Posted 20th May 2013
With National Vegetarian Week fast approaching, LandLove's Kate Smith caught up with Reto Frei, co-owner of innovative vegetarian restaurant chain tibits
The tibits restaurants started in Switzerland over 10 years ago - what made you decide to bring the concept to the UK?
We opened the first of our five Swiss restaurants in Zurich in 2008 and over time we have had many requests from guests from London and from many other places to open new branches in their cities. We had a dream to bring our Swiss idea to another country and chose England, specifically London, because it is so cosmopolitan and a window on the world. We are a family business and expansion and growth has never been our top priority - quality is the most important thing. We realised that London people are busy and may not have much time for lunch but would appreciate fresh, good quality food. tibits is very accessible as you can choose as much or as little food as you want, so if necessary it is possible to have a quick, but also healthy, meal.
You are associated with Rolf and Marielle Hiltl of Hiltl, the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world. How did that come about?
In 1998 I was at university and attending the launch of a business plan competition for students. Afterwards I went and spoke to two of my brothers about it and said that we should participate and come up with an idea. As we are all vegetarians we decided to put forward a plan for a relaxed, quality vegetarian restaurant as we missed this option for ourselves. We visited Hiltl every week but this has a more formal concept and we wanted something that had a younger, more relaxed feel.
Luckily, we won two prizes in the competition. This was amazing at the time as most of the prizes were going to internet ideas and we certainly didn't expect it. There were lots of media interviews afterwards and we said that we were looking for a partner as none of us had ever been in the restaurant business. I was training as an engineer and of my brothers Christian and Daniel, one studied economics and the other was a teacher - we simply all love food and cooking. Rolf read the article, recognised my brother and got in touch. We met up and realised that we shared the same philosophy and ideas and decided to form a company, so we put together a business plan and looked for our first location. Years later it is still a great partnership, we really complement each other.
National Vegetarian Week is coming up on 20th May - do you acknowledge this in the restaurant?
We do a lot of social media for Vegetarian Week. We have also just refurbished the restaurant this month to promote not only the restaurant but our ideas. And during the week we offer a £10 restaurant voucher to anyone who buys our 'tibits at home' book.
Do you think perceptions are changing about vegetarian food and if so, how?
The first two or three years were tough as we had to build up our brand and explain what we were about, and maybe some people were still prejudiced about the idea of vegetarian food. This is now slowly but steadily changing. We have a lot of non-vegetarian customers saying that they didn't know the food could be so exciting. We do still have problems as these things take time but things are changing.
People bring their friends in to the restaurant and they are pleasantly surprised by the experience so they bring other friends - this changes peoples mindsets. Hiltl has done a lot of work to change peoples' minds and our aim is for people first to eat tasty food and then to realise it is vegetarian.
We have to be innovative and creative with our offering, especially to hardcore carnivores. In fact in the beginning we offered people their money back if they were not satisfied. But really the restaurant being so successful is our best advertisement.
What about the health benefits of vegetarian food?
In the restaurant we have so many different dishes on offer and you can choose a little of everything. So you can get protein, a little carbohydrate and a variety of vitamins all at once, so it is balanced. It is also very good for the digestion but doesn't make you feel over full and lethargic. We also use reduced oils and not too much fat. There is no compromise on taste, you can still have a chocolate brownie but maybe just a smaller portion!
We use completely fresh food which is also very nutritious. And we all know as well that vegetarian food has a low carbon footprint so it is good for the climate and for nature. Nutritionists tell me that they send people to tibits to improve their diets for instance, if they need something or are lacking something in their diet.
The 'boat' is the focal point of the restaurant - why did you decide on this concept?
Why the boat? Because it works well with the amount of choices we offer. You can walk around it and choose exactly what you want - and see exactly what you can eat and it is constantly replenished, so everything is always fresh. For people with intolerances all the dishes are labelled so that they can avoid gluten etc. Some people originally said it reminded them of school dinners because it was different having all the food on display and we were different and new - but now they get it!
Why do you use the system of paying for the food by weight?
We do this so that you can decide exactly how much you want to eat. It is a very flexible and fair system and there is no minimum weight that you have to have. We don't offer an 'all you can eat' buffet because we don't want to compromise on quality. Also sometimes portions can be too big and if people don't want to overeat there is a lot of waste. We hardly ever get any waste at all. This is because the diners can eat in stages, having several small courses, and then they are eating the amount they want. People can come in for anything from a drink and a small snack to a meal, it's up to your mood and what you fancy at the time.
Describe your average diner?
Our average diner is someone who is quality and health conscious. There is no particular age range, we have everyone from the very young to more elderly customers and this makes the place lively - it's definitely not a mono-culture. We have a large female clientele of between 60 - 70% and 80% of our customers are not vegetarian at all. It truly isn't just vegetarians who visit vegetarian restaurants and vegetarian restaurants couldn't survive if they did. We want people to enjoy our food and the restaurant experience. We're not preaching about it, we simply want to offer a good option.