If ever there was a restaurant with a clear vision and sense of purpose, fueled by a passion for something greater than the restaurant itself, it’s Little Pine — an organic, vegan restaurant in the Silver Lake neighborhood of L.A. Little Pine was created and is overseen by Moby, well-known musician, environmentalist, and animal rights activist. What makes Little Pine a first of its kind is that 100% of its profits go to animal welfare organizations.
Last week, I had the opportunity to meet Moby at his restaurant. I used to live in Silver Lake and I remember the art deco building on Rowena Avenue that had then stood empty, so it was intriguing to see it transformed into a beautiful, inviting restaurant space and to be greeted by Moby himself, a personal hero of mine. When I arrived, Moby was writing the evening’s details on the chalkboard to be displayed outside the restaurant. Moments later, we were having a conversation about how Little Pine came about, the experience he hopes to provide for his guests, and how he made the decision to commit all proceeds to the animal rights movement to which he is so deeply committed.
Moby is in the unique position to essentially treat Little Pine as a nonprofit. Yet, his approach to creating a restaurant that embodies the cultural progress he hopes to see in the world can provide knowledge and inspiration for restaurants and the larger dining community, vegan and non-vegan.
A Restaurant As a Means for Change
Moby understands and is quick to admit that the restaurant business is not an easy one and that few can do to the same extent what he’s doing. However, he envisions a greater role for restaurants, which is precisely why he’s chosen this venture as a means for change.
“Any restaurant has the ability to make remarkable changes,” he says. “And sometimes when people own a restaurant, they forget that.”
Moby acknowledges that for most restaurants, changes can come from simple actions, such as merely treating people better or supporting local farms instead of big agri-business. “One of the things I really appreciate about restaurants is they’re a refuge for people,” he says. “It’s sometimes hard for me to remind everyone of that. This is a very real form of service. When someone comes in off the street, you have the ability to help them, to give them a place of refuge, even if it’s just for an hour. And I personally really like that aspect of it.”
While Moby does seem to be very hands-on and active within the restaurant, one thing he doesn’t overstate — and frankly remains quite humble about — is his role at Little Pine: “I don’t have to do anything, really. In terms of jobs, I quite literally don’t know how to do anything. I’m the least qualified person. I take pictures of cute animals and come in and complain when the music is bad.”
Little Pine As a Nonprofit
Moby plans to combine his personal giving with that of the restaurant, and once a year he will make donations to various organizations he’s supported through the years according to their need, notably: Mercy for Animals, The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, The Humane Society, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Compassion over Killing, PETA, and Farm Sanctuary.
I asked Moby how he came to the decision to put all profits toward this cause, and it’s clear he couldn’t be more committed to the venture.
“Simply because I could,” he says. “Because this isn’t my day job. By making this a 100% nonprofit, it enabled me to work harder on it, and to feel no guilt about it. It helps me make decisions more easily. 100% is just a simple number to get my head around.”
Little Pine opened in November of last year, and since February of this year it’s profitable. But there’s a catch—Moby’s not paying himself back for the money he put into the restaurant. He has no qualms about his decision, as he’d rather not delay the positive impact for the animals.
“Last month was our first profitable month. Granted, by about $800. And we’ve been open since November. That’s because I’m not paying myself back for anything. Every penny that’s been put into the restaurant, to me, is just a wash. Because I can’t in good conscience penalize animals for my bad business decisions. If I decide to buy expensive Herman Miller chairs, that’s my choice. I don’t want to make the animals pay for that. And if I’ve overpaid someone or if I’ve hired too many people, again I can’t amortize my stupidity over a cause that I care about.”
I wondered whether he noticed a difference with people coming into the restaurant, or among the broader community after his decision was announced. “Yeah, it affected people a lot,” he says. “Oftentimes people didn’t believe it because I don’t know if that really exists. There’s not a precedent for that. There was…this naïve disbelief. I think people love that idea. It’s also a nice thing to talk about when you’re in the restaurant.”
As restaurant owners know too well, critics can be harsh even when you’re still trying to find your stride as a new restaurant. Little Pine, on the other hand, seems to have been given a little more latitude because of its virtuous ambitions.
“As we’ve been figuring out how to run the restaurant, it has maybe given people a little more of a charitable disposition toward us when we f*ck up. If a dish comes out cold, or too late…We don’t use that as an excuse, but I feel like people have been a little kinder to us at times than what would be warranted at a normal restaurant.”
He also takes a very practical view toward his staff and whether they connect with the greater cause. “I have a feeling that for some of the people that work here, that’s a huge variable for them,” he says.
Moby sees an opportunity with his restaurant to share his passion for organic, vegan food, animal rights, and the environment. Yet, to hear Moby speak from the heart for his love of animals and with such knowledge of issues affecting our planet and human health, I realize his place in the world is actually more important than he might admit. Moby has been vegan for over 28 years, and his commitment to being an animal rights activist is deeply personal and representative of his own evolution.
“There’s this question of, ‘If you’re an activist, where do you put your time and resources?’ So every day I wake up thinking, or trying to think, what’s the best use of my time and resources as an activist?”
He refers to his approach as “sustainable activism,” as a counterpoint to animal agriculture and climate change. “Animal agriculture is, possibly, all things considered, one of the top one or two biggest disasters to befall the planet,” he says. “And it’s so easy to fix. So my veganism is sustained by my love for animals, but to a large extent, it’s also influenced by my desire to be an effective environmentalist and also someone who cares about humans.”
While he admits it’s easy to be daunted by the current state of the world, he’s instead chosen to focus on creating meaningful progress. He contrasts this focus to when he put out his album Everything Is Wrong and eventually realized it was his perspective that was defeating him, so he committed to figuring out how to help make things better.
“If I take a step back, and I think about the community around animal rights and animal welfare, and how it’s become a hybrid of entrepreneurs, activists, public figures…We’re all working toward the same thing. And it’s a very exciting movement to be a part of.”
He references the well-known Martin Luther King, Jr. quote — “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” — as he feels society is on the right trajectory and provides the opportunity to look to historical precedent for radical change. Gay marriage, civil rights, women’s rights — these are all movements he references to make the point that before progress happens, you assume the status quo will remain, but once it does happen, in hindsight it seems like an inevitability.
“Radical change can happen remarkably quickly,” says Moby. “The amazing thing about animal agriculture is it impacts so many things that eventually people are going to wake up. There are these easy fixes that thus far the vested status quo just haven’t figured it out. And it’s our job to get them to figure it out—strategically, and effectively, and unrelentingly. I think. At some point, we were convinced. So other people have to be convinced. We’re just the weird early adopters.”
There are strong parallels to be made among these seemingly disparate yet connected cultural movements. However, the animal rights movement, in particular, seems to be following a much longer arc, given how systemic the use of animals is in our food system, how government subsidies favor the mass produced and conventional over the sustainable and organic, and how many people are slow to adopt change even when it means better health for themselves and the planet. I asked Moby, why aren’t more people making the connection?
“I can only think of my own experience with that. If I look at it neurochemically, the brain makes immediate narratives around dopamine and serotonin. So if something feels good and it’s unthreatening, the brain creates a narrative around it that it has to be good. I think most people because they personally in the short term feel good about their diets, the brain can’t understand there would be anything wrong with that.
It’s almost as if, with your decision to become vegan, my decision to become vegan…it’s like our prefrontal cortex interrupted the circuitry and it almost asked us that question: ‘How can you love this thing and be involved in hurting it?’ And once you make that synaptic connection, it becomes really hard to step away from it.”
Restaurant & Food Experience First, Activism Second
Whereas Moby sees himself as an activist first, restaurateur second, he knows that he needs to take an inverse approach for Little Pine to be successful. Little Pine is, in fact, a 100% vegan restaurant, even down to the materials used in the space, which is comforting for vegans yet exposes non-vegans to his philosophy and approach. For people who choose to dine at Little Pine, it’s the great restaurant and food experience that comes first, which then allows people to arrive at their own conclusions and perhaps, to be inspired toward future change.
“In the animal rights world, there are so many ways to take our beliefs and present them to people,” he says. “But there’s something really effective about creating a three-dimensional brick-and-mortar space that’s a representation of your beliefs. And restaurants by definition, if they’re didactic they’re not going to work. So you have to almost rely on that old law of attraction as opposed to promotion.
“So you create a beautiful space, with an amazing wine list, phenomenal desserts, and people come in for that. At the same time, they’re being exposed to veganism. What seems to be very effective these days are the restaurants that are wonderful restaurants that just happen to be vegan. The restaurant first, vegan second. That was the goal here.”
“It’s that question of the information side and the action side. Personally, I’m a lot more comfortable with the information side. So I present [people] with the information and let them do with it as they will. Give them information and trust their process to do what’s right, ultimately.”
The Little Pine Experience
After we finished talking, I sat down to an early dinner at Little Pine. I wanted to experience it first hand, to see if it lived up to Moby’s intent and what we had been discussing earlier. Maybe I was a little biased, but the space, the fellow diners, and the staff all contributed to a warm, welcoming environment. I felt instantly at home, imagining Little Pine to be my go-to neighborhood joint if I still lived nearby.
As is typically the case for me when I’m in a fully vegan restaurant, I wanted to try just about everything on the menu, and thus proceeded to over-order and over-eat. But it was worth it. Moby wanted to know what I thought of the food. The housemade sausage and polenta and the warm cookies and milk definitely exceeded my expectations. I wasn’t alone in that sentiment. A guest at the table next to mine exclaimed to me, “I’m a proud meat eater, but that was the best damn chocolate chip cookie I’ve ever had!”
I spoke with one of the servers, Chris. He’s been with Little Pine since the beginning, and being vegan as well, he expressed gratitude for working at place that aligned with his values. It was interesting to see him guide guests through the menu, and one of them made a keen observation: “I love that they just call it what it is — mac and cheese, sausage, milk — no qualifiers, it just happens to be vegan.”
At another table, I witnessed someone reading the line of copy at the bottom of the menu and overheard her acknowledging, “Not many restaurants are making a statement like that.”
What Would Moby Do?
If Moby has anything to say about it, many more restaurants will make a statement about a cause for which they have a strong passion. Many, in fact, already do. How could even more restaurants build a core purpose and support of a cause into their operations and dining experience? And how could more people find their true passion and be able to align their work with their intended life’s legacy?
Of course, it’s easy for someone like Moby to forgo profits in the name of a cause he cares about. Yet, I do believe anyone can be inspired by his perspective and approach, even if at a much smaller scale.
Three takeaways from my time spent with Moby can bring inspiration for those wanting to work toward a greater purpose — whether in the restaurant community or not.
Find your point, and place, of inspiration. For Moby, it’s his love for animals and the environment, and that is fostered by his life in Los Angeles and a daily connection with nature.
“Any big city that’s progressive and cultural is a wonderful place. But there is, for whatever reason, a West Coast ethos. This idea of…’wake and make.’ You wake up and you want to make stuff. Also, for me, there are the two self-evident variables of climate and nature — being exposed to nature, things that humans haven’t made. Of course parts of L.A. are dystopian and bleak, although almost anywhere you go there’s always going to be something green growing. I personally find that really inspiring.”
Pursue what inherently makes you happy. When I asked Moby if he could summarize his life’s philosophy, he said:
“I don’t know if I can neatly sum it up. But what I can say is I spent a lot of my life pursuing things that didn’t bring me much satisfaction or joy. I thought that being a musician with a record deal was going to make me insanely happy. Or being a quasi-public figure. They’re not bad, but they didn’t inherently create happiness. So as time passed, I found myself admitting that things I was pursuing weren’t working. I took a step back and asked myself, ‘Well then, what does work?’ And it kept coming back to, for me, animals, disenfranchised people, and the environment. I don’t envy people who don’t have a passionate reason to wake up in the morning.”
Ask yourself the tough question. The animal rights cause is deeply personal for Moby, and it stands as something both within and outside of himself.
“It’s that question that no one wants to look at: ‘What would you die for?’ I simply love knowing that there’s a cause I would happily die for. If someone walked in off the street and said, ‘Oh, would you die to save a whole bunch of animals?’ Of course I would. Without a moment’s hesitation. Life is simply better caring about something outside of myself.”
Wise words and compelling sentiment from the one and only Moby. Thank you to Moby for his time and generosity.
Cort Cunningham leads brand marketing at OpenTable and is passionate about creating meaningful and purpose-driven brand programs. For Cort, there’s nothing better than a memorable vegan dining experience while he fights the good fight for animal rights and the environment. More of his perspective can be found at medium.com@cortlandj.