Vegan Mexican restaurant Cocina Comida has closed and its founder is leaving the industry. He says Adelaide must become kinder and more supportive of small business, or more closures will follow.
The last days of Cocina Comida
On the final day of this year’s Adelaide Fringe, East End vegan Mexican joint Cocina Comida closed its doors for the final time.
Founder Reuben Williamson announced on social media the following Monday he’d hung up his “skimpy red apron” and was walking away from the business he founded three and a half years ago in the Whitsundays, and the industry entirely.
The news was not a surprise to Cocina Comida’s followers. Reuben made several public pleas for patronage over the last year.
“The last 3 months I have been losing money, working for free, and throwing away unsold food that I put my time, love and energy into for you to enjoy,” he posted in July.
“For months now I keep telling myself next month will be better, next month, OK next month. The truth is they are not,” he announced in September.
These were calls for support, and a rare view into the nervous mind of a small business owner.
The first couple of posts drew in some clientele, but the power of his emotional transparency waned. People lost interest, while Reuben’s stresses grew.
Although the closure happened a week ago, Reuben’s decision to end the business came much earlier.
Reuben went to Bali for his birthday in November, the first holiday he’d taken since opening Cocina Comida in Adelaide. He’d been concerned about the business for months, but felt he needed a break.
“The last year had been really tough, and I just went to Bali and was, like, ‘I’m only going for a week. I’m going to come back all fresh, get ready for Christmas and then the Fringe’,” he says.
In a pool amid a rainforest in Ubud, Reuben caught himself feeling happy. It was a moment of clarity.
“This is how I used to fucking live my life,” he says.
“I don’t even recognise who I am anymore, because all I am is the guy from Cocina Comida… I realised that I’d lost myself in the business that I’d created.”
On 16 November, Reuben advertised for a takeover of his lease He wanted to get out as soon as possible.
The all-vegan Cocina Comida launched in Adelaide in January 2021. Reuben says the food then was not his best work – a consequence of the stress of setting up a business – but feedback was good.
“The response that I got mostly was positive,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, I don’t want to sound conceited, but I know what I do is good, so I knew that if I just got my shit together and managed it all a bit better, then it would work – which it did.”
Customers were happy, but business was slow, which Reuben put down to the location – a strip of Pirie Street between Pulteney and Frome without much nighttime activity. A year in, he picked up a new lease on Ebenezer Place, where he saw the opposite problem – night trade was good, but lunch was quiet.
“I just expected being here in this area would’ve given me more exposure and more business – and it did, but just not the way I needed it to, I guess,” he says.
“But I have no regrets moving here. I feel like this was an evolution. I definitely presented the restaurant better here. I changed the food a lot.”
Reuben’s decision to close was not purely financial. Amid the positive feedback, there was also a stream of negative comments, which hit him hard.
“On the most part people love what I do, but then there’ll be people who’ve heard all the good stuff about me and they’ll come in, and because I don’t serve rice in the burrito, they’ll lose their mind,” he says. “Having people abuse me because I’m not doing what Zambrero’s is doing gets a bit tedious, you know?”
The criticism would often come from a surprising source – a community Reuben belongs to and thought would have wanted to see him succeed.
“I do get a lot of negativity, but the vegan community, on the online groups and stuff, that’s where you see it all,” he says. “I never thought I’d make everybody happy, and that’s fine, but I think over the last two and a half years, it’s gotten harder to ignore some of the comments that people say, because… they get really personal to me.”
Cocina Comida is not the sole target in the groups. He says a vegan restaurant in Port Adelaide was subjected calls for a boycott for their decision to add meat dishes.
“There’s vegans that won’t support them now – but then they’ll go and praise the pub for going and putting an extra vegan option on their menu. It just doesn’t make fucking sense,” Reuben says.
“In the last five weeks, five vegan businesses have shut down. Everyone’s watching it happen and nobody’s going out and supporting them or doing anything about it.”
When Reuben started his pleas for help, the negativity continued.
“I got heaps of hate saying I was using manipulation and shame tactics and shit to try and guilt people in for business,” he says.
“I don’t know, it was just a lot to handle… I was, for a long time, going, ‘I’m not enjoying this anymore. The struggle’s just constant. I’m sick of not being a person’… People don’t respect the fact that I’m a human being and not just a service provider.
“In the most part I got more support than I did hate, but the people who have the hate, they shout a lot louder than the people that have the love.”
The comments were fuel on the fire of a creeping feeling of isolation. Reuben had sacrificed friends and his social life for his business, and was no longer seeing an emotional return. He had “a couple of little breakdowns” and came to a realisation: “I’m not doing it for them, I’m not doing it for me anymore, so what am I doing it for?”
Posting the ad for the takeover of his lease was “a little bit sad”, but “a big relief”, Reuben says. Closing the doors months later felt “amazing”.
“A day or two after, sitting at home, I was, like, ‘Fuck, that’s it’,” he says. “It was a bit sad there, and I felt a bit weird, but with any big change I’ve gone through in my life, I always expect that.”
Reuben has a trip to Sri Lanka planned, and when he returns, he’ll pick up his career in youth work, as a student support officer at a northern suburbs school. He’s excited for this future – one in which he hopes he can rebuild a life outside of work.
He does look back fondly at the business he built and left behind. It was never meant to make him rich; it was an avenue to create food that excited him and change the way people view vegan food, which says he’s done.
“I’ve had a really good time of it. I don’t want to say the negative outweighs the good, because it definitely doesn’t,” he says.
He’s exiting the industry with one more plea to the Adelaide public.
“Get out and show your support,” he says.
“Because money’s getting tight, instead of going to a vegan pizza shop, [people are] going to go to Domino’s because it is going to be cheaper. I totally understand that, we’ve all got to do what you’ve got to do to survive, but I feel like smaller businesses are going to get hurt by that.
“I know it’s going to be a couple dollars more to support a small business rather than a chain, but it makes a massive difference to that small business owner.
“Honestly, if just enough people came in here and spent $20, it would’ve made a massive difference.”