Reclaim The Beets: Activism to awards with Just Like Your Mom

(photo credit JLYM)

Etjen van der Vliet, owner of PETA award-winning catering company Just Like Your Mom, has always wanted to change the world. It’s an idealism he fostered over two decades as a full-time activist, living in large communities of squatters, supplying their meals and setting up mobile kitchens at direct action protests across Europe.

But while his principles remain resolute, his approach has evolved with age. He still wants to affect change, but he’s not going to do it sitting in trees or squatting in buildings, instead he’s doing it one vegan chiliburger at a time; serving rock stars and festival-goers around the globe.

“I’ve been busy making food over the past 25 years,” he explains across a table when we meet just off the M25 in the gleaming bleakness of Cobham Services. “Whether it was for the anti-road movement, animal rights activists or at a hardcore punk festival, it’s all the same to me. In our own way, we’re still trying to make a difference, it’s just on a smaller scale.”

There’s a certain level of irony in discussing the benefits of veganism and a life spent kicking against the establishment, when you’re sitting across a table in Starbucks, in the imposing shadow of a KFC and McDonalds. But like many people who pull off the motorway, we’ve chosen our meeting place (which Vliet succinctly describes as “capitalism at it’s worst”) for convenience rather than the moral aesthetics.

And while it might not be to his taste, Vliet understands the functional value of roadside services like this. A pragmatism born through years spent crisscrossing Europe as an in-demand tour manager, working with The War On Drugs, Mac DeMarco, Matthew E. White, Strand of Oaks and many, many more artists.

The tattoo across his knuckles reads “S.E.L.F.M.A.D.E”—a testament to a hard won career, which began in the Nineties while he was still living amongst militant anti-car owners. Back then Vliet was an anomaly, driving round in a beaten-up van, and soon friends (and friends of friends) who played in bands would come to him when they needed someone to haul equipment between gigs.

So when dole money was cracked down on in the Netherlands and activists were being forced to take ‘real’ jobs, he looked for a positive way out. “I just thought I could try to make something of my life, so I made the touring legal and before I knew it I had almost thirty vehicles on the road.”

As the roster of talent Vliet tour managed broadened, so did the scope of his duties. “When I toured with bigger acts, the quality of the hotels and restaurants improved, but the food still wasn’t healthy. So when I got home, working with artists in tiny venues, I made organic vegan food for them” he explains. “It was just on a small scale at first, but everyone seemed to love it. So I thought, why not do this a bit more often?”

In a few short years, this home-brewed endeavour became a runaway success and Just Like Your Mom began feeding headline acts backstage across Europe.

The contrast between a history in the anti-road movement and a life spent driving the motorways of Europe seems sharp. But it’s something Vliet laughs off. “It’s weird,” he tells me. “After twenty-five years of doing this, I still drive over certain sections of the M11 bypass and recall days when I was in a tree in that exact spot. But then I think about how nice that stretch of motorway is to drive on and how I’ll get to where I’m going quicker… I guess people just evolve.”

Businesses evolve too, and Just Like Your Mom couldn’t be contained to the backstage for long. Vliet recalls the specific turning point at a huge event in Belgium. “It was aimed at a lot of fans that were straight edge,” he says. “But it was terrible. People were starving because it’s Belgium where everything is fried in animal fat. They even the rice is fried in butter!”

His dissatisfaction with what was on offer to regular festivalgoers saw his food made a leap to the other side of the stage. And Just Like Your Mom is now a staple at events across mainland Europe, ranging from the Pitchfork Music Festival in Paris, Le Guess Who? Latitude, Best Kept Secret, Way Out West and even Milan Design Week.

Vliet puts a lot of Just Like Your Mom’s success down to shifting attitudes and his ardent commitment towards the vegan lifestyle. “It was harder a few years ago, but I stuck with it because I wanted to show people it’s still possible to run a company in an ethical way and still make money. Of course it’s still a struggle, but it’s improving slowly over time.”

Remaining ethical is key to Vliet’s ethos and much like the squats and protests that he was once so heavily involved in, Just Like Your Mom (who try to live up to their slogan of “We’ll take good care of you”) is built on a solid foundation of community. As such, each pop-up restaurant or food truck is run by an army of like-minded individuals, all working together with shared goals and values, for a fair wage — something that comes in especially handy if you’re a jobbing musician. “

Lots of the people who work in my kitchen also play in bands, because money is always a problem for them,” he says. “It might make the world go round, but a lack of money can kill the creative process.” With very little label money being thrown around — much of which a band eventually has to pay back — there’s not much is left for young musicians to live on.

Vliet has seen plenty of starving artists come and go in his time on the road and conservatively estimates that of the two hundred bands he’s worked with only fifty are still playing, and only three or four no longer struggle to pay their rent. So he does what he can to help. “I still believe that there’s a power in building communities together,” he says sipping his coffee.

But you have to wonder if working with so many bands, do rock star egos clash with his sense of idealism? “Maybe I’m just a romantic, but for me and the guys who work alongside me, it doesn’t matter. One minute you might see a band play the main stage, and later they’ll be flipping burgers in our kitchen. I think it helps to remember that wherever you are in life — we’re all in it together.”