Just a stone’s throw from Loui Blake’s Fitzrovia restaurant, Kalifornia Kitchen, Rathbone Boxing Club recently opened its doors. It’s this no spit n’ sawdust space which we’ve chosen to meet in today, joined by his trainer and close personal friend Bobby Harrison.
Alongside his pink, plant-based haven Kalifornia Kitchen, Blake’s place on that 30 under 30 list has routes in recruitment, marketing, consultancy and public speaking, not forgetting his own football training academy and another vegan restaurant in his hometown, Norwich.
When I enter Rathbone’s pristine gym floor, Loui is jumping rope while catching up with his trainer. I latch on to the tail end of their conversation.
“I’m doing 17,” he tells a wide-eyed Harrison.
You’re doing 17 what?
“17 5km runs, on the hour, every hour, this Sunday,” he tells me. “I’ve got filming at 9 am on Monday morning. Otherwise, I’d have done 24.”
I quickly become struck with relief that we opted to conduct our interview at Rathbone.
Blake has always been active. He spent much of his youth playing football, was a keen runner and had done long stints of Thai boxing, too. These days, boxing is a few-times-a-week thing, which goes hand-in-hand with cardio every morning – either swimming in the sea near his hometown, running, or cycling. A bit of strength training manifests mostly in callisthenics.
“I think I have the potential to become quite ego-driven when it comes to fitness,” he tells me, having now ditched the rope and applying his wraps. “I’d lift heavy and push too far. When you push it with weights, it’s very easy to go wrong.
Harrison beckons Blake to the bags and starts him off on some simple jab work. I eventually join and we progress into a sequence of jabs, hooks, upper-cuts and ducks. Loui moves so energetically, you’d have thought the bag was punching back at him.
A turning point from casual exerciser to fitness machine came approximately five years ago, after Blake committed to healthier living as a way to beat burnout. Working long hours at a London recruitment firm, he was regularly succumbing to poor eating habits and alcohol at the end of the day.
“I took a month off and looked at all the diets that could make you feel better and give you more energy,” says Blake as we (I) catch our (my) breath. “The thing that kept coming up was cutting out processed foods and sugars and eating more fruit and veg. I decided to go plant-based for a month.”
Just like that?
“Overnight. I didn’t know anything about the food. I just used YouTube and other websites for inspiration.”
When he went back to work, he joined a marketing agency whose clients included a roster of meat-heavy restaurants, but it wasn’t long before his newfound affinity for plant foods made him feel like a fraud. He began working with plant-based, sustainable businesses instead, and it was on developing a vegan menu at Wagamama when he got the bright idea to open his own restaurant.
Convert to Advocate
Blake and Harrisson enter the ring and power through a 5-minute routine with a set of paddles. Though he claims to have jumped into his first match much too soon after starting out, from where I’m standing (to one corner, like a coach patiently waiting to deliver a pep talk between rounds), Blake could take on the best of them.
When he’s done pounding paddles, he takes me through his restaurant search. After looking around London with little success, Blake took to Norwich, where his parents still lived, and stumbled upon the space that would become his first venture, Erpingham House.
“I put a cheeky offer in, way below the asking price,” Blake admits with a grin on his face. “When they accepted, I was like, shit, now I have to open a restaurant…”
Thankfully, it was well-received. “People have this preconception of what a vegan restaurant looks like,” he says. “I wanted to make something that made people feel like they wanted to try the food without feeling alienated. Something for a mainstream audience, that just happens to be vegan.”
Perhaps it’s not so surprising that it took off, considering Norwich’s recent accolade of “most vegan-friendly city in Britain” based on Google search trend data around the term vegan and vegetarian restaurants.
What did you think of that result?
“It surprised me! I would have predicted Brighton, hands down,” Blake admits. “Don’t get me wrong, Norwich is getting there, but we still find one of the biggest difficulties is that people hear our restaurant is vegan and think they can’t eat there because they’re not.”
London was a different kettle of seitan altogether. When the opportunity came to open in Fitzrovia, Blake pounced and decided to ride the millenial wave with eye-catching pink decor and a slogan that “healthy is sexy”.
“At this point, few things are really new. Everything is borrowed to a degree. People need to be prepared to take the risk”
“We wanted this one to be aspirational, and the best way to communicate that was by leveraging social media,” says Blake. “If we could build a space that was shareable, more people would hear about us and come.”
It wasn’t just the decor that made Kalifornia Kitchen an influencer’s delight. Dishes ranging from healthy tempeh caesar salad to hearty plant-based Moving Mountain burgers – not forgetting its dedicated CBD menu – does its job of upping the sex appeal of veganism.
Alongside a pop-up space in Fulham, Blake opened three vegan restaurants in one year.
The Future is Green
Blake and Harrison return to the ring and resume with the paddles. Numbers are being shouted and Blake changes his swing to coordinate with them as they move around at speed for approximately 10 minutes. When the round ends, Blake shows little sign of exhaustion. I wonder if it’s something he ever feels these days.
It’s certainly something he has little time to feel, split between his restaurants in London and Norwich and seemingly working on a dozen side projects in both locations all the while. But in a UK wellness industry that often gets talked about as London-centric, what does Blake make of the differences between his two HQs?
“It’s up to entrepreneurs to see what’s happening in London and replicate it elsewhere,” he says. “It’s an easy way for people to bring tried-and-tested ideas to a new space. At this point, few things are really new. Everything is borrowed to a degree. People need to be prepared to take the risk. Erpingham House is the biggest vegan restaurant in the country: four floors. To say it was a risk is an understatement.”
But instinct is something you could trust Blake to have more than many in this industry. In hospitality, and indeed wellness, data seems to be hailed as a driving force for determining the potential success of new ventures, leaving little room for hunches. Blake seems to be going against the grain.
“Don’t get me wrong, data can play a huge role in these things, and we could have used it, but this was honestly all my gut,” Blake concedes. “There’s a place for data, but there’s just as much a place for making a call based on experience and knowledge.” Fourteen months since his first opening, it seems to be working.
So much so that he recently commenced crowdfunding for Erpingham House 2.0 in what many consider the UK’s vegan mecca, Brighton. He tells me about his plans – all still speculative – around the corner in Kalifornia Kitchen, where the three of us enjoy delicious breakfast burritos filled with scrambled tofu, pickled cabbage and dehydrated kale. As I adjust my glass straw for every last drop of green juice and we chat about the recently released The Game Changers documentary, it’s easy to conceive that Blake’s vegan restaurant portfolio of three will one day be 30.