Interview: Mike Farmer and his Living End Saloon vegan pub dream
I met Mike Farmer about fifteen years ago. A friend of a high school classmate of mine, we first connected over our shared geeky love of progressive rock music. (Mike was even in a prog band at the time!)
Over the years, from a distance of 3,000 miles, I observed as he met and fell in love with his partner Marya, bought a house in Washington, DC, and, eventually, went both vegan and car free.
Since then, we have played “vegan tour guide” in each other’s cities, and stayed in touch online. I have also enjoyed following his travel blog Adventures in Veganism.
A few years ago, Mike told me he was starting to dream up a vegan bar in DC. I loved the idea! I knew how much he loved vegan food and various libations (always carefully paired) and as DC’s vegan restaurant offerings slowly increased, I thought his idea of a punk dive bar with international cuisine sounded like a perfect complement to the other options available.
Fast forward to now: It’s happening! He has just launched a crowdfunding effort on Indiegogo to kick-start the business. I strongly encourage you to watch his promotional video and consider contributing to the effort… and in the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy this interview he granted me, talking in depth about his motivations, plans, hopes, and fears as a culture-shifting entrepreneur:
When, and how, did the idea to open this pub come to you?
The idea came to me about five years ago. I hung out in a vegan friendly dark dungeony bar in Adams Morgan, Washington DC, called Asylum. On their buy-one-get-one-half-off Tuesdays I’d get up to six plates of their vegan wings while listening to punk and watching skateboarding or surfing videos on Fuel TV (I neither skateboard or surf, but I loved it). I was in heaven. Also, I traveled the planet quite a bit, and have always loved trying the local cuisine. Since becoming vegan, I’ve been able to veganize many of my favorite international dishes, as well as having perfected my tofu scramble recipe over a period of about nine years. Then I thought, What if I created a bar that had a fun gothic feel to it, similar to Asylum, but was completely vegan? I could serve international pub comfort food that I’d experienced around the world, veganized, plus a fantastic brunch. I hate to sound like the person who feels so accomplished after making one good meal that they decide to open a restaurant, which is sort of how it is with me, but I’m also on a mission. At the end of the day, I want to build the sort of place where I would want to go, and hope everyone else will, too. I’ll add that, sadly, Asylum closed and reopened as a barbecue place, but at least I was able to buy a bunch of Asylum’s old decor. When people get bit by the vegan bug, they just want to go out and change the world, and this is how I want to do it.
What aspects of your life shifted to enable you to pursue it now, after several years of dreaming about it?
I work in IT by day and a bartender by night, which has allowed me to save a good chunk of money thus far. But it’s not enough. So I’m doing a crowdfunding campaign now. I have many locations in mind, but most getting rented before I’ve managed to save enough money to have a shot at it. As well, property prices are rising so quickly that I may very well be priced out of the market before opening anywhere here in Washington DC, so I need to do this soon. Also, I can keep working away at saving for it, keeping all my ideas in my head, and dreaming about it forever, but it’s never going to get done that way. Ready or not, I’m now starting to take the larger steps I need to in order to make this a reality. It’s time to hit the power button.
Obviously you’re just at the beginning stage now, with the crowdfunding campaign just starting. But what obstacles have you had to overcome already?
All obstacles thus far have been internal. I’m scared, I’m out of my element, I have so little knowledge of this industry. I sometimes feel trapped not knowing how to even begin. But I really want to do something meaningful with my life, and I’m pressing on. I keep reminding myself of the phrase: “Nothing ventured…” If I may offer some words of encouragement to anyone reading this: It’s scary and complicated at first, but take the first step. You may soon realize that what you were fearing isn’t nearly as dreadful or difficult as you thought.
What further challenges do you foresee in the year ahead?
Once open, I will be the owner, manager, bartender, barback, repairman, dishwasher, conflict resolver, accountant, inventory clerk, and other duties assigned. It’s a very unglamorous job, but I know it will have great rewards.
What is your dream for this pub? What sorts of impacts do you hope to have, on your city, on veganism in general, and/or on any other population?
My goal is to help save animals, save the environment, and save my neighbors who are suffering from diabetes, cancer, and other diseases whose condition can be improved by diet. One thing I really want to do is to work with local food assistance organizations and invite their clients to PCRM (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) Food for Life classes at the bar when not open for business during the weekday. The classes teach how to cook delicious and affordable nutritious meals. A friend of mine is certified to teach these classes, and he seems on board with the idea, too. In these classes I’d also like to provide info about how our local farmers markets double the value of some food assistance vouchers. Imagine the win for the farmers, the customer, the animals, the environment, not to mention our healthcare system. Also, I hope my place will be a gathering place. I want justice focused non-profits to hold their events there in the hopes that they will understand the intersection of the justice they’re seeking and the animal, environmental, and food justice The Living End is focused on.
When did you go vegan? What inspired you to do so?
The first spark came when I adopted my cat Burbank in 1998. I began questioning having a companion animal while eating others, so I wanted to start reducing the amount of animals I consumed. My now ex-wife and ex-girlfriend were not supportive of this at all. Then I met Marya. In 2007, less than two years after meeting, we bought a house together. Within a few days of moving in, she said, “I think we should make our house vegetarian.” It was a bit more than what I was aiming for and a bit of a surprise, but after not getting any support from my previous two relationships, I couldn’t refuse. We still had cheese plates with a bottle of wine several times a week, and once I remembered enjoying it so much I proclaimed loudly “I’m never going vegan!!!” Then… Marya read me aloud a line from Carol Adams’ book “The Sexual Politics of Meat” that tied government control over women’s reproduction with animal agriculture’s control over animals’ reproduction in the production of milk and eggs. As we’re feminists, that really hit us hard. Then, in summer of 2008, I participated in the Sticky Fingers/Compassion Over Killing Vegan Hot Dog Eating Contest. I was disqualified in the first round, but Compassion Over Killing gave me a bag full of vegan goodies and some pamphlets and magazines. I took them home and read through them, then said “Marya, I think we’re going to have to go vegan.”
Anything else you’d like to mention?
I’ve been working as a defense contractor for 26 years. And, let me tell you, defense contractors get paid rather nicely. If I didn’t care so much about making such a difference in the world, I’d just keep my head down, stay where I am, and watch the world go by. But, as I keep reminding myself: “We’re here for such a short time, how can we not spend it making a difference?”