Meet the Lewes cafe owner fighting food waste and supporting those who are homeless

Soul Soup owner Maya Clark. Photograph: Peter Cripps/ SUS-190110-220229008
Soul Soup owner Maya Clark. Photograph: Peter Cripps/ SUS-190110-220229008

For Maya Clark there are three qualities key to her purpose-before-profit cafe Soul Soup.

“In every facet of the business we are trying to be sustainable, zero-waste and inclusive,” she says.

Food at Soul Soup cafe, in Lewes. Photograph: Peter Cripps/ SUS-190110-220119008

Food at Soul Soup cafe, in Lewes. Photograph: Peter Cripps/ SUS-190110-220119008

The 26-year-old launched the social enterprise in the Unity Centre, in Lewes, in September.

Working with organisations FareShare Sussex and UK Harvest, and through partnerships with allotments and small businesses, Maya uses produce destined for landfill to create affordable, plant-based dishes.

“That produce is often local, organic, plastic-free,” she says.

She adds: “It’s funny. Even though it is rescued food and waste food it’s often fresher than the food that’s in the supermarket because we get it before it goes to the supermarket.”

Inside Soul Soup cafe, in The Unity Centre, in Lewes. Photograph: 'Peter Cripps/ SUS-190110-220142008

Inside Soul Soup cafe, in The Unity Centre, in Lewes. Photograph: 'Peter Cripps/ SUS-190110-220142008

Maya, who moved to Brighton from Sligo, in Ireland, two years ago, says Soul Soup ‘started as a dream’ when she became vegan.

“Roughly a third of all food produced ends up in landfill. If food was a country it would be the largest emitter of carbon dioxide so it’s a huge problem for the environment as well as on a social level where here, even in the developed UK, a lot of people struggle to afford nutritious, affordable food for their families, and at the same time we’re wasting astronomical amounts of food.

“It was learning about the impact our diets have on our health and on the environment that the idea came about,” she explains.

She began running the start-up at markets in and around Brighton and Hove and catering for networking events and at yoga retreats.

Food at the Soul Soup cafe, in Lewes. Photograph: Peter Cripps/ SUS-190110-220252008

Food at the Soul Soup cafe, in Lewes. Photograph: Peter Cripps/ SUS-190110-220252008

Then she heard about the Unity Centre – the not-for-profit well-being space in what was Lewes’ former Turkish Baths.

With the help of a £3,000 Kickstarter campaign (that beat its target by more than £500) the permanent cafe space became a reality.

“Everything is designed to be inclusive to the whole community in terms of ability and affordability, so that was really great to find a place that was closely in line with our ethos as a business as well,” she says on the centre.

Maya, who has more than eight years’ experience in the hospitality industry, including working at Brighton’s vegetarian restaurant Food for Friends and vegan sushi business Happy Maki, says ‘pretty much on every level food waste occurs’.

“A lot of people think that food waste is related to wonky veg, or fruit and veg that doesn’t look perfect – that’s definitely a part of it but it’s a really, really small part of it.

“A lot of it is to do with the contracts the supermarkets have with the farms wherein the farms are only allowed to sell the produce to supermakets, so if the supermarket doesn’t want, for example, all of their crop of seed potatoes that week the farm have no other option but to put it straight to landfill basically because they’re not allowed to sell it to anyone else,” she explains.

“So there’s things like that – the contracts, the power that the supermarkets have, things about our idea of quality standards – ‘Does it look perfect?’ – plays into it, mis-management of stock ordering is a huge thing as well.”

While the menu at Soup Soup changes daily depending on the produce sourced, there are always two or three breakfast options and four lunch choices, including a soup of the day and a vegan omelette.

Breakfast starts from £3 and lunch from £3.50.

Choices so far have included bagels with scrambled tofu and carrot lox; tahini, banana and vegan honey on toast; corn fritters with salsa; mushroom lasagne; chickpea stew; and asparagus quiche with rye and linseed pastry.

Counter-top offerings have also included cakes (think coconut and yoghurt) and energy balls.

“The focus is on affordable, healthy food,” says Maya.

“We notice that, yes, veganism has really grown but it’s kind of grown in the direction of a lot of vegan junk food and not so much a lot of affordable, kind of healthy, vegan food, which is a lttle ironic,” she laughs.

“I guess the idea was to show people that ‘don’t worry you can still eat pizzas and ice creams and burgers if you’re vegan’ but now I feel like we’ve moved on from that point and we need like sustainable vegan food that’s good for us and good for the planet.”

She adds: “We do classic food – dishes that people know and like – but veganised and healthy.”

In line with its zero-waste model, any food waste is composted and leftover food and surplus produce is donated to the charity Lewes Open Door, which supports those who are homeless and vulnerable in the community.

The cafe also operates a ‘pay it forward’ form of loyalty card, which once fully stamped means the customer can choose a meal or food item to give to the charity to distribute to those in need.

Since opening, Soul Soup has donated at least 80 meals.

Maya says the business is ‘going really well’ with ‘loads of repeat customers’.

“We’ve been blown away at how receptive everybody is to the mission to fight food waste.

“And how many non-vegan customers eat here is so important to us. I would suggest that the vast majority of our customers aren’t even vegetarian. They just come because it’s healthy, affordable food.”

Soul soup is open from 10.30am to 6pm Monday to Friday and 9am to 5pm on Saturdays. For more information, see www.soulsoup.cafe