The town, the location, the cuisine… ONA seemed to accumulate obstacles from the very start. A year later the only gourmet vegan restaurant in France is always full..
“Delighted”, “a cascade of flavors”, “perfect”, “a real surprise, off the beaten path”. You only have to take a look on Trip Advisor to realize the impact that the opening of a gourmet and vegan restaurant had in Arès. Businesswoman, owner and chef, committed activist, Claire Vallée tells us about her adventure.
Tucked away in a little side street, people are attracted to ONA. Once in front, and inside, everything seems obvious. Light is everywhere, color too. The eye is quickly drawn to a large blackboard on the left wall, which watches over the kitchen pass. This blackboard shows all the organic and local suppliers, from the coffee roaster to the fruit and veg producer with names and addresses.
Though very simple, the decoration is inventive, but it is the plant wall that immediately pleases the eye, just like the wooden terrace and the herb garden that can be seen at the bottom. It makes us wish summer were already here. “I knew it would be here, and nowhere else” says Chef Claire Vallée. It was clear… When you have chosen, fought for and defended with so much energy and conviction your desire to open your own vegan restaurant, and to make it a place with top-level gastronomic and ecological expectations, and more, to open it here, on the Arcachon Basin, not in Cap Ferret (which is more upmarket) or in Andernos (which is more city-like), then the location, Arès, is no longer such a surprise. Just another challenge. But what a challenge, when you know that in France, gourmet and 100% vegan restaurants can be counted on the fingers of one hand!
Caught mid-rush, Claire Vallée is very busy in the middle of all the overturned tables, their legs up in the air. There is just enough time to sit down for an interview, to reminisce about the past two crazy years. It all started with the association Nord Bassin Transition, her first few tasting workshops serving as experiments, and the idea rooted deep inside her that slowly became a certainty: this is where I have to take the plunge. “I came to the Basin by chance, to work as a chef in the restaurant “Le Saint Eloi”. I love nature, I had made friends, created networks and I couldn’t picture myself starting over from scratch somewhere else.”
Time proved her right. Because could she have withstood the reluctance, and the refusals of all the traditional banks she had contacted without being surrounded by friends? Thanks to an honor loan from “Initiatives Gironde”, a loan from NEF (a sort of ethical bank), the financial support from “Initiatives France” for the social and ecological ethics side of her business, a spectacular and unheard-of on the Basin crowd funding campaign with the assistance from the CCI (10 000 EUR in two months with 126 contributors!) and a shareholder, the project was launched. “Without enough money to complete all the renovation works, we asked for help on Facebook. With word of mouth we ended up with 80 volunteers! Thanks to this great human chain, and the free help of craftsmen from different trades, we opened on October 22nd! I didn’t think so many people would mobilize. People like the idea. Some were just passing in the street and offered to help us. So it created ties between us and it became a bit their restaurant too!”
A year later, all the lights are green. The projected turnover has been tripled. Whether at lunchtime or dinnertime, ONA is full. “I knew it was going to work, said Claire, but not this well. The comments, the local and international press, the social media are all very positive. We are here to respect our customers, to bring them something different and meaningful, and this has been understood by everyone.” From the youngest to the oldest, vegan or not at all, local or from the other end of the country, like these Parisians and Niçois who came specifically for ONA, the customer base overcomes all preconceived notions or fashion trends. “In fact, customers tell us they come first and foremost because it’s beautiful and delicious, rather than for a vegan commitment. Vegan cuisine is not necessarily seeds and a sad, bland dish. With us there is no loss of taste or aesthetics with vegan cuisine, quite the contrary.” This quality is recognized by Gault&Millau who awarded ONA the highly coveted two “Toques” in the spring, giving ONA the same recognition as Chef Etchebest’s “Quatrième Mur” or as “La Cape” in Cenon…