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Behind the Scenes
Vegan Cookies from Allison's Gourmet
Personal Development for Smart People
InterviewsRyan Wilson and Courtney Ernster
Owners of Vegan Essentials
Interviewed by Doh Driver
When and why did you become vegan?
Courtney (C): It started out that I first went vegetarian almost 7 years ago after getting horrible food poisoning after eating chicken. I figured, if something can make me this sick, it can't be good to eat. After a while of changing my diet for health reasons I started to consider the whole picture -how can I say that I'm an animal lover if I'm still eating them? The hypocrisy seemed so obvious to me that I decided to take the plunge into going vegan and have been at it ever since!
Ryan (R): I became vegan after being with Courtney for around 2 years, so it has been a little over 3 years total now. It all came gradually-daily exposure to veganism and a vegan business can do a lot to change someone's lifestyle. Once I knew more about the lifestyle and the movement, it really struck me as what I wanted to be involved in, and the hypocrisy of calling myself an animal lover while eating them for dinner hit home hard. It took a little time to make the full change, but now I can't see living my life any other way.
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R: We wish that the entire staff were vegan, but as we're pretty much a family-run operation, it isn't perfect in this way. Dick, our warehouse manager, is Courtney's father and swears that he's too old to go vegan, but we're not giving up just yet! Our newest employee, my sister Sue, has been vegetarian for nearly 10 years and we're working to get that last push to convince her that being vegan isn't as difficult as she believes.
C: All in all there are 5 of us that work either full-time or part-time at VeganEssentials as of now. Also, much of the work we contract out, such as our ad design, is to vegan businesses such as Fourteen Little Men-we do what we can to work with other like-minded people, companies, and organizations whenever possible.
What gave you the idea to start your company, and how did you get it started?
C: Around 6 years ago when I first went vegan, I saw that there were so few options for an all-encompassing vegan shop to get everything you needed, so I decided I may as well start my own! With the help of my sister Sue and a loan from my father, we formed Veg Essentials and were strictly catalog-based for the first 2.5 years, but that didn't go all too well. Catalogs are expensive, get low return rates for orders, and of course, they often are a waste of resources since there's so many that get tossed out and never get looked at. We struggled to keep things going for quite a while, but we just didn't seem to make much headway. Once Ryan came on board around the time my sister left the business, everything started to change.
R: I managed to get us a Web site that was done reasonably because we were so tight on money back then that sometimes we wondered how we'd last another week. But, with hard work and extreme dedication (not to mention a lot of late nights!), we managed to get the name out enough to have an always-growing customer base that has gotten us to where we are now. We couldn't be happier doing anything else!
For the purposes of the products in your store, how do you define "vegan"? Tell us about the selection of products that VeganEssentials.com offers.
C: We define "vegan" by a pretty common set of standards-we consider it to be anything that's completely animal-free in the way of ingredients and that it cannot involve any animal testing in the creation of the product. We also prefer to work only with companies who produce under fair-labor conditions, and if we can find any evidence of sweatshop manufacturing or have any doubts as to the credibility of a manufacturer's claims, we will refuse to work with them. We used to be lenient on the always-debated issue of refined sugar, but as time went on we decided that in fairness to all vegans, we didn't want those who avoided this ingredient to have to worry if they were purchasing something that contained it.
R: People often forget that humans are animals, too! We want to be completely cruelty-free in that we respect people's rights to work in a safe and reasonable environment, so fair labor is a standard for us, as Courtney mentioned. Too often people will think, "I saw this great pair of vegan shoes that were only $20!," not fully thinking about how it is that the product in question could have been sold for such a low price. If they're made from quality materials and in fair-labor conditions, it just isn't possible. We believe that if you're going to purchase products for the animals' sake then it only serves fair to think of the conditions of other people as well!
How do you find vegan products, and how do customers know that they're really animal-free?
C: We find our products in so many ways it is impossible to say that there's any one way we come across them. Some we find from our existing suppliers, some we get as suggestions from customers, a few have been found at various tradeshows, and some are discovered by pure blind luck of browsing the Internet. Also, we're now to the point where we have a good reputation as a large retailer of vegan products, so many manufacturers come to us to promote their items, which is definitely a nice thing!
R: Courtney and I are both strict vegans ourselves, so it makes a big difference to us that everything we sell is an item we'd feel comfortable using or eating. Everything must go through a strict process of ingredient checks and contact with the product's manufacturer before we'll consider adding it to our shop. If we can't get the verification we need to know that something is 100% vegan, we simply won't sell it. Our mission is to take the guesswork and effort out of having to do all of your own research by doing the hard stuff so you can have more time to do what you'd like!
What are some of your best-selling products? What do you offer for vegan kids?
R: It really is difficult to pinpoint our best-sellers, but it would definitely include shoes, vitamins, shirts, wallets and most of all, food!
C: You can never have enough vegan food. Everything sells well from sweets to healthy products and all that falls in between. Our selection for children includes vitamins, healthy snacks that are great for lunch boxes, belts, shirts, and body care items. We're working to expand our line for children, so you can expect to see it keep growing over the next few months.
Your online store seems to be growing by leaps and bounds. To what do you contribute your success? What makes your company stand apart from others?
R: We contribute our success and continued growth to our hard work and dedication to our business. It would be difficult to work as we do at something we didn't believe in, and since we both want nothing more than to promote a vegan lifestyle while being vegan ourselves, it makes it easy to put forth the effort. Let's just say that it takes a lot of 12-hour workdays to get to the point where we are now!
C: What we think sets us apart is that we try to put a great amount of personal feel into what we do. We don't send out form-letter email responses, but write back with genuine replies. We can give honest advice and opinions on everything we sell since we've tried it all ourselves, and we work to offer the best customer service possible. We strive to make VeganEssentials.com more than just a cold, faceless online store; we want everyone to know who we are and what we like, much of the time through our product descriptions and information. A little humor or personal thoughts on a product never hurt to help someone know more, rather than just simply writing the info off the back of product packaging as so many stores of all sorts tend to do these days. Also, we like to keep shopping fun by being a little different in what we offer-our goal isn't to sell the same things you can find at your local health food store so we try hard to be unique in our selection and add products that we're generally excited about. We're not interested in adding anything and everything vegan just to make our selection look larger, but rather we want our shoppers to be wowed by almost everything they see because it is unique.
The holidays are approaching-will a vegan be able to find all their holiday shopping needs at your store?
R: I think that we offer something for everyone when it comes to holiday shopping. Whether it would be a present for a long-time vegan or just a unique and thoughtful cruelty-free gift that you'd like to give, we have a wide selection that makes it easy to find something that will be of interest to just about anyone. We don't want our store to just be a vegan-exclusive business, but also to be a gateway for those who might want to start off simply with trying out animal-free goods. You never know, the person who comes through just to pick up a pair of non-leather shoes might end up changing their whole lifestyle once they know how much exists in the way of wonderful animal-free alternatives for everything else!
Do you have any plans for the online store that we should know about?
C: We've got a few plans that we're keeping a bit secret that are in the works, but we'll just say that soon our customers should be able to see a whole new way to do food shopping at VeganEssentials.
R: We're going to do a lot of work for our walk-in store over the coming months, but the Web site is always going to be our mainstay, and we plan to keep growing it in every way possible. Look for lots of growth in all areas of our store, with much of the focus on shoes and food over the next few months.
Do you have hopes that the general public is evolving towards a more compassionate position, or do you feel that vegans will always be a tiny, if passionate, minority?
R: We think that there's more of a switch toward compassionate living, and a lot of it is stemming from the general move toward more natural products. People are beginning to think more about what they're using in their homes and putting into their bodies, and this is beginning to plant the seeds a bit more for people to consider living cruelty-free.
C: Many people think that vegan products are somehow strange or unusual, but now that things like organic foods and earth-friendly cleaning products are gaining popularity with much of the public, it is showing that people are starting to think before purchasing. And, we're hoping that as this starts to really take hold. It'll make people want to learn more about how they can do good for their bodies and the environment, and this usually leads to the discovery of vegetarianism and veganism.
R: We may be a minority at this time, but I think that in a few years it won't be like now where we still meet so many people who ask us, "What's a vegan?" More people seem to be going veg than the number who leave the lifestyle behind, so that's good news to us! I don't foresee a completely veg population at any time, but as long as our movement keeps growing, that's all we can hope for.