Arapina’s Michaela Pontiki shares how to boss sustainable business
Michaela Pontiki has her hands full: from opening a vegetarian and vegan bakery with gluten-free pastry options, to public speaking on business in today’s world AND sustainable business mentoring, it’s safe to say we had some burning questions for her!
V-Land UK (V-L): Our wish is to inspire any readers out there who align with your motto, “Your wellbeing is my business”. Can we start by asking what you mean by this?
Michaela Pontiki (MP): I’m here to add value to your life to be honest with you. I feel I’m here to look after my clients and my staff. When I talk about wellness, I don’t mean only food. Arapina stands for a lot more than that. We have practices in our employment and our bakery that I don’t think are necessarily being followed in hospitality. We do yoga sessions, and our success isn’t measured by numbers or achieving targets. It’s by asking, “How do you feel in the company?”
That happens internally and externally, we are more about eating well, feeling relaxed within our establishments, being looked after, offering you choices and options when you walk into the bakery, being inclusive, being loved, and being entertained. I wanted a happy, light environment, so people feel welcomed. We don’t shout names when we make your coffee, we aren’t sweeping around you when it’s time to close. I think that’s all part of creating a positive atmosphere.
V-L: Some of the V-Land team have been very lucky to have tried the delightful items on Arapina’s menu! Tell us, what inspired the curation of the wonderful selection that customers can now enjoy?
MP: I come from Greece, so I have a pool of vegan dishes at hand. Whether it is religion or lifestyle, our food is primarily plant-based. Lots of olive oil, not so much meat or heavier options like fried foods. The weather is quite nice, so people tend to eat light vegetable-based meals like salads. I found it extremely easy back in the day, when I started developing our menu, to access a number of recipes; I didn’t have to reinvent. It was simply adjusting products into something that an English clientele would enjoy. We have always been open to opinions and receptive to what people want. With that in mind, we have definitely taken these things on board.
I also need to say that we now have a big team of amazing chefs who listen to each other’s ideas and how we can best serve our customers. You will only do your trade justice if you are really opening up and hearing what people have to say: inquiring about what they would like to see on our menu; how we could improve and most importantly what would put a smile on their face.
That’s what we are here to do, and I hope we achieve this.
V-L: Have you got a personal favourite on the menu?
MP: I always steal a mushroom roll on my way to the office! There’s always one less in every count that we make! You know my surname is ‘Pontíki’, which means ‘mouse’ in Greek, so there’s definitely a greedy mouse walking around the kitchen! I think our mushroom roll is one of the best. Having said that, our cinnamon brioche is so popular, and our croissants are out of this world. But for me, I’m just not into sweet flavours; therefore it’s definitely the mushroom roll for me.
V-L: As a vegan of 7 years, then pescatarian with egg, gluten and dairy intolerances, what advice would you give to similar individuals out there that you would have liked to have known yourself?
MP: What I’d like to say to people nowadays, is that I think the world has opened up and everyone should accept themselves for what they are. There should be no judgement in whatever food choices you are deciding to make in this life. You shouldn’t feel bad or have a problem discussing them. I think your nutrition is a personal thing. As someone with all these intolerances, my food and my choices are a personal matter and nobody should be bullied, judged or pushed into a corner about what they choose to eat. I’m a strong believer of that. We must take into account that up until very recent years vegans were perceived to be the weird ones. I think this is so unfair and unjust. It’s good that the world is changing and we can be who we want to be. Not just on a personality level, but in our lifestyles too.
VL: You host a radio show called Bread & Butter on East London Radio, where you chat with professionals in the UK industry. Who was your most interesting guest to date, and why?
MP: I’ve had many beautiful souls that sat down and discussed business, veganism and new products launching on the market. I’ve learned a lot from people in hospitality and I hope our listeners do too. I would say it was interesting to chat with a CEO of a cloud-based company that specialises in hospitality scheduling. The reason being I usually found businesses like this quite dry. It’s all computers, numbers or programming and I can’t force myself to find that exciting even though the outcome is always amazing! I love baking, getting dirty, smelling and tasting, so I can find them a bit clinical.
But this company discussed everything related to food, researching what the choices of the next generation are going to be and how hospitality is evolving. Having platforms like this can help businesses function and get organised through forecasted trends. All that research takes so much effort, and I don’t think people realise how much we take data like this for granted. So, I was originally thinking, “Oh no, what are we going to talk about!? Just talk to me about herbs, spices and dough!” But I highly respect their effort to stay relative to what they are doing. It's admirable, to say the least.
V-L: Ethics play a huge role in your personal life and career as a businesswoman. You practise compassionate leadership skills, meaningful employment and believe in “choosing the people you work with”. Tell us why this is important to you?
MP: I know this sounds ‘out there’, but I think we are put on this Earth to provide a service for the higher good of all. This may sound difficult for the older generation of business people to believe what I’m saying, but I practise spirituality and business together. These ‘let’s go’, targeted-driven, ‘kick-ass’, male-orientated business people are ‘out’ to be honest with you. I can’t go to bed if I haven’t felt I’ve done the very best I can for my people and my clients. It is very important to me what people will say at the end of my life. What I’d like them to say is not that she was a “smart, amazing businesswoman”. But a “really nice person”, “tried her very best” and “compassionate”. If that comes with financial success then that’s great. But if not, it doesn’t matter because people felt this way about me.
I think this world is becoming more challenging and people should, in their own way, question how we lead and how our relationships form with employees. Who do I want to be talking to every day when I go to work? I employ people, not professionals. I make them professionals through opportunities and a deep-rooted company culture that pays attention to the individual’s needs. This is at the heart of everything we do at Arapina. Eventually, you see that in the products, the service and the turnaround of my employment, which is really low. In return, we have a really good business model with amazing products and happy customers!
VL: Arapina won the 2019 M&A Today Global Award for ‘Best Healthy Food and Beverage Supplier in London’, only two years after its inception! What did this mean for you, going from home-baking and selling at markets in London to opening your own premises?
MP: Every step of the way has led to this dream coming true. So many people said, “You aren’t going to make it”, “You spend too much money”, “You should do English breakfasts for a fiver selling sausages”, “Forget about veganism”, “You are never going to be able to scale it up”. It’s not about proving them wrong. It’s proving to myself that the world that exists in my mind can become a reality. This has been the biggest achievement ever. Not having rich friends, millions of pounds or twenty cars. It’s been one hell of a ride, but worth it. Every award and accolade we have humbly received, including being voted one of the Financial Times Top 5 Best Free-from Bakeries in London has been incredible!
V-L: Michaela, thank you so much for sharing your insights with our readers. It has been a joy to discuss your business journey and all things ethical with you. Before you go, what do you hope to see for the future of sustainable business management and veganism?
MP: I want to see a change of mindset. Moving from animal farming and eating meat to veganism. That was one big step which people like us have achieved!
Also, I’d like to see CEOs and management truly putting at the core of what they do, sustainable practices and leading to form a business that serves this purpose. There is obviously veganism/vegetarianism and sustainable packaging, but I want to enhance this and aim for the goal of zero carbon emissions. I hope for quality food, quality leading and improving people’s lives. This needs to be the core focus for businesses moving forward, so future generations can inherit a healthier planet.
Arapina is not the only vegan bakery out there teasing our taste buds. We spoke with another amazing entrepreneur Luzolo Ntima, founder of the Heavenly Cake Co: Find out how she opened the first vegan bakery in the UK!