Mana! looks abroad as plant-based, whole-foods business matures

Fast-casual, plant-based whole-foods retailer Mana! Is eyeing further expansion both within Hong Kong and abroad after refining its format in multiple city locations. 

Founder Bobsy Gaia says Mana! Starstreet, its third store which opened in August, is the first to be opened in a commercial partnership, in this case with Swire Properties. 

“We were ready to scale since day one as a fast-slow food concept. Scaling without integrity and brand is dangerous, so we spent time to build the brand first for when the day comes, expansion will be ready,” he told Inside Retail Asia in an exclusive interview. 

To date all Hong Kong developments have been done under its own steam but the Mana! team is keen to explore international opportunities, either by its own means or through franchising. 

More stores are planned within the next two years, after the company has tested its concepts in commercial areas. 

Despite that, founder Bobsy Gaia is adamant the company is not out to please its shareholders. 

“We will seek intelligent capital with integrity to grow. Planet and profit benefit has to balance altogether.”

Mana! Is becoming well known among the local and expat community for its health and eco-conscious positioning. And Gaia is equally well known for his strong advocacy in the eco-movement. 

The new Starstreet flagship spans more than 1600sqft, the largest after its Central and Poho stores. Apart from its signature menu of fast-slow food, Mana! Starstreet houses its first salad bar and vegan coffee cafe. Not only has the flagship ticked all the boxes for sustainability innovation being a completely zero-waste store, Mana!’s works within the community and the initiatives set in their new outlet paved way for Bobsy Gaia being awarded and recognised as one of Hong Kong’s Top 50 Innovative Retail Leaders for 2019.

From eco-fashion to food

Hailing from Beirut, Gaia moved to Hong Kong almost three decades ago originally to expand his eco-fashion line until he saw a need for vegetarian food right at Lamma Island where he lives. From the original Bookworm Cafe, to Life Cafe on Shelley Street, Gaia has continuously reinvented the concept and found commercial success through the Mana! venture that is patronised by many today.

The Mana! tribe

Mana! customers range from locals and expats, of all genders, age brackets and ethnicities. Albeit the Hong Kong consumer may be eating green for health reasons as opposed to alleviating climate change; there is clearly a growing awareness among the locals and even moreso, emerging within Gen Z. 

Aside from Gaia and his team’s effort in educating local schools and universities, the stores’ customer bases is generally getting younger reflecting a growing demand and awareness among younger people to make a conscious consumption choice.

The evolution of Mana! flagships

From the first Mana! Raw on Wellington Street to the Poho joint, the fast-slow food establishment stands out amongst Hong Kong’s concrete jungle with its outdoor space and high ceilings. Mana! also has a 3500sqft production kitchen at Wong Chuk Hang where its team continuously invent and produce the vegan food on its menus today.

Each of the restaurants specialise in different offerings. The Central store, for example, sells an average of 500 flats a day, while the Poho outlet is noted for the brand’s first vegan coffee shop. But all the stores maintain visual consistently through their murals and designs. 

While the Starstreet flagship streamlines all food concepts and offerings together in one place, “this is a fuller expression of Mana!’s concept – with space” according to Gaia, especially as it is the first location that is roofed. The store’s signature reclaimed wooden tables stretch through the restaurant, and are large enough for a leisurely hangout as well as a welcome working spot, equipped with free WiFi. It is common to find the Mana! team using its own space rather than their headquarters as it allows them to engage with the Mana! community. A cushioned no-shoes Zen zone sits comfortably in the middle of the restaurant for gatherings, and a library corner with Bobsy’s must-reads in life.

Sustainability

The fundamental of Mana!’s success not only lies from its vegan food offerings, but it is also recognised for its sustainability movement that has contributed back to the community largely. “The difference is integrity…we don’t cut corners,” said Gaia. “We’ve invested lots of time to showcase what a conscious business can be and should be like. Our recycling system took eight years to develop – we call this version 0.7.” 

Aside from alliances and organisations, Mana!’s team works closely with the government, with many initiatives we see today influenced by their efforts. For example, they were the first in launching Hong Kong’s first designated paper recycling bins in 1997. Glass bottles recycled in-store get turned into bricks and tiles for Hong Kong parks and sidewalks. All of its packaging underwent in-depth research to design the compostable packaging that exists today, and is returned back to the earth as soil.

Outside of its shops, Mana!’s team is seen regularly in local communities, partnering with like-minded organisations and even start-ups, such as Hong Kong Dog Rescue, Peta and Feeding Hong Kong. It also works with retailers such as Lush and Lululemon through corporate catering or hosting events together. Every morning, the Mana! Starstreet store hosts “Morning Mindfulness” sessions with Lululemon ambassadors as well as local trainers to bring the local community together.

Tips for retailers

Gaia has sage advice for retailers seeking to evolve and adapt their sustainability initiatives. 

“Build a conscious business that inspires change. A restaurant is a restaurant, but Mana! is a vehicle to inspire change, through the stomach.”

Gaia says Mana!’s success has come from bringing integrity and trust to its retail business – key ingredients for success, especially in the sustainability market. He invites retailers seeking inspiration to visit any of his eateries and peruse the libraries on hand. 

But in his own wise words: “The new business of business, is to inspire change. We are not on this planet for business, we are in business for this planet.”

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