Berlin is fast becoming known as one of the vegan and vegetarian capitals of the world, often taking top spot on lists compiled by everyone from vegan bloggers to established culinary magazines. There’s a definite momentum surrounding food that comes from plants in this city, and for this installment of The Monkey Loooves, we met with Nina and Red, owners of Let It Be. Their cosy vegan restaurant is in Neukölln and does burgers and crepes. In their own words, it’s vegan soul food. When they opened in early 2014, for them it was all about being 100% vegan. Now, with almost two years of experience under their belts, it’s about serving really good food – which is vegan.
Long before they opened their restaurant, Nina was playing in a band in Munich and Red was doing the same in Hamburg. They met on tour somewhere in the middle of Germany, and not too long after got married. They lived in Munich for a while, and had various successes with their music careers. Red worked as a sound engineer for radio, Nina was DJing and they both still played in bands. They lived a comfortable life, but soon the call of the big city was strong, so they packed up and moved to Berlin.
They had envisioned a world where they could thrive with their music, but the reality was somewhat different. The city was saturated with people trying to do the same thing they were, and jobs were not always easy to come by. They were used to the life of the struggling artist – working hard for not much return, but after finishing a record together while working odd jobs for other people, they felt like they were stuck in the mud. Nina says she realised that although music was the most important thing for her, she was exhausted and didn’t want to play that game anymore.
So they took a seven week trip across the United States. At the time they were both vegetarians, but had considered becoming vegan. The vegan options they were used to in Germany at the time were not the most inspiring, but while in the U.S they saw that it was possible to eat very well on a vegan diet. Invigorated and energised, upon their return to Berlin they decided it was time to do something else besides music. But crucially, that something else had to be as fulfilling and satisfying. While they had experience being team players, so to speak, from their time as band members, they recognised that for their next chapter they would need to have the freedom and ability to do things their own way.
Nina loved the idea of opening a cafe, while Red wanted a bar. So they met in the middle and decided to open a restaurant. They took over the lease on a long abandoned barber shop (with dark wood, low ceilings and a concrete floor), and spent six months transforming it themselves. They were inspired particularly by the places they had seen in California, and wanted to bring a slice of that to Berlin. Although they were navigating their way as they went in nearly all aspects, they were clear in their minds that they wanted to open a place that had not just tasty vegan food, and also a great atmosphere.
Obviously different people are vegan for different reasons. For Nina and Red, they are vegan first and foremost on ethical grounds. Red says it was the experience of caring for their sick dog which really affected how he saw animals. Nina says becoming vegan transformed their everyday lives and that they could never go back. At the same time, they are not outwardly political, and definitely don’t want to be dogmatic with their extolling of the vegan lifestyle.
Red says that one of the most satisfying aspects of owning a vegan eatery is when meat eaters return again and again to the restaurant because they love the food. They both believe people get quite personal about their diets, and neither Nina or Red want to impose their views on people. But, as Nina says, if they can satisfy a handful of carnivores here and there with their vegan food, and these carnivores stop eating meat – even once or twice a week – then that’s “very good”!
They see another opportunity to facilitate positive change, and that is in the way they treat their staff. Nina and Red say that some vegan eateries have a reputation for treating and / or paying their staff poorly, which is somewhat ironic and a trend they were keen not to continue. They quickly realised it didn’t make sense for them to employ people who just wanted any old job, and so they have built a team who understand what they are about. Nina and Red say their staff are paid fairly and treated with respect and that has paid off – it’s like a family now.
Despite years of toiling away in the music industry, it seems as if Nina and Red have finally found their place. Let It Be is a successful business and they both clearly enjoy developing it. Nina says she never has the feeling that she is going to “work”, even when it’s a 17 hour day! Red says he never got this kind of respect for what he is doing from the music world. For two people who really had no idea about running a restaurant, they’ve made it work because they believe in what they are doing…When it’s authentic, the customers feel there is love, and that’s what draws them back to the place, plain and simple!