As I walked down the quiet streets of Hove, a beach town on the south coast of England, I couldn't help but think that this was a strange place for Heather Mills' new vegan café, VBites. Though it opened on July 4, 2009, Mills had been trying to buy the premises for several years; when I arrived there, I understood why. Positioned in the middle of a skate park, playground, pool, and picnic benches in Hove Lagoon State Park, VBites forms a hub that is surrounded - in fact, virtually overrun - by kids, parents, and everyone else out to enjoy the nice weather by the shore. Mills, who lives in Hove herself, recalls the locals' initial suspicion about VBites: "They would say, 'Why are you turning our community café into a vegan café?' And now they say, 'I'm absolutely blown away!'" She estimated that they are serving approximately 700-900 patrons a day during the busy season.
Mills, a former model-turned-activist, is also a mother of a 6-year-old, so making sure that kids have access to healthful vegan food is a cause that is close to her heart. In addition to serving on the board of the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food, she also recently opened a VBites café that serves free meals to underprivileged kids and their families in the Bronx. Though she continues to navigate the complexities of school bureaucracies to get more healthful foods into school lunch programs, Mills decided, "The easiest way to get it to the children in the meantime was to open a café."
The Redwood Wholefood Company, Mills' all-vegan food company based in England, has four lines - Cheezly, Vegideli, Cheatin', and Fabulous Fudge Factory. Collectively, these brands include around 50 meat and dairy substitutes, from cheeses to sausages, from fish steaks to fudge, and everything in between. Mills sees her role as "covering the transitional carnivore." For many people, the first step toward a vegan diet is replacing the animal products they are accustomed to eating with equivalent vegan substitutes; therefore, it is especially important that these substitutes be delicious. "That's the whole point," Mills summarized. "Don't make a big deal out of it - just feed. If it's good food, people will like it."
This past March, Mills exhibited her products (called VBites in the United States) at the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, CA, to an eager crowd. Cheezly is now available at some natural foods stores across the U.S. and from online retailers, with VBites frozen pizzas and pizza toppings (beef, chicken, chorizo, ham, and pepperoni) following in short order. VBites Ready Meals come in five varieties: Chicken Style Madras Curry, Beef Style Curry with Potatoes, Beef Style Stroganoff, Chicken Style Cacciatore, and Sausage & Chorizo Style Casserole. Ready Meals are all shelf-stable and prepared without harmful preservatives, and Mills is looking to open the minds of supermarkets to the ease with which they can carry vegan products.
At the Natural Products Expo, Mills also noticed an overwhelming interest in franchising VBites as a vegan fast food chain. This has always been her intention, but with the first VBites at Hove having not yet been open a year as of this writing, she wants to take some additional time to make sure she understands every component of the business before expanding.
In addition, Mills is working on a vegan cookbook, which she is self-publishing in the coming months.
For more information about Heather Mills, please visit www.heathermills.org. Learn about Redwood Wholefood Company at www.redwoodfoods.co.uk, about VBites Café at www.vbites.com, and about the VBites product line at www.vbitesusa.com.
Heather Gorn is a longtime VRG volunteer. She is currently a graduate student in English at Cambridge.