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Founder Friday: Heaven Leigh, Owner Of Bodhi Restaurant
22nd May 2020
Bodhi is one of our favourite vegan restaurants located in the heart of Sydney. They specialise in vegan yum cha (now you know that exists), and pan-asian cuisine. We've eaten here numerous times and are always shocked at how real the faux meat looks and tastes. There's a lot on offer for vegan options in Sydney, but a lot of restaurants and cafes don't claim to be 100% plant-based so this is what sets Bodhi apart from the others.
Yes they serve duck pancakes, but no duck. Prawns are listed in quite a few dishes on their menu, but of course they don't include actual prawns! How do they do it? We think witchcraft or maybe just creativity. We'll let you decided.
We sat down 'virtually' with owner, Heaven Leigh to chat all things about owning a vegan business, working your way up in a male-dominated industry and the most popular item on the menu.
Bodhi is a family-owned and operated vegan restaurant in the heart of Sydney, did you grow up working in the restaurant? When did you take over as the owner? And what is it like running a business with your family?
I grew up in the BOH (back of house) of hospitality and have vivid memories from my childhood spending time at my grandparents’ store. I started working from a very young age after school. I opened my first café 20 years ago, and then my first restaurant before I began working for other people. Of the seven plant-based businesses we have owned as a family, Bodhi Restaurant Bar at Cook + Phillip Park has always been my baby. My family stopped being involved about 12 years ago.
Why did your family start a vegan restaurant?
Many years ago, my mother had what she calls a spiritual epiphany. She met a Taoist monk and it was like a light bulb went off above her head. She had never heard of vegan or vegetarian food before so it was a real soul-shifting moment for her. She came home and literally threw out all the animal products in the house and declared we were going vegetarian. I was about 11 or 12 at the time.
There really were no options when it came to eating vegan food in Sydney at the time so for her it made complete logic to want to start a vegan restaurant so she could have somewhere to eat every day!
I’ve continued growing Bodhi knowing in my heart that I didn’t ever want to own a business that profited from the suffering of another person or creature. I never want my success to be at the cost of another and I’m very proud to be able to tell my children in the future, that what I have done had a positive impact. I want to be able to look back and know that I tried my best and that I gave more than I took.
In what seems to be a male-dominated industry, how did you work your way up the ranks and take over a business at such a young age? Did you have a mentor?
When I started out in hospitality, it was an interesting time - there were some big names and personalities around at the time, and almost all of them were men so there weren’t a lot of women to look up to. Within the Asian community (which is pretty closed off when it comes to yum cha) there is also the cultural aspect of respecting both the men and your elders. So being a young, mixed-race, female restaurateur was quite tough. I really had to earn my stripes, learn my trade, work very hard, and be bold, but also culturally sensitive to earn respect.
I’ve always believed it’s important to be humble and willing to learn from the people around you, no matter how good or experienced you are. I’ve never really had a mentor, however I had such wonderful and strong women to look up to in my own family. Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I think it’s so important to work collaboratively with other people and mentor other women in the industry. At Bodhi, we had Australia’s first female Head Yum Cha Chef which was unheard of at the time. I also enjoy working with other women. When we let down our guard and support one another, it can be a really nurturing workplace.
With the continued success of Bodhi, have you had any other business ventures or wanted to move into a different industry?
My husband and I are always on the lookout for businesses to invest in. We are big fans of supporting innovative start-ups. Being able to use your experience and contacts to help mentor or bring people together is a lot of fun and very rewarding. I prefer to focus on the eco, wellness, and plant-based space whereas my partner is more tech orientated. It's really about finding businesses that we can look at and say “I know I can add value to this”.
What do people say when they try your food and realize it's vegan afterward? I've been to dinner with my uncle and told him halfway through his meal that everything was vegan, including the duck pancakes and his jaw dropped. Do you have many reactions like this?
I love it when people come in and are surprised at the food and the variety on offer at Bodhi. It means they’re not coming in with any preconceived ideas or any negative connotations of what vegan food is going to be like. Being located where we are, I find a lot of Australians are quite sophisticated when it comes to food and the standards here are very high compared to other countries. We’ve had football teams dine with us not knowing our food is vegan, and an entire wedding that didn’t tell their guests their special day was being held at a vegan restaurant. These days more people are open-minded and we have a very broad range of customers vegan and non-vegan alike.
Bodhi has always been a very inclusive, non-judgemental business that likes to not only bring people together but believes that by showing people the great food that’s available in the vegan space and gently sharing our beliefs, if and when asked, we are spreading that message of love and positivity into the world.
Are there any charities Bodhi supports related to animals?
Each year Bodhi chooses different charities to support, and some we work with every year. We’re currently supporting WIRES - a fantastic organisation to be involved with, doing some really important work after the recent bushfires. We’ve also supported small animal sanctuaries like Horse Rescue Australia all the way through to larger organisations like Sea Shepherd, Greenpeace, Duck Coalition, and Anti-Nuclear Testing Coalition.
It’s important for us to be a socially responsible business, and that means doing more than just taking and making money. We should always be contributing back to society and the world around us. Being an active part of a responsible, global community where we are all connected and what we do is important and has an impact.
Bodhi has been open for just over 30 years. Has the menu always been vegan? Have you seen a surge of popularity in the past couple of years with more people switching to a plant-based diet?
Bodhi started as a vegetarian restaurant, however as we were serving Buddhist Asian cuisine which didn’t have any dairy products like milk or eggs in it anyway, strictly speaking it was already vegan in its cuisine.
I think we sold milk for coffee at one stage, however as we began to understand the impact of the dairy industry and found we were unable to source ethical milk, we chose to remove all animal by-products.
There have been a lot of periods of growth in the vegan space over the last 30 years - there was a surge of interest during Mad Cow Disease - however since the WHO (World Health Organisation) came out about five years ago saying we should eat a more plant-based diet, there has been a much bigger shift in interest.
Plant-based had become far more mainstream and acceptable in recent years. People are exploring and asking questions about their food. They want to know where it comes from, how it’s farmed, and what impact their food choices have on their body, on the environment, and on global socioeconomic factors.
Being open for 30 years is a huge accomplishment. Have you overcome any lows and how did you stay relevant with so many food trends coming out each year?
Thank you! One of the toughest business periods I experienced was in the early 2000s when we nearly lost everything. It was both incredibly devastating and, in hindsight, a wonderful (if you can call such a horrible time wonderful) period of growth for me personally. Being able to claw your way back from the brink of extinction, and take such a well-known brand like Bodhi and turn it around to make it successful again was a huge challenge and incredibly rewarding. I don’t think I would truly know what I know today - understand business the way I do or have an appreciation for my own personal resilience - unless I had gone through that tough period.
Regarding staying relevant, I believe it’s important to stay true to what you do and who you are while still being able and willing to innovate, change, and adapt to the marketplace.
My advice is to find what you are good at and play to those strengths. If you are passionate about what you do that’s half the battle won. Next is having a great product that you can stand behind, and know what your unique selling point is. I’ve opened restaurant concepts before that have not been as successful as Bodhi but I was always willing to adapt my business and listen to what people wanted.
And finally...What is the most popular dish on the Bodhi menu?
If you’re keen to know when you can eat some delicious Bodhi food, stayed tuned to their social channels for an announcement this Monday, May 25th. If you want to support this amazing, vegan, local business, you can purchase a gift card in the meantime for later use.