research project on the rise of the conscious consumer and looked at environmental alternatives in the mainstream. I will always see my time in university as shaping me into an environmentally conscious adult that my 11 year old “plant more trees” self would be proud of!
Tell us about the inception of Wild Thing. How did it all start and what inspired you to embark on this journey?
It was in January 2017 at the young age of 24 that I decided to stop drinking alcohol and instead spend my weekends going to bed at 9pm, waking up at the crack of dawn and start practicing yoga. This change in lifestyle made me feel reconnected to the essence of myself. My focus was on eating healthy, loving myself & the planet and feeling happy, grateful and contented with this new simple life. Cutting out alcohol and partying lead me to being more creative; cooking and baking more and ultimately to start brainstorming ideas of a business which embodied my new way of life. I felt there was a lack of eateries in Cardiff which focused on sustainability and nourishing plant based food. My mantra is be kind to the planet, be kind to yourself. I wanted to create an eating out experience that didn’t compromise the planet or myself. I was working at The Big Issue whilst planning Wild Thing and was inspired by the big issue model of using business for social change. This is why I set out the cafe to have social goals to ultimately get more people eating veg, reduce environmental impacts and to fight food poverty!
Wild Thing opened its doors at the beginning of February. How do people who enter the cafe respond to Wild Thing’s ethos? What’s their reaction like?
Since opening the cafe the reaction has been so positive. We have such lovely regular customers and everyone always comments on the positive energy the cafe has! It’s so lush to see people get on board with our approach to sustainability too. For example we have no single use containers and our customers have been donating jars and containers they no longer use for others to use! We are creating a sustainable community. Not just that but the amount of customers who are loving our super healthy food is amazing! Customers trying fruit and veg juice for the first time or customers saying they don’t usually eat vegan food but they loved it! So many customers comment on how nourished and positive they feel after a visit which is the most incredible thing! Sharing wellness to allow others to live healthier and happier lives. The reaction and the first few months has just been beyond anything I could have ever imagined! I think it proves that if you have a vision and strong passion then others will sense it and they will want to join in!
What makes Wild Thing a must-visit destination for food enthusiasts?
Wild Thing has a whole food plant based menu. Which means that the menu is filled with all natural unprocessed ingredients! We use all organic locally grown seasonal fruit and vegetables, which means that our menu changes super regularly. Our menu is nourishing but also has a lower environmental impact by choosing organic and locally grown and all being vegan! Even down to our cakes which are all made by me every morning usually wonderful nutrient dense ingredients such as buckwheat, almond flour, cashews, oats and are all naturally sweetened using dates, coconut sugar and pure Maple syrup. Our menu doesn’t just nourish but our cafe follows a sustainable model. We have no single use containers, from coffee cups to reusable napkins for example, down to the second hand furniture we bought when decorating the cafe, reusing old tins for plant pots, using green energy suppliers. We’ve tried to think of everything!
What’s the most popular food on your menu?
Our pancakes are so so popular and have been the highest selling item since we opened! They are made using gluten-free oat flour. So you get all the nutrients from the mighty oats! They are always topped with organic seasonal fruit locally grown which we make into gorgeous chia jams or compotes! They are a pretty lush way to start the day!
We gather that you’re planning to run some projects in the local community. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
Our social goals are embedded into everything we do! We aim to get more people eating veg, reduce environmental impacts and fight food poverty. Our fully plant based menu and sustainable business model means that anyone who visits the cafe is helping us achieve those first 2 goals. But by engaging with community work we are able to push these goals further. We have been running free workshops on sustainable food, discussing eating more veg, local and seasonal food, food waste and cooking from scratch. We are delivering these to schools, community groups and charities. In terms of tackling food poverty, I have devised a food poverty plan which aims to address the drivers of food poverty. I live in Grangetown and it is also where the cafe is based and it has one of the highest rates of child poverty in Wales. Which is why devising this plan is so important. We address issues such as providing employment, paying a living wage, providing paid work placements for those living in poverty and helping them gain work skills for future employment, educating on healthy food. I am also taking part in a community nutrition course to deliver free food and nutrition courses, to educate our community for free. We have an upcoming free community supper club which is a collaborative project with Food Cardiff following on from the work of Food & Fun holiday provision, to deliver an evening of free food using food waste and allotment gluts, tackling food poverty and food waste in one! Longer term plans include running a veg co-op and a community fridge.
What are your thoughts on the independent food scene in Cardiff?
I think Cardiff is killing it for independent food businesses! Just this week 3 new vegan food businesses opened. Yesterday was a massive food festival called Bite which showcased so many indie food businesses. I feel so blessed to live in this wonderful city surrounded by such incredible food! I think we can always do with more though so if anyone is thinking of opening a food business then please do it!
Why is veganism important, both from a social and an environmental point of view?
Lots of research has shown that a plant based diet is the best for both people and the planet; which is why Wild Thing’s mantra is “Be kind to the planet. Be kind to yourself.” Let’s start with the planet:
Plant based diets have a lower CO2 footprint. Animal agriculture greenhouse gas emissions accounts for more than the entire transportation industry combined!
Methane from cows also has a more damaging effect on the environment than that of CO2.
A plant based diet has a lower water footprint. It takes 1000 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of milk. 2500 gallons of water is needed to produce 1 pound of beef.
Animal agriculture is the leading cause of rainforest destruction.
Toxins from factory farms destroy marine ecosystems and create dead zones.
A recent University of Oxford study has found that a plant based diet is the single biggest thing you can do for the planet. I urge everyone to look into the study led by Joseph Poore.
Do you have any recommendations for people who find it difficult to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet?
Don’t be too hard on yourself and make small changes to get to where you want to be. Praise yourself for the small things you do and continue to grow and introduce more veggie meals into your life. Do your research and have your strong reasons for why you are making the change, whether it’s based on the environment, your health or for the animals. It will make things so much easier if you know why you’re doing it!
Who are some of the inspirational characters in your field that you follow and what do you admire about their approach?
I am massively inspired by Made in Hackney. They run a plant based community cookery school and run different workshops from paid for masterclasses to free community classes. I think their diversity of workshops makes plant based food so accessible. It’s super inspiring and it’s definitely a direction I’d love to take Wild Thing. In terms of food, Plant Hub in London and Herbivore here in Cardiff are massive inspirations for me. They are creative and veg centred and create the most beautiful food.
Where do you go or what do you do when you feel the need to relax or get inspired?
My bedtime ritual is so important for me to relax. It involves a sleepy herbal tea, essential oils, an early bed time and a good book. I’ve also got a journal next to my bed for when ideas come to me so that I can jot them down in the morning. Regularly practicing yoga helps me relax and stay focused too. I love being outside, either walking around Bute Park, or heading to the coast nearby such as Penarth, Barry or Southerndown.
What food makes you happy?
Sometimes the only thing that will cut it is my favourite chocolate cake that I bake daily at the cafe but other times a massive healthy salad bowl full of veggies is what I need. It’s all about what feels right in that moment to make you feel good. I feel so happy when I start my day with a smoothie full of fruit and veg or my classic porridge with all of the fruit, nut and seed toppings. I think breakfast makes me the most happy as I am such a morning person. On days off I like to sit by the river with a bowl of oats to start the day with calm.
What are three questions you don’t have an answer for?
The reality and beauty of running a business is that there are so many uncertainties and things are so unpredictable. I am constantly asking myself questions as I always want to grow and improve. How can I get more people eating veg? What shall we have on the new menu next week? How can I make things more accessible? What organisations can I engage and collaborate with? Where exactly will the business be in 6 months, 1 year, 5 years?
Why do you do what you do and what makes it all worthwhile to you?
I want others to feel the amazing benefits that switching to a plant based diet has given me. I feel so lucky and grateful to live this happy plant based life and I just want to share it with as many people as possible. It makes it all worthwhile to me when I sometimes pause and take a look around at a full cafe and think “I made all this.” That joy you feel in that moment makes all the hard work, crazy late nights and 5AM starts worth it. The first community workshop I ran was another one of those moments.
When you think about the future of Wild Thing, what are you most excited about and why?
Well, as of 2 September we will be opening in our second venue! We are taking over Embassy Cafe in Cathays Community Centre. We will be open Monday to Friday with my fave Cardiff vegan business Herbivore running his usual weekend spot there. This is super exciting as I will be running both cafes which will be a massive challenge for me in terms of management. When I got the call to say that I had been chosen to take over the Embassy Cafe I was walking about 40 mins over to a yoga studio and I was on such a high that I was like on a cloud the whole walk there. It was like a new spark in me which was unbelievable. A pure bliss, excitement and joy. It will open up more opportunities to engage with community projects. For example Global Gardens Project, which is based at the centre, is a community growing project that creates a growing space supporting community sharing of food and culture. So I am super excited about potential collabs with them. I will be starting a community nutrition course in Autumn so then I will deliver free nutrition courses. For the future of Wild Thing I want to continue to focus on wellbeing as this was such a beginner point for the business using healthy food, and would love to expand into overall wellness, natural beauty and essential oil practices. Whilst ensuring we continue to meet our goals and expand our community work! I am so excited for it all.