Last summer, Ronnie “Tsunami” Gandiza switched on the Food Network and saw the same damn thing he’d seen for the past four years. “It was all barbeque contests [and] a lot of meat, dairy and drug commercials,” Gandiza says. “I was constantly cringing.”
A convert to a plant-based diet since 2015, Gandiza did more than simply flip the channel, he started an entirely new one.
Launched on World Vegan Day, Nov. 1, the Plant-Based Network (PBN) caters to an exploding demographic: people seeking encouragement and support for embracing a healthy, environmentally friendly and cruelty-free lifestyle.
Viewers ranging from staunch vegans to the vegetarian-curious can access the burgeoning Charlotte-based network online or through streaming services like Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire to catch established shows like The Vegan Roadie, EatMoveRest and Vegan Mashup, as well as new, in-house productions, all free of charge.
As PBN’s CEO, Gandiza says he and network co-founders Joanna Gustafson, Paul DeBellis and Steven Littlefield plan to add new programs and categories including a talk show and a travel show in the coming year.
The team draws on input from an advisory committee comprised of doctors Joel Kahn and Michael Greger, entrepreneur Miyoko Schinner, equality advocate Milton Mills, athlete Luke Tan and musician Gerardo Velez.
“It’s lifestyle and entertainment,” Gandiza says of the new network, “based on positivity, inclusivity, compassion and fun.”
As the “Tsunami” nickname suggests, 49-year-old Gandiza is a force of nature — a tidal wave of energy and expertise coupled with a can-do attitude. The Honolulu, Hawaii, native says the “Tsunami” moniker was introduced and ingrained by his experiences working for the United States government. After serving in the U.S. Air Force as an information technology specialist, Gandiza moved to the Pentagon as the lead network engineer for the Secretary of Defense.
“Years ago, one of the colonels said that whenever something got washed away or wasn’t meant to be, it was like a tsunami,” Gandiza remembers. “My friends picked up on that because I’m from Hawaii.”
After he left the Pentagon to become a tech expert and public speaker, the nickname stuck, and Gandiza officially adopted the moniker as lead singer, songwriter and keyboardist for his tropical rock band, the Tsunami Wave Riders.
Up to that point, the husband and father of five had enjoyed a richly varied career, a whirlwind of specializations including IT expert, engineer, trainer, educator and speaker with certifications in IT and project management, and a master’s degree in Theology from Holos University Graduate Seminary. As a Hawaiian, he was also a heavy meat eater, loading up on chicken, pork and seafood. But in 2014, that all screeched to a halt.
“I got very sick,” Gandiza says. “A couple things happened all at the same time. I could barely walk [and] my eyes started shaking, causing vertigo every three minutes.”
Gandiza’s vertigo made him feel like he was falling off a cliff, and soon he was reduced to walking with a cane. He remembers consulting several doctors and none of them could help. By 2015, he was bedridden. It was then that one of his two daughters and his wife, both of whom had already adopted the plant-based lifestyle, gave Gandiza a couple documentaries to watch.
“My daughter shared Cowspiracy, [which] taught me the impact of animal agriculture on our environment,” he continues.
On May 22, his wife shared Forks Over Knives, which details the science behind a whole food and plant-based (WFPB) diet.
“I learned how plant-based nutrition helps chronic conditions, and I thought what have I got to lose?”
On May 23, 2015, Gandiza went completely plant-based. Four weeks later he could walk without a cane. Two weeks after that, his eyes stopped shaking. By July, Gandiza was back on his feet and had starting working again as chief information officer for PlantPure Nation, a North Carolina company that offers a line of products and services promoting the WFPB lifestyle.
Gandiza left the company last year to free up his schedule for more speaking engagements, but he credits his stint with PlantPure Nation for teaching him why the American public doesn’t hear more about plant-based nutrition.
“That was where everything became a tsunami for me in terms of jumping into the plant-based movement,” he says.
As Gandiza was managing his transition to a plant-based lifestyle, he began to wonder how other people might be facing the obstacles he encountered.
The number one challenge for people transitioning to plant-based living is being alone, he maintains, especially if they don’t have plant-based family or friends to help them on their journey.
Last July, Gandiza started working on a video project with financier Steven A. Littlefield. Gandiza mentioned the preponderance of meat, dairy and drug commercials he saw on the Food Network to Littlefield, and wondered why no one had launched a vegan or plant-based food network.
Littlefield asked Gandiza why he didn’t do something about it, and just like that, the fuse was sparked for PBN.
“That conversation was on July 29,” Gandiza remembers. “By August 1, we put up a Facebook page, and on November 1, we launched.”
With Littlefield as director of business development, Gustafson as content manager and TV producer Bellis on board, the four partners got to work. The team agreed to shy away from the harrowing videos of animal abuse and North Carolina manure lagoons that can be found on YouTube, preferring an approach based on positivity.
Gandiza believes exposés serve a purpose in promoting awareness of the unethical practices and environmental dangers posed by animal-based agriculture, but he wants PBN to further its mission with a lighter touch, by helping people improve their health and creating a more sustainable planet with a lineup of TV shows focused on topics like plant-based/vegan cooking, travel, health, fitness, kids, comedy, music, sustainability, compassion and shopping.
The network is anything but a hard sell for the plant-based lifestyle, he maintains.
“You get people to learn by letting them connect the dots,” Gandiza says, citing research showing that 60% of Americans want more plant-based food options.
He’s not daunted that government bodies like the North Carolina General Assembly have tried to curb the plant-based wave by passing Ag Gag laws that punish whistleblowers for reporting animal abuse and health and environmental violations. Nor does he worry about food labeling laws like a recent Missouri statute that seeks to ban vegetarian products from using the word “meat.”
Change may be getting pushback from the top, he says, but change will still come from below because people want it. “It’s not a matter of if the country is becoming more plant-based. It’s a matter of when we hit that tipping point,” he says.
And that tipping point couldn’t be closer, he continues, pointing to the rising popularity and mainstream acceptance of products like Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger as proof.
Skeptics once insisted that plant-based consumers would not go to a Burger King for a veggie meal, he recalls.
“We now know that 95% of the people that buy this plant-based burger, this quote ‘fake burger,’ are non-vegans,” Gandiza points out, connecting that to news that Kentucky Fried Chicken launched a special vegan chicken in Atlanta that sold out in five hours, and that McDonald’s now has a PLT — or plant, lettuce and tomato sandwich.
People are demanding healthier options, and businesses are responding, Gandiza says.
Given his own experience with transitioning to the WFPB lifestyle, Gandiza prefers the term “plant-based” over “vegan.” With vegan, you either are or you’re not, he explains, there is no in-between. But you can be 50% plant-based, or 80% plant-based, and that’s okay.
“We want to be more inclusive regardless of where people are on their journey,” Gandiza says. “People move at different speeds. Let’s not discourage them by nitpicking.”
Despite all the growth and improved acceptance, there’s still a stigma about veganism, he says. A lot of people think it’s a religious movement or that it’s infringing on people’s rights, he says. That’s why he and his partners have created a friendly, positive and inclusive TV network with programming that talks about the benefits of eating more plants.
Given the rapidly growing reach of the new venture, it’s somewhat surprising that PBN has no offices or studios here in Charlotte.
“Everything is virtual for us,” Gandiza says.
That said, the network fields a local film crew that shoots footage throughout the city and state, hitting events like Vegfest in Charlotte or the Vegetarian Thanksgiving Feast hosted by the Triangle Vegetarian Society in Durham — one of the largest events of its kind in the country.
With added input from volunteers and film crews from all over the world, Gandiza says he and his partners are running a global TV network from their homes.
When PBN first launched, industry insiders said there weren’t enough advertisers to support plant-based programming, but Gandiza and his partners have proven them wrong; seven of the current top 15 companies in the world to invest in are plant-based companies, he maintains.
“We initially thought that women over the age of 40 would be most attracted to us because we have a health and environment focus,” Gandiza remembers.
But soon after launch they discovered they were reaching viewers across the board. Equal parts millennials, middle-agers and seniors are loving the PBN’s shows, Gandiza says. Viewership, which splits at 55% male and 45% female, goes beyond the U.S. to include Asia and South America.
“We’re reaching about 1,000 people a day on our Facebook page alone,” he says.
For Gandiza, this is more than mere validation of a business dream. The plant-based lifestyle saved his life, he believes, and that is why he’s so passionate about delivering the network’s message.
There’s a lot at stake here, Gandiza says, but problems like climate change and the American health crises can be successfully addressed with a plant-based lifestyle, an approach that fosters reverence for all living things.
“The plant-based tsunami is not coming,” Gandiza says. “It’s here.”