Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Great Lakes Tokyo, a burger joint in the Takadanobaba neighborhood of Shinjuku Ward, had a reputation for being vegan friendly. Its vegan Superior Burger, made with Great Lakes’ own vegan patty featuring a secret recipe combining shiitake, brown rice and onions, was known to be very good.

Close enough to Waseda University to be a watering hole for the local students, the little restaurant only has about 10 seats. Its clean, open-plan design and laid-back vibe is rounded off with a cooler full of craft beer and indie rock on the speakers.

Owner John Penny, who hails from California, envisioned a community hangout modeled on the burger shacks in small towns around Lake Michigan, where he spent summers as a child with his mother’s family. After working on a business plan and logistics for a few years, Penny opened in December 2019 with a limited menu featuring beef and vegan burgers, some fries and sides, and a short list of craft beers and soft drinks.

“We always wanted to be approachable,” Penny says when asked about his decision to serve both beef and vegan burgers from the start. “My goal here is not to preach at anybody. I’m deeply concerned about the environment, but I feel when we were selling both it gave us a chance for someone to try something new.”

Then the pandemic hit, just as Great Lakes was beginning to find its feet.

Penny switched the restaurant to takeout, shortened its hours and closed on weekends. But with the pandemic ongoing, he ultimately decided to close for two months beginning in early April.

Sustainable pivot: After the COVID-19 pandemic, John Penny decided to flip his burger joint to be 100 percent vegan. | COURTESY OF GREAT LAKES TOKYO
Sustainable pivot: After the COVID-19 pandemic, John Penny decided to flip his burger joint to be 100 percent vegan. | COURTESY OF GREAT LAKES TOKYO

During that time, Penny had what he calls a moment of clarity. He released a statement online: “COVID-19 has severely crippled us and countless other restaurants and bars around the world. As the virus was directly caused by animal exploitation there was simply no way we could move forward contributing to something that nearly killed our business, has literally killed hundreds of thousands of people, and, of course, trillions of animals each year,” it said.

“There was no way that I could, in good conscience, reopen after hundreds of thousands people have died from this thing,” Penny says. “Millions of people have been affected. How can I sleep at night if I’m contributing to that cause?” When Great Lakes opened its doors again on June 2, it was as an exclusively vegan restaurant.

Eric Brent, the founder and director of HappyCow, a popular worldwide vegan travel site and app, says that many people are coming to the same realizations that Penny has. “The pandemic has dramatically increased the awareness of the relationship between diet and immunity, and between animal agriculture and viruses, which has resulted in a strong uptick in new members on HappyCow and overall traffic.”

But with borders closed and COVID-19 still raging, nobody’s traveling. “Restaurants globally are suffering. For Japan, many of the vegan/vegetarian places depend on tourists’ patronage,” says Brent. “Although the plant-based, healthy-eating trend is gaining popularity in Japan, many of the (country’s) 320-plus vegan establishments make a significant percentage of their revenue from Western and Taiwanese customers. The travel ban has created a deficit in revenues these restaurants require to stay open.”

Penny says the initial response from the community has been strong, despite the gloomy pandemic prognosis. “The business is definitely in danger and we might not survive the summer, to be frank. I was convinced that we would have no one walking through the door,” he says. But demand for the new vegan menu was so great that Great Lakes sold out twice in one week and had to close early. “It was just shocking. So I’m delighted with the response.”

Penny’s still not sure what the future holds, but he wants to navigate whatever comes on his own terms. “This is a very small shop. My impact is very minimal, but it’s gonna take all of us to be better.”

That’s good news for Tokyo’s veggie burger fans, because “being better” looks like the now-vegan Michigan Burger, topped with vegan cheese sauce and caramelized onions. Make that a double to go.

Nishiwaseda 3-27-4, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 169-0051; www.greatlakestokyo.com; 03-6278-9286

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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