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Newcastle Herald
Newcastle Herald

Vego's pushes through pandemic and opens second restaurant

Mark Hughes from Vego's

When Mark Hughes jumped head-long into opening a business he had been thinking about for 20 years - a vegetarian fast food restaurant - he had not anticipated the arrival of a global pandemic.

Still, even though COVID hit Australia four months after Hughes opened Vego's on the corner of Maitland Road and Beaumont Street in Islington in late 2019, he and his business survived.

"I will stop short of saying COVID was good for us," he says, "but it was a great learning curve for it."

The most important element has always been the menu, based on Hughes' own recipes. It has been a process of experimentation and refinement, but with the recent opening of his second outlet, on the corner of the Pacific Highway and Smart Street in Charlestown, the favourites have a proven track record.

Vego's owner and founder Mark Hughes at his new Charlestown fast-food outlet. Pictures by Simone De Peak

They include Aussie Burger with soy patty, beetroot, pineapple, and lots more with potato bun ($15), Haloumi Burger ($14); Haloumi Wrap ($14) with grilled sliced halloumi covered in basil pesto with shredded lettuce, rocket, diced tomato, cucumber, grated carrot and vegan mayo on a flour tortilla; Pulled Jack Burger ($13) made from jackfruit; Sweet Chili Wrap ($14) vegan with quinoa and brown rice strips covered in sweet chilli sauce with charred pineapple, shredded lettuce, diced tomato, Spanish onion, cucumber& vegan mayo on a flour tortilla; Cheese Royale ($12), named after the burger in Pulp Fiction, with soy patty, chipotle pickle, fried onion, American mustard; the very popular Vegan Burrito ($14), Arancini ($12) made from pumpkin risotto and deep fried; Cornbread with vegan chili butter ($5) and Churros ($5 for four sticks).

"Nobody does the range of food, with arancini, cornbread, wraps, we do in this space at this price point," Hughes says.

One of the early favourites left by the wayside, for now, is gozleme - it just takes too long to prepare.

As international trends toward vegan diets have continued unabated for decades, the high cost of meat and a renewed sense of health consciousness among middle-age people have also seen more customers coming through Vego's doors.

Pumpkin arancini and mozzarella sticks dipped in sriracha mayo from Vego's.

Some of the reasons for his success are definitely home-grown, like his work ethic and his recipes. And his family is in support as well, from his wife making the gluten-free cornbread on the menu, to his 12-year-old daughter assisting with Vego's Tik Tok social media account (dancing employees in uniform) to his two sons, TJ and Nash, who helped him with construction of the interiors and still work in the business.

The best location possible, with high visibility and heavy passing traffic, has also contributed to Vego's success.

"With 20 or 30 people waiting outside our service window, it drew street traffic attention," Hughes notes of trading through COVID at his first restaurant in Islington. "So it was good for us in that way."

"Islington has a vibe, it's teeming with people," Hughes says. It has a tradition of local foot traffic, shoppers and a nearby bus stop for people walking from the train station who are heading to Nelson Bay.

He had his eye on the Charlestown location for months, and took the lease several months before he was ready to trade there, knowing it was a high-traffic location.

Hughes' own youthful vibe and can-do attitude is reflected in his labor pool: he has no shortage of employees, which is unheard of in today's post-pandemic environment.

"I've been inundated with resumes of young kids who want to work with us," he says. "It's because of the product, and the work environment. We have the music on - they chose. They have a range of freedom. And a lot of responsibility.

Aussie burger with sweet potato fries from Vego's.

"Within six months they are cooking, doing the register, it's not limited to one job. It's a very fluid environment... Everyone learns everything.

"The kids today are all smart. They can do all these things."

Vego's. Open Monday 11am-3pm, Tuesday through Sunday 11am-7pm, open until 8pm on Friday and Saturday. 82 Maitland Road, Islington, and 178 Pacific Highway, Charlestown.

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