Sleek dining for plant-based meals has become relatively the norm in U.S. cities, but the trend is still gaining momentum in Europe where vegetarian food once relegated to hippie establishments is playing a larger role in mainstream dining.
— Samantha Shankman
Flax & Kale is one of Barcelona’s trendiest vegetarian restaurants, but the family behind the plant-based brand is committed to the roots of health and building long-lasting a business based on family values.
A pioneer in vegetarian cuisine, Teresa Carles opened her first vegetarian restaurant in rural Catalunya in 1979 sparking an evolution in Spain’s meat-focused dining scene long before cultural acceptance of vegetarianism began shift. And while Carles herself was the first to adapt traditional Catalan cuisine for a more nutritional approach, it was the involvement of her family that’s grown the Teresa Carles empire into what it is today.
Currently clocking in with seven storefronts in and a newly opened research and development center, the Teresa Carles team have tapped into every global restaurant concept including traditional menu-based restaurants, juice shops, fast-casual takeaways and sophisticated dining. They’ve also harnessed the power of social media to land on every tourists’ must-visit list and partner with global brands including H&M.
Sitting in the newly opened Flax & Kale’s kombucha chamber late last year, Teresa as well as her son and company CEO Jordi Carles shared their story with Skift Table.
The original Teresa Carles opened in 1979 in the Catalan province of Lleida where snails and meat are the most typical dish. Neighbors doubted the new restaurant, which put vegetables at the center of the plate, would last more than eight months. Teresa saw it as the future.
Fast forward to 2010. Teresa’s son Jordi was traveling around the world while working in marketing for Kraft Foods, when he noticed products he had grown up around in his mother’s restaurant were making headline news.
“I was watching the boom of kale and superfoods, this big new trend around healthy food, and I wondered why so much was happening at that moment.”
Jordi arrived back in Catalunya armed with what he saw in the American market and an idea on how to adapt it for his hometown.
“I didn’t want to change Teresa Carles because it was a beloved brand with 35 years experience, but I told the family let’s try to innovate and do something different.”
The second Teresa Carles location with a traditional menu format opened in Barcelona in 2012 followed by Flax&Kale, which integrated all of trends Jordi had seen in the U.S.: Cold-pressed juicing, gluten-free vegan pastries, superfoods, and fresh nut milks.
“Flax and Kale depends on the hype and innovation about healthy food. Everybody is doing avocado toast and cold-press juices and superfoods — that would be the opportunistic way of doing things. But we saw all the trends and the market for serving athletes, models, businesspeople, healthy conscious-oriented people high-quality food in Barcelona,” explained Jordi.
“I wanted to create a brand where they can find the best healthy options.”
Since then, the company has opened a juice shop, a grab&go takeaway shop, and a second Flax&Kale — this time designing the space for an evening as well as daytime audience. The restaurants’ hip accents are better suited for a nightclub than cleanse center and patrons sit side by side sipping coffee, juice, or wine into the late afternoon.
Global Trends Distilled
Before opening the new Flax & Kale, the Teresa Carles team took a three-week journey through nine major cities in seven countries. They drew inspiration from markets and restaurants in Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh, Sydney, Melbourne, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
“There is a lot happening in America and of course Mediterranean cuisine is super healthy, but I am super motivated to explore Asia. Especially South Korea and Japan.
Out of their world tour, they found a global desire for fermented foods, resulting in research of more than 300 types of fermentation as well as an illustration exhibiting the most interesting fermented foods on Flax & Kale’s wall. They also spent three months perfecting a Napoli-style gluten-free pizza crust.
“The magic comes when you do a lot of research,” said Carles.
The customer base for all of Teresa Carles’ shops is comprised equally of tourists and locals, which became even more important after political tensions put Catalunya in the international news earlier this year.
“After all the political tension and the terrorist attack, there’s been a decrease in tourists but the restaurant is still doing well because locals still come in,” explained Carles.
“The client is very diverse and it is not a question of tourist or local, but of whether they have some consciousness around what they’re eating.”
Collaborations Vs. Home-Grown Innovation
Collaborations are an exciting though timely venture for the growing brand.
When H&M came to Barcelona, setting up a flagship store directly across from Zara on Passeig de Gracia, they wanted to offer customers something more than shopping. Consumers overwhelmingly agreed food or coffee would be the best addition and H&M, aligning itself with a more sustainable lifestyle, reached out.
Carles accepted H&M’s proposal on the grounds that the could operate their own brand. “I really like all the co-branding and collaborations. I’ve seen really weird collaborations, especially in fashion where everything is mixing, but it is working,” explained Carles.
“We’re very lucky because a lot of brands propose collaboration — more than we can actually do right now. We select the ones that we think will work properly.”
More than collaborations, however, Carles is focused on investing in team and talent.
The company recently invested $8.2 million (€7 million) in opening a 20,000 square meter R&D center in Lleida, which Carles envisions becoming a center for healthy food operations for all of Spain or even Europe.
The new center will be used to not only produce all the gluten-free vegan baked goods and juices for the individual storefronts, but also as a homebase for Teresa Carles’ upcoming retail lines.
“We’re going to continue growing in hospitality services, but one of the main strategies for the group is to start packaging some of the food and sell it at retailers. That’s the next thing,” said Carles.
Kombucha is already considered mainstream in the United States, but is still making its way into the Europe market. And there are no major kombucha brands in Spain.
Kombuchas as well as dehydrated crackers will be among the first products for the new line.
Looking towards the future, the team is currently looking at Madrid or Palma de Mallorca for expansion outside of Barcelona.