John Tabatabai of Rawligion on changing the perception of plant-based restaurants

By Hannah Thompson

- Last updated on GMT

John Tabatabai of Rawligion on changing the perception of plant-based restaurants

Related tags: Cooking, London

When John Tabatabai woke up six years ago with half his face paralysed, he never imagined that a juice diet could help. Now fully cured after discovering vegan and raw foods, the former international poker player talks raw chocolate, expansion aims, and how he plans to entice burger-loving Londoners through the doors of his new restaurant Rawligion.

Why choose to do raw food?

I first became interested because of my health. The raw food diet is very misunderstood, with negative stigma attached to it, and people don't really know what it is here in London. That seems like an excellent challenge to me.

What's the biggest misconception people have, and why?

People think that if something is healthy, it doesn't taste good, if it doesn't have dairy then it won't be creamy, if it doesn't have added sugar, how are we going to get that rush that we're used to? We want to turn that around completely.

You originally got interested in it because of your own health problems…

I worked in the poker industry for about ten years, and was eating out minimum twice a day. I was always out partying, and drinking and eating terribly. One thing led to another, and one day, about five or six years ago, I woke up and couldn’t move half my face. I had somehow contracted Bell's Palsy.

I immediately went to see a specialist, and he said that I should prepare to live the rest of my life like that. I was in my mid-twenties; to say it was demoralising was an understatement. I was depressed and didn't leave my house for weeks at a time. But then I got introduced to an incredible therapist and realised I had to change. All my extended family is based in LA, and I'd seen how prominent plant based eateries are there. I came across juicing, and I had a litre and a half of green juice a day. Somehow, after six months I was fully recovered.

What was it within juice and raw foods that you think were so beneficial?

It’s impossible to pinpoint one thing. My body went from eating no nutrition, to all of a sudden, a ton of vitamins and enzymes and fresh food. I'd be lying if I said I followed it perfectly but I've been trying ever since to improve my diet. It's been a journey.


How are you going to get people not eating special diets through the doors?

That is the ten million pound question. I am hoping, by creating a highly-enticing environment, we will get people to ask questions. Then they'll see other stuff, such as raw chocolates, which will be the gateway for people who don't know much about this kind of food. We will have little fun facts in the packaging, and people handing out little samples. I'm confident that once people discover us they'll be intrigued and impressed.

What sort of price point are you aiming at?

All our produce is organic, so our products will be slightly more expensive, but I will always have a cheaper entry point for everything. Our juices will be £5-7.50, but we are going to have one which will be £3.50. Same with our food, most of it will be within £6.50 and £8.50, but I am still going to create one option at least in the £4 region.

Who are you aiming at?

Because of the price point and demographic of our core customer base, it will probably always have to be in central London. Here, we have four to five gyms, yoga studios, workers, three universities, and tourists, all within walking distance. I hope that people will see that we're being authentic.

Why have a grab-and-go operation rather than a larger cafe?

We do have eight seats, but overall I just wanted to serve as many people as possible, and I had someone like myself in mind. Someone who is doing a million different things. Like Pret – people go there because they know they can get in and out in a minute. We want somewhere quick, convenient, accessible and beautiful.


Would you like to expand if all goes well?

The aim is to open four to five more within the next three years, depending on how the first one goes. We'd love 10-15 sites overall, all in London initially.

Where has your funding come from?

The first one is self-funded, but the other ones will come from extra investment, private venture capital, pending success of the first one. It's already in place if it all goes well. We're not here to mess around!

How much has it cost overall to get the doors open?

Triple what we thought it was going to cost. I don't see us getting much change from half a million pounds.

Your background isn’t in hospitality. Why come to London to open your first site?

I've lived all my life in Cardiff, but I went to University in Reading and then moved to London. It's my favourite city in the world, and I think it is right at the beginning of the healthy food, plant-based cycle. There will always be people with negative comments, but I'm certain that there is room for growth here, and enough interested people.

How did you get involved with [raw foods chef and writer] Kate Magic?

When it comes to raw food, Kate always comes up. She's got raw cookbooks; she's been raw for 20 years, and raised kids on that diet. I wanted someone who really lives it. I'm constantly amazed at the creativity of people, how they manage to create so many dishes without gluten, grains, dairy, fish, eggs, or meat.


Coffee is a crowded market at the moment. How are you going to stand out?

We've taken a different approach; we have this Japanese coffee tower, which requires no heat. It's gravity fed; one drip per 45 seconds. It's a less acidic end result, and the flavour is more floral, even compared to cold brew coffee.

Some bigger chains already do juices, coffee, veggie and some vegan options. How do you feel about them?

I think it's positive and just about educating people. Yes, it's more competition for me, but because we're so focused on plant-based foods, we're always going to have the best example of the trend...raw pizza, raw sushi, smoothies. It's all a journey. For some people that journey will start with Pret.

Do you think that raw food or vegan-style food will ever become mainstream or lose that stigma?

I think it would be naive to think that raw food will be the main food trend. All I can hope is that people will see the benefits of eating more fresh food, and they'll consider us a fantastic option for a regular visit.

Rawligion opens on Tottenham Court Road on 1 June.

Related topics: Business, People, Restaurants, Small Talk

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