Ahimsa Buffet hits the spot with Hong Kong 'flexitarians'
There has been an almost unheard-of response to the North Point vegetarian restaurant, with the crowds drawn by its low prices and, for some, the option of going meat-free for a day
Long lines have been forming outside the vegetarian restaurant Ahimsa Buffet since it opened in North Point last month.
The sight has befuddled as much as pleased co-founder James Yeung Ying-pong. "I did not expect so many people would come and queue to eat at our buffet," says the restaurateur.
During the initial weeks food ran out daily, leading to customer complaints. But Yeung says the kinks have been ironed out and the kitchen is now well stocked with ingredients to provide its hefty buffet spread for a high volume of patrons.
It's not unusual to see long queues at restaurants favoured by meat-eaters - the much-hyped Mrs Pound and trendy Japanese ramen places such as Butao spring to mind. But for a vegetarian venue to generate such an overwhelming response is almost unheard of.
Yeung attributes Ahimsa's success to its concept: affordable buffet-only vegetarian, a first for Hong Kong.
Operations such as the now-closed Harvester in Sheung Wan ran on a pay-by-weight model, while Ahimsa charges a flat fee.
The low prices have been key to the success. During its opening promotional period, diners were charged only HK$38 for an hour at the lunch buffet. Now the price stands at HK$58 per person for 60 minutes and HK$98 per head for 90 minutes at the dinner buffet.
Patrons tuck into a spread of 20 to 30 dishes of predominantly Asian fare, including local and Buddhist-style food, with a smattering of Western options such as salads and cakes for dessert. Most popular are the dim sum items, notably turnip cakes, spring rolls filled with mushroom and taro, and steamed tofu sheet rolls stuffed with vegetables.
"Young people are our target and some think vegetarianism is boring, but I want to show them that is not the case and there are so many meat-free food choices available," says Yeung.
Ahimsa Buffet's success perhaps reflects the latest phase of growth in vegetarianism in Hong Kong, particularly the boom in part-time meat-free diners. The venue attracts a varied clientele, with vegans, vegetarians and Buddhists but also many regular meat-eaters or so-called "flexitarians", Yeung says.
The young restaurateur, who started reducing his meat consumption three years ago, credits eco-friendly food and lifestyle event organisers such as Green Monday for propelling the casual vegetarian trend.
"This is a lifestyle trend as some people want to be healthier and they don't want to eat fast food with meat everyday. So from time to time they have vegetarian fare on weekdays then resume their regular diet on weekends," he says. Ahimsa's offer of plentiful, good value, plant-based food is a marked contrast to many other bland and overpriced vegetarian places that serve food in small portions. He's baffled by the high prices charged by some meat-free places. "Maybe the food is expensive because they operate on high profit margins," he says.
"I see Ahimsa Buffet less as a business and more like a community project," he says.
The restaurant hopes to share its concept of tasty and good value vegetarian cooking while spreading the ethos of love to all animals, hence its name, which means "compassion, or not to injure" in Sanskrit.
And when patrons go to the counter to pay before getting their teeth into the buffet, the staff recommend that they put on their plate only what they can eat so as to avoid any waste.