Mike Legge is a man with a mission: to change the eating habits of Argentines. And his mission is to be accomplished via his chain of café-cum-delis: Natural Deli.
The Brit is quick to point out that he’s ‘not a tree hugger’ though. “I grew up on a farm, growing my own vegetables – there were no chemicals in the food, it was all environmentally friendly.”
He saw an opportunity here as he thought the food on offer was very limited in Argentina – especially in terms of food on the go. Legge says he found the options very limited and conservative, and moreover, felt sorry for vegetarians.
And thus the idea of Natural Deli was born.
The first store opened in Las Cañitas last year, and that was more recently followed by a bigger place in Barrio Norte, earlier this year.
The concept is to offer fresh, healthy food to eat in or take away – with delivery being added as an option in the near future – which will hopefully inspire people to come back and buy some of the products in the food themselves, to take their new eating habits home and into the kitchen.
Legge is quick to point out he is not a chef. “I would say I’m a gastronome though – I know about food and I love food. I love to cook. When opening Natural Deli I thought: what do I miss from home? What do I feel I can’t get here?”
And after a bit of trial and error and a few tastings, the seasonal menu was put together with the help of Pablo, the head chef.
“I would like to emphasise that we do not have ham and cheese sandwiches, and the only time we had empanadas was on independence day. We sell products you would normally find in a diet store, but without the dull clinical display.
“We also do not sell soft drinks. We have had customers walk out because of that. We are known as ‘the place without gaseosas, and we might be the only one in BA,” Legge says laughing.
“But I want people to enjoy themselves here and try something new. It is probably best to start slowly and just try one new thing – not go for the most extreme.”
The food is freshly prepared daily, and, after experimenting with a lot of recipes they have come up with some pretty unusual combinations: like a pudding made with polenta and using chia, a type of grain from the north which is very healthy. The aim is to always have a twist to the menu, making it healthy and different, yet tasty.
And organic – wherever possible. Natural Deli was the first store in the capital to offer organic coffee. But Legge explains that organic food is still not that popular or common here – he has been offered organic chicken by potential suppliers, but upon some investigation, he discovered that organic chicken does not exist in Argentina. “The so-called ‘organic’ chicken here is not organic at all!” he says.
Aside from the café element in the Natural Deli chain, there is also the store part, offering lots of the products that are used on the menu. Aside from food, you can also buy 100% organic cosmetics for men and women, and body products without toxins.
And how is all of this being received by Argentines? Legge says they have a lot of Argentine regulars, particularly for breakfast. He believes this is partially because they have ‘the best scrambled eggs in BA’, which are served for breakfast along with porridge and toast.
He tells of one Argentine regular who comes into the store daily for breakfast, which is always toast. The man was going away on business, but before he left he came in to buy the exact bread and jam he had every morning to take away with him, so he could continue enjoying it whilst working away.
A sure sign of success.
If people are sceptical, or scared, of trying the food, the majority of which is often new to them, they can sample things and the staff can help them out, explaining the ingredients. The store even offers its own nutritionist for $30-40 a session who will help with information on nutrition and lifestyle.
And so the next step for Natural Deli? World domination of the organic and health food market?
Legge laughs at this concept, but there is a twinkle in his eye of such ambition. For now he is happy opening more stores – the ultimate aim being ten in the capital, and potentially using environmentally-friendly packaging and bags.
And of course continuing to change people’s food and eating habits long term.
Natural Deli is in Las Cañitas on Gorostiaga 1776, or in Barrio Norte at Laprida 1672. For more information visit www.natural-deli.com