Foodie Confidential

Greendot founder wants to inspire meat-free movement

Mr Justin Chou, who co-founded vegetarian restaurant Greendot, wants to inspire people to go meat-free

Who: Mr Justin Chou, 28, co-founder of casual vegetarian restaurant chain Greendot, which has 10 outlets here, including at Paya Lebar Square, VivoCity and Bugis Junction.

His parents own vegetarian food products manufacturer Growthwell Group and also run Lotus Kitchen at Chinatown Point and Lotus Vegetarian Restaurant at Quality Hotel in Balestier.

Mr Chou, who is married to a pre-school teacher, also recently opened Vairy, a vegetarian food stall at Kampung Admiralty Hawker Centre in Woodlands Drive 71.

What inspired you to start Greendot?

In the past, there were not a lot of vegetarian options in the malls. It was also tough to get friends to come and have a vegetarian meal.

I saw people increasingly opting for meat-free or plant-based products, especially in the United States.

I started brainstorming when I was doing my national service, and started the business after.

  • WHAT WILL YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

  • A simple home-cooked meal with my family - just fried tomato egg, spinach and a bowl of clear soup. It's all about the warmth of my family.

You already have a chain of restaurants. Why start Vairy?

It is an entrepreneurship development programme for management trainees who work with us. Plus, we want to preserve hawker culture.

Those who work with us start from scratch to learn operations and they can go into the office to learn marketing and human resources as well.

I believe in such a culture in the company, where it is meaningful for people to be a part of something and to encourage creativity.

After all, Greendot started as a stall in Temasek Polytechnic in 2011.

It expanded into malls two years later.

So what was it like growing up vegetarian?

Since there were not many options, we would often eat vegetarian beehoon.

We would also go to Lingzhi Vegetarian, which has outlets at Liat Towers and Velocity.

I like to eat noodles, so even if my noodles were just tossed in vegetarian oyster sauce and chilli, that's good enough for me.

Since vegetarian food may not have many layers of flavour, I like to add cheese to my food - whether it's noodles, rice or bread.

I'm a lacto-ovo-vegetarian - so I do eat eggs and dairy products.

Have you ever tasted meat?

I accidentally ate fishballs at a party, as I assumed everything served was vegetarian. It tasted weird, because meat may not be as tasty to a vegetarian.

What is your favourite drink?

The All Berry Bang drink from juice bar chain Boost. It has strawberry yogurt, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and apple juice.

What interesting trends have you noticed from running Greendot?

My co-founder Fu Yong Hong is a "flexi-tarian" - and this is a big demographic we get at Greendot. They are health-conscious diners, especially women aged 25 to 45, who just want to have a healthy meal that is not a salad or soup. About 70 per cent of our diners are female.

In malls, I see that fast-food restaurants draw kids, while the guys go to the foodcourt and fill up on economy rice. And places such as protein-focused salad shop The Daily Cut attract the gymgoers.

What vegetarian food would you recommend overseas?

I like the vegetarian dining culture in Taiwan. There is a chain of hip meat-free restaurants called Mia Cucina, which has plenty of salads for sharing, cheese and dairy products.

You would see women all dressed-up dining there - it has become part of their lifestyle.

Melbourne also has a great vegan cafe culture. At many cafes, you get fresh food, along with avocados, cheese and toast. Matcha Mylkbar has vegan eggs, burgers and smoothies - and the food looks really nice.

In Hong Kong, the plant-based Green Common chain offers a Beyond Burger where the patty is made with plant-based protein.

Tell us about your long-term dream.

I would like to inspire 100 million people in the world to go meat-free.

We are also planning to veganise Greendot.

We are already working on how to replace eggs in our products.

We can also work with various proteins such as whey and pea.

A decade ago, people called meat alternatives mock meat. Five years from now, they will call it food innovation.

At many food conferences I attend, everyone is talking about alternative proteins.

The way we consume meat is unsustainable and I hope that my company will solve food issues one day.

Besides running your restaurants, what else are you involved in?

I believe in working on various start-ups and I am developing a B2B (business to business) tech start-up called Glife.

Just like how Meicai -an e-vendor of agricultural products in China - has taken off and is now worth $2.8 billion, I can also create a platform for vegetarian suppliers to supply to restaurants.

We are moving on all fronts - not just in food and beverage, but also in tech, e-commerce and food innovation.

If you could hold a dinner party, who would you invite?

I would invite Tesla founder and chief executive Elon Musk, Alibaba Group co-founder and executive chairman Jack Ma, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and American basketball player LeBron James. They all represent excellence in their respective fields.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 04, 2018, with the headline 'Green peace'. Print Edition | Subscribe