Vegetarians in Paradise proudly presents its 24 Carrot Award to Eric Brent and Diana Hsieh for their work on HappyCow, the premiere website for finding vegetarian places to eat around the world. Founded in 1999, HappyCow now lists over 7000 vegetarian dining establishments in addition to health food stores and farmers' markets. This popular website maintains a community forum, publishes a MooZine e-newsletter, offers health and nutrition information, recommends cookbooks, links to numerous vegetarian travel sites, and even throws in some humor and wisdom.
What follows are the questions asked by Vegetarians in Paradise (VIP) and the answers by Eric Brent (EB).
VIP: Could you briefly tell us the events surrounding the founding of HappyCow? What's the story behind that name?
EB: I had traveled extensively for most of my young adult life until a few years ago when I finally settled down and began to dedicate myself full time to the HappyCow.Net Vegetarian Guide website.
In the year 1999 while I was living in India, I was inspired to do something creative to help other traveling vegetarians like myself to find vegetarian food and health food while on the road.
At that time, there was only one internet website that had a guide to veggie restaurants, but it was no longer being updated. I had tried to contact the owner of that website but did not receive any replies. So I felt compelled to take on the HappyCow project as a hobby and a service. I was really moved by the idea that through an internet portal I could promote vegetarianism and have the capability to help other vegetarians and vegans worldwide find veggie restaurants and health food.
The name, HappyCow, came to me while thinking about all the farmed cows I had seen off the side of a Northern California freeway during my college years. It was obvious to me that the cows were living in terrible conditions, kept as commodities to be slaughtered and sold for food. I thought to myself that if human beings did not eat cows, that kind of situation wouldn't exit for the cows and they would be happy living out their lives wildly and naturally (or, perhaps, most of them wouldn't have been bred to exist in the first place). To me, the name "HappyCow" had a nice sound and seemed better than "HappyAnimals" or "HappyChicken."
VIP: In what ways has the website changed since its inception? How has the staff changed over the years?
EB: The HappyCow.Net website has evolved dramatically since its inception in late 1999. In the first 4 years, my then partner, Irene, and I were the only people responsible for the maintenance and updates, and the site went through periods of little growth and improvement as we were traveling extensively and didn't have time for the site. Additionally, the fact that I had very limited experience in website designing made it a challenge. The initial version of HappyCow.Net was "hard-code" html with over 1,000 static pages, which was a ton of work when it came to making updates. Around 2002, my friend, Scott, helped convert HappyCow to dynamic code, and since then things have improved tremendously.
The time after I met my life partner, Diana, is when the site really started to grow (that was 2004). At first, Diana volunteered only a couple hours each week. But now, she assists me with site listing updates, some creative direction, a little bit of P/R and outreach, and responding to the endless emails that would arrive in our inbox each day.
In the past few years we've also hired website programmers to help update the "backend" technical aspects of the site. Many of these points are not immediately evident to someone browsing the site.
We also have had many wonderful volunteers from various parts of the world who have contributed (some who continue to contribute) to different aspects of the site including programming, outreach, editing, creative input, and writing articles. Our dedicated volunteers are the people who give us the honest and constructive feedback.
VIP: What are some of the key features people can find at HappyCow?
EB: First and foremost, people come to HappyCow to use our guide to veggie restaurants and health food stores that currently has over 7,300 constantly updated listings that cover 99 countries. Additionally, visitors to HappyCow will find other useful features such as:
VIP: How does HappyCow sustain itself financially?
EB: For the first several years, I had funded the HappyCow.Net site privately out-of-pocket. I had my "day jobs," but I really felt the drive to keep the website going for as along as I could. So I worked on HappyCow in my spare time.
In the last couple years with Diana's help we have expanded the site and created space for advertising opportunities for vegetarian friendly companies, and that has generated some income to help us cover the basic costs of website hosting, programmers, etc. We welcome all animal friendly and vegetarian friendly companies to showcase their products/services.
All of the restaurant and health food store listings on HappyCow.Net are free -- there is no charge, and anyone can submit a listing. A small group of listed business owners offer their support with a small money contribution each year. We call these listings "Friends" and give them more exposure. In essence, it's their acknowledgement of HappyCow that keeps us inspired and glad to be doing what we are doing. It's special and fun to hear restaurant owners say, "We get people coming in saying that they found us on HappyCow," and "Keep up the good work."
Once in a while, a site visitor will send us a money contribution, and for that we are also grateful. It's nice to know that people out there appreciate our little vegetarian website.
Both Diana and I still have our other part-time jobs, but we dedicate a big chunk of our time to keep HappyCow up-to-date and running.
VIP: What are some of the significant highlights in the history of HappyCow?
EB: The launch of the site is definitely one significant highlight. Other than that, perhaps:
In 2005, HappyCow co-sponsored "A Vegan World is Possible" essay contest with The Blossoming Lotus Restaurant. Two selected winners were awarded a paid trip to Hawaii and free gourmet vegan food.
In 2006, HappyCow won the Veggie Awards vote for "Favorite Online Travel Resource" and also received a Webby Award for "Best Restaurant Finder."
But most significantly is encountering people who tell us that they use HappyCow to plan their trips. We've met travelers in Prague, Thailand, Los Angeles, other places we've visited who say in such surprise, "YOU are THE HappyCow? I use you all the time!" That is very flattering and humbling and fun. We've become friends with some of our visitors, actually.
VIP: How does HappyCow keep its information current?
EB: People all over the world, vegetarians and non-vegetarians, send emails daily. We get a lot of updates, and we sort through them as they come. Sometimes we will call the businesses and/or browse their websites to verify information, but mostly, our visitors send us good information and we just make the changes to the website.
VIP: How has the vegetarian community responded to the website?
EB: Very well, for the most part. Not all vegetarians we met know about HappyCow.Net. That's when we hand them cards and ask them to check it out. However, the people who do know and have used HappyCow.Net tell us they appreciate it. We've met restaurant owners and people at vegetarian meet-ups and events who tell us that they use HappyCow whenever they plan to travel.
VIP: How much of your time is devoted to HappyCow? What other jobs do you hold or have you held?
EB: I am in front of the computer many hours of the day. This website is my priority, but it's not my only job. I also do website consulting for friends and other people, and I am the person people call for computer help. Diana contributes a couple hours a day to the website. She also works as a bookkeeper and a homemaker.
VIP: Can you tell us about the worldwide readership of HappyCow?
EB: HappyCow visitors are definitely global in scope. About 60-65% of the visitors come from North America, mainly USA; about 30% come from Europe and Australia; and the remainder from Asia and other countries. It's fun to connect with people from all over the world via email. Occasionally, we will meet up with some of our visitors in person when we take a trip.
VIP: What's involved in becoming a member of HappyCow? What benefits can a person derive by joining?
EB: Anyone can use HappyCow without becoming a member. Anyone can join HappyCow as a member for free -- just signup online. As a HappyCow member, you can post reviews, respond to other people's reviews, save-share-print custom lists of restaurants/stores for your trips, create a personalized profile, chat with other members, and use the community forum to share or solicit information.
VIP: Tell us about any future plans for HappyCow?
EB: There is so much we want to do. We will continue to keep HappyCow comprehensive, up-to-date, and user-friendly.
Additionally, we want to grow our community of members and keep things interesting, so our members can look forward to participating in the network of sharing and learning about healthy, compassionate living.
VIP: What event or events in your life led you to become vegetarian and then vegan?
EB: I began as a vegetarian in my late teens when a friend introduced me to veggie burgers. After I ate one, I had a small awakening about the source of real burgers and felt that I could never eat red meat again. Fish came later while traveling in China, then eggs and dairy while living in Asia and being involved with a Buddhist Master there about 17 years ago. Now it's "as vegan as possible" for me.
Diana has been living the vegetarian and vegan life on-and-off for over 11 years, and now she is ovo-lacto vegetarian.
VIP: There seems to be some romance involved at HappyCow. Would you share what brought the two of you together?
EB: Funny you ask. Four years back, when I was still single, I was seeking a significant other with whom I could share my life, inspirations, and vegetarian/vegan lifestyle. I posted an ad on the Veggiedate website, and that's how I found Diana. We were both veg-heads living in Los Angeles, so it was convenient to meet. The rest is history and herstory.
VIP: How do your friends and relatives react to your plant-based diet and your dedication to the website?
EB: My family members have adjusted to become considerate of my diet choice, and now, they let me be. For family dinners, they will make or order something vegan for me. They are proud of what I've done with HappyCow and support my dedication to it. But they do think that Diana and I spend too much time in front of the computer, so they will sometimes take the initiative to arrange to get us out for a hike or a meal.
Diana is also the only vegetarian in her family. Most of the members, with the exception of her mother, don't bother her too much about it, just a lot of teasing. Her mom still has a problem with her choice, but we just leave her be.
VIP: Of all of your personal accomplishments, which ones give you the most pride and satisfaction?
EB: Okay, these are things I don't really like to hold onto in my thoughts. To me, it promotes identification and ego, which in turn are bound to cause suffering since the nature of everything is change. In general, being a good person and doing things in life that benefit everyone stand out as great points for me.
For Diana, she's happy to have found me (hehehe). She also counts it her blessing to be able to stay grounded and live as fully and well as she can.
VIP: Tell us about your education. How are you both using your education currently?
EB: I have a college degree in psychology, but my time now is spent with computers and in web design. I've basically had to teach myself all about website design and maintenance in order to keep HappyCow.Net up-to-date and running smoothly. It's challenging work that's also interesting to me. Diana has a college degree in philosophy, and she is happy to do nothing at all but play all day.
VIP: What personal goals have you set for yourselves in the coming years?
EB: One of our goals is to just continue to do what we do, save money, and create passive income so we can travel and enjoy life more! But most important, really, we want to appreciate the Here Now, present for whatever unfolds -- not great lofty goals, just living life with awareness and care for ourselves, each other, and everyone around us.
VIP: When you're not working on HappyCow, what leisure activities and hobbies do you enjoy?
EB: Diana and I enjoy traveling to new places, especially tropical places. We love to swim with the fish and sea creatures in the warm water of the Pacific Ocean. When we are in Los Angeles, we like to go for bike rides, beach walks, hiking, meeting with local vegetarians, being with our family, and trying out new veggie restaurants with friends.
VIP: Can you tell us about any organizations you belong to and support?
EB: Gosh, we are so busy with what we have going on already that we haven't had the time to join other organizations.
Occasionally, we will take time to meet with our local vegetarian and vegan meet-up groups. And we enjoy participating in the local veggie potlucks and events.
Through HappyCow, we've also been able to support larger organizations like FARM, IVU, PETA through donations and promotions for them on our website. Sometimes we also help to advertise other animal rights and vegetarian related non-profit events on HappyCow.
VIP: What person or persons have had the most influence on your lives?
EB: Our family members are certainly the ones with the most influence on us. For me also, my spiritual teacher, ShantiMayi, is a significant influence. Her teachings promote compassion to all beings, animals and humans. Spending even just a little time with her helps me to stay grounded and quiet.
Diana is easily influenced by the people with whom she comes into contact, and she does her best to focus on the goodness.
To find a restaurant anywhere in the world, go to HappyCow.