Carolanne Rushe has a way of drawing you in. Talk of her travels and how the vertiginous mounds of aromatic spices in the Qatar souk influenced her cooking is enough to whet any appetite.
Little wonder then that many who eat at her award-winning plant-based café on Bridge Street in Sligo were coming to Sweet Beat for over a year before realising that all the food was vegan.
She doesn’t like to use the word in case it puts people off. “People tend to think of lentils and soggy salads and we don’t want to scare people off or preach,” she says.
Instead, she offers fresh, local food that also happens to be good for you — and for the environment, as most of what’s on offer is made or grown within a half-hour of the café and served up with a zero-waste philosophy.
“We are trying to keep the environmental impact low,” she tells Feelgood.
Her philosophy and her food have struck a chord. So much so, that last month Rushe opened a second outlet, a plant-based deli and diner called Sweet As on Markiewicz Road.
The diner serves a plant-based menu while the deli serves, among other things, vegan-friendly pastries made by Rushe’s French partner Bruno. The couple has a daughter, Hannah Mai, aged eight months, and two businesses to run. Between café and deli, there is a staff of 25.
None of it seems to overwhelm the mother/ businesswoman/ chef and yogi who tinkles with laughter and says that she has lots of energy.
She’ll need it because, as she says, vegan has now gone mainstream which means that vegan eateries and restaurants are far more common than they were even five years ago.
There are an estimated 600-plus in Ireland, according to one estimate, but many restaurants also have options suitable for the growing number of people who choose not to eat meat, fish, dairy, eggs or honey.
Rushe’s own food revelation came during a 12-week cookery course in Ballymaloe in Cork when she saw Darina Allen take two fistfuls of soil from a bucket to demonstrate the link between food provenance and food quality and health.
“I knew I didn’t want to have a negative impact on the environment”, she says and set about creating a sustainable way of doing business.
Using the spices she had gathered on her travels — as well as ideas and recipes garnered from running a market stall in South Africa — she tested the market at a stall in Strandhill in 2014.
“When I initially moved back to Sligo from South Africa, there were very limited options for vegans and vegetarians,” she says.
There was, at least, significant interest. In 2015, she opened Sweet Beat café.
The following year, her spiced hummus and organic kale pesto were on sale in the Food Academy in SuperValu in the northwest.
There was so much demand for plant-based food that soon there were plans to open a second plant-based outlet. AsCarolanne tells it:
“Even in the last year, the demand for fresh, organic wholefoods has grown. You don’t have to be vegan to enjoy good-quality food which makes you feel good.”
People want fresh and organic food and they also want local produce. Keeping it local is key to the Sweet Beat/ Sweet As philosophy.
She sources ingredients from a range of local suppliers including Knockvicar Organic, Carrowgarry and CroghanOrganic farms and O’Hara’s which makes vegan ice cream.
“To cut down on the carbon footprint of the business, all suppliers have been asked to deliver goods plastic-free. Coffee beans will arrive in reusable buckets and Knock-vicar Organic Farm will deliver salad leaves in reusable containers,” she tells Feelgood.
The staff has been trained to adopt a ‘zero waste’ approach to food waste, and the restaurant uses compostable packing from Down2Earth Materials in Cork.
In today’s climate, it is so important to us that we do not add to ever-increasing amounts of plastics used in our industry.
"Our food is plant-based so naturally, our packaging is too,” she says.
There are more projects in the pipeline. A book perhaps. Whatever Carolanne does, it will be plant-inspired and eco-friendly.