Lauren Watts had a full-time office job in Southampton when she started commuting into London on Friday nights, staying up all night to make vegan doughnuts for Saturday markets. Fast-forward eighteen months and her deep-fried operation has grown from a one-woman show to a team of nine (and counting). London’s first vegan doughnut and coffee shop, Dough Society, which opened last month, is selling out day after day.
It’s part of an exploding vegan scene across London — so-called “Veganuary” reported three times as many participants as in 2017, vegan menus are popping up in restaurants everywhere and barely a week passes without news of another vegan restaurant opening or expansion. See By Chloe, Temple of Seitan, the Vurger Co and the Spread Eagle, the debut of a ‘bleeding’ vegan burger, plus a whole host of fast food street food outlets whose popularity has traveled in only one direction over the past 18 months.
Eater London sat down with Watts at Dough Society — a window-lit corner cafe in a pedestrian alley in Hackney, selling flavours from Pecan Praline to Strawberry Basil — to talk about what makes a vegan doughnut shop a viable business in 2018.
How Dough Society came about
“I don’t want to say desperation — but we couldn’t find anything that was vegan that was really indulgent, other than cupcakes. I really missed doughnuts. I used to be the ‘office feeder’: I would come in with cakes and stuff all the time. When I started making doughnuts, a lot of people [were] saying they were the best doughnuts they’d had.
“Ed [her husband] and a couple of our friends kind of pushed me into doing this vegan fair [in Brixton in 2016] that I didn’t want to do. I didn’t think anyone would be interested. We sold out in less than an hour. We were driving up there and I was like, ‘I’m gonna be left with so many at the end of the day.’ I thought it was going to be like a village fete, and it turned out to be a stampede.”
On going vegan and the current vegan boom
“We weren’t really aware of the practices that go on, with dairy farming especially. In all kinds of animal agriculture, you’re not made aware of the standard practice, which turns out to be pretty horrific. You just see images of happy little cows on farms and chickens roaming free, and it couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Everyone has the whole ‘they have a good life, they’re killed humanely’ [idea]. Those two words — ‘humanely’ and ‘killing’ — are contradictions of each other. That doesn’t exist. We watched a couple of things and did a bit of research and it all just clicked into place for us. We were like, actually, this is bullshit.
“I think, if you can live your life eating everything that you need and could want — like burgers, fried chicken, doughnuts — and not actually kill anything, why would you not? You can do everything that you would otherwise. And I think that is why it’s becoming more popular, because people are starting to realise that.”
Why vegan doesn’t have to mean healthy
“I think there’s the reputation of veganism in the past being kind of hippie-ish, and that you can’t eat anything good or everything has to be super healthy. I think people want to get away from that. You can be just as unhealthy as a vegan, potentially just as overweight if you want to be. And there’s no reason you couldn’t have the same stuff. You don’t have to eat lentils and chickpeas all day every day. I mean, I do eat quite a lot of those too. But not everything has to be raw and sugar-free.
“We get a lot of people that have been vegan for a really long time come in, and they get so excited. It’s quite nice to see people really happy when they see what they can get. We’ve got a marshmallow doughnut, and people are like, ‘I thought they had gelatine in them.’ With a bit of work, you can get around that.”
Why Dough Society is selling out
“There’s not a dedicated vegan coffee and doughnut shop [in the UK]. I think America and Australia are totally next-level with their veganism. I think we have a bit of catching up to do. And because there aren’t any proper doughnut shops in every city in the UK, it’s still a novelty for people. I think people are starting to realise that veganism is getting traction, and they want to be a part of it.”
What’s coming next
“We’re gonna be doing a lot more flavours and seasonal things. We want to do brunch on the weekends. I’ve already practiced doing Doughnut French Toast: a Maple Glaze doughnut and berries and coconut cream. I could really do with that now, actually! It would be awesome if we could have a chain or another branch. I know a lot of people get frustrated that a lot of vegan stuff is in east London. But we haven’t had investors or anything — it’s all on us. So if it happens that would be awesome, but we would equally be happy if this place did really well. We want to make it a really cool place to go.”
(This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.)