This Guy Is Trying to Break Hong Kong’s Meat Addiction
David Yeung believes that meat is the new tobacco. But the long-time vegetarian and practicing Buddhist won’t try to get you to stop eating meat. He just wants you to consider eating less.
That’s what he’s trying to do with the citizens of Hong Kong, who collectively have the highest per-capita meat and seafood consumption in the world, according to a 2015 study by Euromonitor. (Surprising, right? We’ll give you a moment to digest.) His life’s mission is to get the citizens of our planet—particularly his home city—to cut out eating animals at least one day a week. And it’s working: Menus inspired by his “Green Monday” philosophy appear in hundreds of restaurants across Hong Kong, and at schools and universities around the world.
Making “Meat-Free” Cool
Though Yeung grew up in Hong Kong, he spent over a decade living in New York. When he was 16, his family moved to nearby New Jersey to be closer to the fashion industry. His father was one of the four founders of the global clothing company Tommy Bahama. Yeung graduated from Columbia University in 1998 with a degree in engineering, spent a few years consulting for PwC and then launched a software startup (now defunct). He grew up eating meat, but in 2001 he dove into Buddhist philosophy, a core tenet of which is the truth of suffering. It wasn’t a big leap for Yeung to go from looking inward to looking outward, and he quickly concluded that by changing his diet he could stop the suffering of animals.
Shortly before moving back to Hong Kong, he read about Meatless Monday, a campaign that urged Americans to take one day each week off from eating meat. “I thought the word meatless was not the best choice. People aren’t going to say, ‘Oh, today let’s go meatless,’” he said. He also figured that regardless of language, ethnicity, geography and gender, "green" was a universally known word. "Monday," too. “These have to be two of the top 50 words that people around the world learn,” said Yeung. So he made it positive and actionable: "Green Monday."
Today, you can find Green Monday vegetarian menus offered at hundreds of restaurants around Hong Kong. It’s incorporated into the food service at over 600 universities in 31 countries, 84 of them in the U.S., including Yeung’s alma mater. You’ll find Green Monday menus at several hotel chains and even at Bon Appétit Management Co., which is best known for managing Google’s dining empire. The one thing he insists on when he signs up new partners is that they don’t remove meat entirely from the menu. This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s a mind shift. “If you completely remove choices for people, that’s when you get a backlash,” he said.
These small but important partnerships provide the foundational arm of Yeung’s Green Monday empire with helpful branding to grow its name recognition; to date, it works with more than 2,000 schools. As a mission-based entrepreneur, he makes it an integral part of his social-impact goals, which Yeung defines as bringing a triple-bottom-line to his organization: His work is good for the business, the community and the environment.
Launching the Future Burger
After several successful years promoting Green Monday, Yeung opened the world’s first plant-based retail store in 2015. Think 7-11 (grab-n-go food) meets Muji (clean, functional design) meets Hello Kitty café (fun). He named it Green Common. It was a place for people to eat delicious vegetarian food that riffs on Chinese classics—such as Hainan Chicken, minus the bird—and then take home the newest plant-based groceries. There are non-edible items too, including reusable water bottles, green cleaning products, skincare, cookbooks and vegetable growing kits. In addition to investing in plant-based products, Yeung has become the distributor of choice for American brands that want to break into the Asian market, such as Follow Your Heart, Daiya, Califia Farms, Gardein, and Miyoko’s Creamery. Today, there are four locations, all in iconic Hong Kong retail spots including Harbour City Mall and Landmark Alexandra House.
What Yeung is most excited about is the April launch of the Beyond Meat burger—a pea-protein, plant-based burger that looks like meat (the pink hue on the inside comes from beets) and tastes like meat. (Really.) Sales are already more than double the projections, a great sign for its broader acceptance. As an investor in the U.S. startup, Yeung has become one of its biggest advocates. “He has been enormously supportive of our brand,” said Ethan Brown, chief executive officer of Beyond Meat and a fellow plant champion. Brown had wanted to expand into the international market, but he needed the right partner. “It was an easy decision to make,” said Brown. “He handles all the marketing and distribution, and he’s positioned the burger in the only way that someone that lives [in Hong Kong] could do.” The one tricky piece was naming the dish. Because there is no word for ‘beyond’ in Cantonese, Yeung calls it the “future burger.” For the entrepreneur, the burger was from the future and for the future.
Planting the Seed
Yeung’s journey towards social entrepreneurship wouldn’t have gone anywhere without two key figures. One of them is Green Monday co-founder Francis Ngai, a local investor who previously founded Social Ventures Hong Kong, a philanthropic venture fund that invests in social mission-based startups that work to address urban challenges such as wealth discrepancy, handicap accessibility and elderly issues in Hong Kong. The two shared a diet and a cause. “We would have lunch for hours and talk about ideas to change the world,” said Yeung. At one of those lunches, Ngai said, “David, is there anything we can do with food that is social?” Yeung put down his chopsticks and said, “Duh.”
At the time, all that the two vegetarians could order were beef noodles—and then ask the server to hold the beef. “But they charge you the same, and they give you that look,” recalled Yeung. The look that says you are giving them trouble.
The other influence was Yeung’s father, who oversaw the manufacturing side of Tommy Bahama before it sold for $325 million in 2003. In living the Buddhist philosophy—an awareness of those less fortunate—Yeung’s father gave a good deal of his income to charity. These two men inspired Yeung to create his for-profit business, along with his charitable foundation. The third piece of his plant-forward company is a venture fund that focuses on impact investments. Green Monday Ventures pilot fund invested in Beyond Meat, and its second fund invested in Perfect Day, a cellular agriculture company making dairy from cell culture; Lighter, which provides meal-planning technology and services; and other food-tech startups.
For the Future
It may be hard to keep track of all of Yeung’s efforts, but it’s clear that his outreach has, in some way, nudged his fellow Hong Kongers toward a more sustainable lifestyle. PizzaExpress, a U.K.-based chain with over 20 stores in Hong Kong, has experienced double-digit growth in its vegetarian menu sales on Mondays, and it sees a halo effect on other days. Said Liam Collette, the general manager of PizzaExpress for Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates and Singapore, "We have more than doubled the people eating vegetarian [menu items] on Monday, but we have also had a sustained uplift of overall customers on Mondays. I see this a success for us and for customers." A third-party study of over 1,000 people, sponsored by Green Monday, found that before the launch, only 5 percent of the autonomous territory’s more than 7 million inhabitants had a goal of adjusting their consumption. Today, 22 percent of Hong Kong's inhabitants report practicing some form of plant-based diet. Other signs? In 2013, Hong Kong had only 130 vegetarian restaurants, and today there are close to 250. Financially, Yeung is on track, too. Revenue for the entire organization, including retail and wholesale, should fall somewhere in the $10 million to $12 million range.
Yeung’s next target, after Hong Kong? Mainland China. “The food industry is going through a lot of change,” he said, undaunted by the scope of this challenge. “We are exactly at a point where disruption is due.”