At first glance, diners might be forgiven for thinking Toronto’s Loving Hut is just another little vegetarian restaurant. But few other eateries are as devoted to serving messages of imminent doom with their food.
“We have only 884 days left to save the planet,” intone the entertainment-system-sized televisions on either side of the room. The screens show footage of flooding in North Korea, China, Pakistan, northern India; a brick apartment building crashing down, as in the middle of an earthquake; and a dead-looking child with half a dozen flies on her face. On a recent weeknight, several people look up, then continue on with their spring rolls, “sweet and sour fireballs” and “spicy cha cha.”
The doomsday restaurant is run by the spiritual followers of Supreme Master Ching Hai, whose aim is to scare the world into vegetarianism. Hai, 60, a Vietnamese-born restaurateur, avid vegan, painter, poet, fashion designer, fundraiser and entrepreneur, also goes by “Suma,” from SUpreme MAster, or simply “Master.” Four years ago, Hai, who now lives in Europe but whose group is headquartered in Taiwan, told her followers to ditch their jobs, quit their regular lives, and set up the Loving Hut chain.
There are now 169 Loving Huts around the world, including two in Canada. Hai’s devotees also run dozens of similarly themed vegetarian restaurants worldwide (at least three in Canada) that aren’t part of the chain, but also promote a potent combo of death, destruction and fried tofu.
The restaurants are staffed mostly with volunteers or those paid a mere stipend, to keep prices down and promote the spread of vegetarianism. At the Eglinton Avenue Loving Hut in Toronto, for example, non-devotees get normal wages but most workers are either volunteers or investors who share in the profits—and a dedication to “serve humanity.”
Tsung Lin, 56, used to work as a software engineer before he ceded to “the Master’s call” in April and became manager of the Alhambra, Calif.-based Loving Hut. He says, “The Master told us the planet is in big trouble so we should do what we can to help.”
Hai issues strict orders about the operation of the restaurants. Loving Hut walls must be painted yellow, to “reflect the kingdom of God,” says Lin. The furniture must also be bright and light to embody higher values.
Staff at the Eglinton location wear yellow and turquoise uniforms and hats that say “Am a vegan and green save the world [sic]”—despite divinity, grammar doesn’t seem to be one of Hai’s strengths. No alcohol is served—it’s against the sect’s teachings. At the Eglinton restaurant, a wall is dedicated to “the vegetarian and vegan elite of the world,” with colour photos of stars like Pierce Brosnan, Carrie Underwood and Richard Gere in fake gilt frames. The restaurants also hand out free doomsday recipe books with pictures of tornadoes, scarred African slaves and a makeshift morgue.
Hai has her own TV channel, which plays on a continuous loop at the restaurants. As well as the doomsday messages, there is information about how much she gives to alleviate various natural disasters (from several hundred to hundreds of thousands of dollars). She makes her money through donations and an extensive list of “divinely inspired” merchandise, explains Joe Szimhart, a media consultant based in Birdsboro, Pa. A holy couture ensemble, for example, could set devotees back $10,000 or more. Hai is also a popular author. Her latest book, The Noble Wilds, topped Amazon’s bestseller list, as did her earlier two books, The Dogs in My Life and The Birds in My Life.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, customers tend to appreciate her followers’ unequivocal devotion so long as it means cheap, delicious Asian vegetarian fusion cuisine. Some, like photographer Monty Jain, who frequents the Eglinton Loving Hut, agree with the essence of Hai’s vision, although he thinks her facts are a little biased.
Others are more skeptical. Andrew Micak, an environmental consultant and a regular at the similarly themed Green Earth Vegetarian Cuisine in Toronto, finds the “propaganda” is “weird and culty” but adds, “their spring rolls make it totally worth it.”