Interview: Mike Farmer and his Living End Saloon vegan pub dream

1052431_10151465635870636_331821505_oI 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:

Mike and the Vegan Black Metal Chef at the Indiegogo kickoff party
Mike and the Vegan Black Metal Chef at the Indiegogo kickoff party

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?”

Mid-December inspiring stories

OK, I’m slowly catching up this month! There has been so much goodness, it’s hard to keep up. Let’s get into it:

  • brinkleyFirst, an update. Some of you may have read my inspirational interview with musician Jonathan Brinkley last month. Jonathan has now officially launched his Kickstarter campaign, and I encourage you to take a look (I even have a cameo in the video) and contribute to the project if you are moved to do so. Minimum pledge is $1; his music is wonderful; and his vision is bold and generous. Let’s help him succeed!
  • lanzaOn the topic of unguarded hearts … it can be hard to keep one in today’s world. I enjoyed this thoughtful piece, from an NVC perspective, on the recent mall and school violence and its roots in the society we all co-create. The gist of the article: fear and vulnerability, un-tended or inadequately tended in youth, can turn easily to self-hatred and violence. On the face of it, this is not “good news.” But the positive message I took from the article was that with awareness and intention, we can all choose to continually create society differently:  The Fearless Heart: Adam Lanza and All of Us.
  • vegnewsSpeaking of creating a nonviolent world, one action at a time: Kudos to Costa Rica! The nation has officially banned sport hunting. What a compassionate, progressive place. No wonder their national “happiness score” is so high: Costa Rica Officially Bans Hunting Nationwide.
  • vegnews-gardenburgerAnd in other good news for animals, as well as for hungry people: Gardenburger/Gardenbar has donated 100,000 vegan meal bars to the Oregon Food Bank. I applaud their corporate generosity.
  •  compostingAlso on the corporate-responsibility front: Charlotte Douglas Airport has begun composting with worms! I would love to see all airports follow suit in the near future: One Airport’s Trash Is 2 Million Worms’ Treasure : NPR.
  • lettuce-growAnd speaking of vermicompost and natural gardening: I just learned about a wonderful organization, Lettuce Grow Garden Foundation, which helps inmates grow gardens in Oregon institutions. The produce is used by the institutional cafeterias, as well as donated to other organizations in the community who help get the produce to people who need it.
  • successful-peopleAnd finally, if you’ve been itching to get something started yourself, here is some good advice for becoming successful in whatever business or project you’d like to take on:  8 Things Remarkably Successful People Do.


Interview: Jonathan Brinkley

I understand that your current dream is to be a “rock star.” Is this still accurate? 

Well, “rock star” is really just shorthand for wanting to be free to do what I want, to create, to share my creativity with the world, to follow the moment. But yes, that’s my dream.

When did you first decide on that dream? 

A couple of years ago, when I was a taxi driver in Portland, I had an epiphany: I realized I’d been waiting for the right moment to pursue my wildest vision of myself, and suddenly all my excuses vanished. I decided then and there that I would do whatever it took to make my whole life about music, travel, and inspiration.

How far along the path do you believe you are right now?

Sometimes I feel like I’m right on the verge, and my dream is right around the bend. Other times, it feels very far away. But often, I recognize I’m already here. I have not worked a “day job” for more than 2 years, and that makes me feel very free indeed. It’s definitely all a matter of perspective.

How long have you been a musician?

I have been singing since I can remember. I was born into a musical family, with my Mom and stepdad in a country cover band. It was this strange combination of going to church and singing “Jesus Loves Me” on Sunday morning, then hearing the band’s rendition of “Jose Cuervo” that night. It was a well-rounded upbringing.

There were different types of choirs throughout church and school, I started teaching myself to play piano when I was around 7, and guitar came later, around 19. I wrote my first song at 16.

What fears did you have to overcome to get where you are today? How have you gone about overcoming them?

The fear of not being good enough, not being worthy of the attention and appreciation of others, has pervaded my performing life. I’m still very much affected by it, but so much less so than when I was younger. It held me back from even admitting what I wanted to myself, let alone an audience. It is only in the last couple of years that I have had the courage to embrace my dreams in a way that leads to direct action. There was that moment two years ago when it finally occurred to me that I was in a holding pattern, and it would take a large leap of faith to break free from it. I decided I would do the things that propelled me towards my dream, no matter how uncomfortable. I decided that the gift I have to give the world is worthy of celebration. I decided to stop relating to the hard work necessary for success in the music business as a burden, and start treating it like the dream job I’ve always wanted.

Besides fear, what other obstacles have you had to overcome? How did you get past them?

I think all obstacles probably boil down to fear of one sort or another, but one has been the very loud voices in our culture that tell us that artists are destined to fail, and that making a living with music is about drudgery and “paying one’s dues”. That kind of thinking drives people to drink. Maybe it makes a good blues or country song, but it doesn’t make an artist happy. Our inner artists (we all have them) are playful children, and what we are creating should feel primarily like playing.

Another obstacle has been the absence of adequate music venues in our society. Traditionally, music is offered in bars and clubs. Often smoky, noisy places full of distractions and anonymity, they are more focused on the sale of alcohol than creating a magical musical experience. I have dedicated most of my energy to playing house concerts as an alternative to that world, and have been greatly rewarded for it. People are so much more attentive, they get the subtle nuances of what they’re hearing, and we make a real connection. I’m convinced there is no better way to experience music, for the audience or for the artist.

What is most rewarding to you so far about your journey toward rock stardom?

The fact that I took a great risk–quitting my job and beginning to travel–and it has paid off. I told myself one day, “I will do whatever it takes to live as an artist. Not as a cab driver who is also a musician, not as a food server that’s in a band, but someone who lives and breathes their passion.” And then I acted on it. I quit cab driving and dedicated myself to touring and the production of a new CD. Since that day, circumstances have continually aligned to help me sustain my new way of life.

What is, or has been, the hardest part for you?

It seems to me that my successes come in waves, or bursts. Those times are very exciting, and it feels as though my dream is so close I can taste it. But between the waves, I can get very discouraged. Almost to the point of giving up. Almost. But there’s always a strong, still voice in me that knows it’s all worth it. It’s my dearest wish to hold my dream lightly, and not clutch it.

What has been most surprising to you about it?

Most surprising has been the swiftness and completeness with which great things happen when I am feeling excited and aligned with my vision. To the degree that I have stayed positive, envisioning the future that I want instead of the one I don’t want, I have watched in awe as one success after another manifested.

My tour in Europe last year is such a glowing example of this. For months I talked about all the fantastic things that would happen there. I made vision boards. I meditated on experiences I was calling forth. And I leapt with no idea how it would all work. My partner Jen and I found ourselves in Rome with one gig. And with every step we took after that, the path unfolded beneath our feet, so that three months later we returned home with a lifetime of beautiful stories to tell.

Without needing to share any specifics, of course, how are you feeling about the financial end of things? Are you able to support yourself financially by doing your music full time? What other ways have you supported yourself financially along your journey? What were some of your most and least favorite aspects of these other kinds of work?

What I learned on tour is that I can support myself financially if I keep moving. Gas is cheaper than rent, and it’s easy to book a gig on the road every other night. Between touring stints, I have done a bit of work on various organic farms as a supplement. (I actually love farming, and have often held it as a secondary dream. One day, when travel loses its luster, I’d love to move to the country and grow my own food.) The only drawback is that farming usually happens in rural areas with little connectivity to the fast-paced world of networking, so my performance schedule tends to decline during those periods. What I love dearly about farm life is that it is quiet enough that my writing truly flourishes. I wake up, feed the animals, make a simple breakfast, and a flow of creativity begins. I often have the time to follow that flow until some song, or poem, or other creative idea blooms. I’m so grateful for those times.

My current dream is to settle here in Portland, so I’m looking at my options. I teach voice, piano, and guitar lessons, and feel confident that with a little creative scheduling, I can balance that business with touring. I’m also looking into designing my own vocal and songwriting workshops!

What are your next challenges at the moment?

My biggest challenge right now is gathering momentum for my upcoming Kickstarter campaign to fund my next album. I’ve been traveling and working outside of Oregon, and it can be hard to to get my motivation up to steam once I’m home. Now that I think of it, though, it’s mostly my own impatience that’s in my way. The only deadline I have to meet is my own, and that’s a blessing. But I can be so hard on myself for not meeting it! Two things seem true to me: That in order to fulfill my dreams, I must respect them enough to keep my word to them. On the other hand, stressing out about the whens and hows only dampens my enthusiasm and resolve.

Any words of wisdom or parting thoughts to readers who want to follow their dreams?

Whatever entity made us, creating is what it built humans for. Whatever you’re dreaming up, no matter how outlandish or far off it may seem, it’s that universal spark of genius working in you, through you. Give it the honor it deserves. Whether you consider it “artistic” or not, it is. Do something today that moves you a little closer to your dream, and then do something else tomorrow, and the next day too.

Where can people hear your work, online, via CD, or in person? 

All are welcome to visit my website, to get music, performance dates, blogs, or to keep in touch. Also, good ol’ facebook: