At The Positive Animal, we often think of the vegans we write about all over the world as superheroes—fighting against the odds, sometimes under dangerous conditions, to save animals and the planet. One super power that almost all vegans develop may not seem world-shaking, but it is. That’s the ability to scan food labels to spot villains like gelatin, whey, skim milk, E120, butter fat and egg whites. In fact, label scanning is a constant battle for vegans who have no other option than purchasing food from mainstream supermarkets. Even superheroes can grow weary, which is why vegans in Wrocław, Poland’s fourth largest city, were thrilled when the city’s first vegan supermarket, Urban Vegan, opened.
Magdalena Majewska, store co-owner, tells me that she and her two business partners, friends for over 15 years, are all natives of Wroclaw. Magdalena (vegan) used to work in the scientific field, allocating funding for research projects, and her associates (both lactose-intolerant vegetarians) work in the hi-tech industry.
As consumers, these Three Vegsketeers were longing for a market where they could shop without first having to study endless lists of hard-to-detect animal by-products. They also wanted to enjoy foreign goods not easily available in Poland. At the time, Polish health food stores did carry a small selection of vegan goods, but displayed them next to organic meat products, which made the plant-based trio uncomfortable and cast a doubt on the content of all foods sold in the stores. They found out they were not the only ones tired of having to scrutinize product labels: “Friends, acquaintances and participants in several vegan forums were mentioning similar concerns.” That’s when they decided to open their own vegan store.
Today, Urban Vegan has nine employees tending both the physical store and web shop. “All of them are highly committed, work hard and create a great work environment,” Magdalena says proudly.
Urban Vegan offers a wide variety of foods: plant-based yogurts, milks and faux meats, cosmetics and make-up, young green jack-fruit, Japanese mocha, pet food, and much more. A quick glance at their online store’s candy almost gave me a sugar rush—I think I’m going to have to check for cavities! To Urban Vegan, the ethical values associated with veganism outweigh even concerns about a healthy lifestyle.
Not surprising, best sellers are tofu and a product many vegans sorely miss: cheese. Since opening its doors in June 2015, Urban Vegan has sold seven tons of Violife cheese! What is surprising: They have more vegetarian customers than vegans! The clientele also includes consumers on a quest for organic products or products free from certain ingredients such as lactose, gluten or sugar.
The Urban Vegan dream continues to grow. They have plans to work with manufacturers and distributors of highly sought-after products not yet available in Poland. The web shop is also expanding, and the marketing team is making efforts to reach customers from other towns. While their most efficient marketing spaces are Facebook and Instagram—where they post information about new products, promotions and contests—Urban Vegan also advertises in trade magazines and on local radio. This broadbrush approach to promotion aims to reach people who may not be vegan yet, but are interested. In fact, Magdalena doesn’t think there are many vegans living in Wrocław at present, but she has noticed a high number of bars and restaurants serving a variety of vegan foods (not just burgers!)—so there is growing demand.
Not everyone is happy about the store’s presence. Some commercial neighbors have even dropped in to complain! Apparently, says Magdalena, these people find the vegan ideology more disturbing than the liquor stores and bars around the corner. But this small amount of negative feedback is far outweighed by the positive response Urban Vegan has received. It’s encouraging to see people starting to show an interest in the veg ideology, with some making an increasing effort to avoid animal products. Magdalena says she feels lucky to have so many people cheering them on and supporting them. “Our friends are always there to give feedback and a helping hand, which is especially appreciated when a large delivery comes in!”
The vegan movement has been slow to develop in Poland. Magdalena remembers asking for vegan food options at a leading hotel in Warsaw, only to be served baked cheese one day and fish the next! Even so, the movement is growing. Magdalena thinks Poland has been able to draw inspiration and learn from neighboring countries Germany and The Czech Republic, which are well ahead.
Magdalena and her partners hope the Urban Vegan is helping to influence Polish society. “We’re happy that, in response to our written inquiries, some national food producers have started to indicate on their labels whether the product is suitable for vegans. We would be even happier if our competitors expanded their product lines because of our presence or if organic food stores began to cater to the needs of their vegan customers. This would be a win-win for the clients and the animals.”
She sums up by saying that demand and the desire for profit have led the food industry onto the wrong path, a path of animal exploitation. But she and her colleagues are deeply convinced that every single one of us can, as a conscious consumer, lead food producers back to the right path.