The high street is changing and with it, the UK’s restaurant scene. Journalist Kayleigh Rattle traces the recent rise of vegan eateries and meat-free menus across the country.
Veganism is at an all-time high; with some reports suggesting there could be as many as 3.5 million vegans in the UK – which would be over 7% of the population. Additionally, there’s a predicted 22 million flexitarians in the UK. As a result, meat-free eateries are thriving, whether that’s independent premises specialising in all things green, or large chains widening their offering and expanding their menus – something we could never have predicted 10 years ago.
So, what’s behind this meteoric rise in vegan food outlets? And will it continue?
The high street today
Times are certainly changing, particularly for British high streets and restaurants. In the retail sector, we’ve seen high street stalwarts and household names such as BHS, Debenhams and M&S face store closures and restructuring in recent months. The same goes for the food industry where many mid-level restaurants have faced, or are facing, administration.
According to a recent report compiled by analysts CGA and Alix Partners, Britain had 768 fewer restaurants in March 2019 than in 2018, with approximately 15 establishments now closing each week across the country. It’s a reality that a number of casual dining and ‘chain’ groups know only too well; Byron Burger, Strada, Prezzo, Carluccio’s, Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Gaucho have all faced closures. And of course, chef Jamie Oliver has received his fair share of headlines recently; the renowned restaurant chain collapsed in May 2019, closing more than 22 premises, including Jamie’s Italian and his flagship London social enterprise, Fifteen, resulting in the loss of more than 1,000 jobs.
Yet, it’s not all doom and gloom for the UK’s restaurants. In spite of widespread closures, green shoots are popping up all over the UK in the form of specialist vegan restaurants, menus and dishes, suggesting that to survive, it’s a case of diversifying – and responding to (increasingly green) consumer demand.
“Veganism is now a big part of the UK’s dining scene,” explains Gavin Hanly, Co-Founder of Hot Dinners, an online guide to London’s restaurant scene. “Veganism is no longer seen as a niche choice, but a significant part of the market. There’s been a big rise in meat-free restaurants opening over the past year in particular. So much so, the phrase ‘plant-based’ has become commonplace in new restaurant announcements.”
One such example of high street eateries diversifying – and going green – is grab-and-go favourite, Pret a Manger, which has over 500 outlets nationwide. Pret opened its first ‘Veggie Pret’ in September 2016. To date, there are now four Veggie Prets across London and Manchester, and counting. Pret recently acquired 94 branches of popular sandwich shop EAT around the UK, with the intention of turning many of them into meat-free offerings.
Of course, veggie and vegan restaurants are nothing new. There’s a continued appetite for traditional, independent meat-free eateries across the country – such as London’s The Gate or Mildred’s – in spite of the rise of non-vegan brands and outlets embracing veganism. But one new trend emerging in particular is a shift towards the opening of specialist vegan offerings and outlets, from fish and chip shops, pubs and pizzerias to cheesemongers.
One such example is Purezza, the UK’s first vegan pizzeria, which has premises in Brighton and London. Forgoing the mozzarella hasn’t stopped them from scooping the top prize at the 2019 World Pizza Championships, beating over 6,500 pizzerias globally. The winning pizza comprised a BrewDog Punk IPA-infused wholegrain dough topped with Italian-style marinated tempeh, mushrooms, stir-fried cavolo nero and a borlotti bean sauce, plus Purezza’s in-house vegan mozzarella and a fermented cashew cheese. The team behind Purezza is even in the process of opening a vegan mozzarella factory!
At Hackney-based Sutton & Sons – London’s first vegan-only fish and chip shop – gourmet, plant-based twistson chippy classics have proved so popular that they have now introduced a standalone vegan menu at their other two non-vegan branches in London. Their signature ‘fish’ recipe is made from banana blossom that’s been marinated in seaweed and samphire, and then deep-fried in batter. You’ll also find ‘prawn’ cocktail, ‘scampi’, ‘tofish’, ‘chicken’ and ‘fish’ burgers on the menu, as well as a battered ‘sausage’, and even pie and mash. For Sutton & Sons, it sounds like these innovations are only the beginning: “We’re keen to develop new menu items and to keep growing,” says Danny Sutton, owner of Sutton & Sons. “You can’t rest on your laurels, you’ve got to keep innovating – and that’s what we intend to do with our vegan menu.”
Putting veganism on the map
According to recent research from The Hospital Group, Bath is the vegan capital of the UK, boasting 153 vegan-friendly restaurants, and a whopping 360,000 vegan-related Google searches each month. In second place is Manchester, followed by Cambridge, Leeds, London, Liverpool, Oxford, Glasgow, Brighton and Newcastle.
But vegan-friendly eateries are not restricted solely to cities. Kat’s Kitchen Vegan Cafe in Keswick – which comes highly recommended by The Guardian – and Forest Side Hotel in Grasmere are two celebrated hotspots for vegan food in the Lake District, while the UK’s first vegan hotel, Saorsa 1875, has recently opened its doors in the Scottish highlands. In Oadby, Leicestershire, all-vegan Sanctua – which uses wonky fruit and veg to help reduce food waste – has been shortlisted in the Plant-Based Restaurant category in the Asian Restaurant Awards 2019, just two months after opening: certainly one to watch.
Meat-free for the masses
Vegan independent eateries aside, on the other end of the scale, many nationwide mass-market chains and fast food outlets are now embracing veganism and bringing meat-free food to the masses. Gregg’s vegan £1 sausage roll, now available in all 1,950 stores nationwide, being one such example. Also, KFC has just launched ‘The Imposter’, a vegan chicken burger made from Quorn to much fanfare across the media.
Could casual dining chains be looking to veganism to help save failing businesses? In June this year, popular burger chain Byron – which has closed 19 restaurants in the past year due to financial struggles – introduced two new vegan burgers to their menu, using Beyond Meat’s iconic ‘bleeding burger’. The Truffler features a ‘cheese’ sauce, portobello mushroom, truffle ‘mayo’, crispy onions and lettuce, while The Cali Cheese offers vegan cheddar, roast garlic ‘aioli’, smoked tomato ketchup, red onion, pickle and lettuce. For dessert, a vegan pineapple and coconut lolly has also been added.
Gavin Hanly of hotdinners.com predicts vegan offerings such as these will continue to become more commonplace in fast food outlets, especially when it comes to burgers: “You’ve seen the excitement that the KFC vegan burger caused, and soon it won’t be acceptable to not have a vegan option on offer. Certainly, every burger joint needs to have its own vegan burger.”
This overhauling of menus to incorporate all things green also applies to the high-end, non-chain restaurants. “There’s now an expectation that menus of this ilk will at least highlight a few vegan dishes,” says Gavin. “And we’re seeing both vegan and vegetarian-specific menus on the rise.” The vegan tasting menus at London’s Michelinstarred Pollen Street Social and Pied à Terre come highly recommended, while The Evening Standard celebrates Galvin La Chapelle’s seven-course tasting menu (a bargain at £55) as well as The Ritz’s luxurious vegan menu, which features a roast onion consommé with nasturtium and turnip, among other high-end dishes.
Fine dining aside, it’s vegan ‘junk food’ that’s thriving when it comes to takeaway orders, another facet of today’s rapidly evolving restaurant scene. Whether it’s via Deliveroo, Uber Eats or Just Eat, establishments are having to deal with fewer bums-on-seats in the face of the continued popularity and convenience of delivery food. With apps and iPhones now at our fingertips, technology has evolved to allow diners to even order their dinner on their commute home – and to receive it within minutes of walking through the door; a convenience that vegans seem to be fully behind, too.
Online food delivery company Deliveroo reportedly experienced a 206% rise in vegan orders between January 2018 and January 2019. There’s also been a 62% increase in restaurants offering plant-based dishes on the platform in that time, with an
impressive 5,000 vegan dishes now available in total. Interestingly, it’s vegan burgers that rule supreme. Some of the most popular dishes ordered on the platform in the past year in London include Honest Burger’s PLANT Burger – featuring a Beyond Meat patty and vegan mayo from Rubies in the Rubble – and By Chloe’s Quinoa Tacos. A vegan doner kebab from Shoreditch’s What The Pitta and a cheeseburger from Halo, reportedly the world’s first dedicated ‘bleeding burger’ restaurant, based in Brixton, also appear in the top five most-ordered dishes. For the UK as a whole, the Vegatsu Curry from Wagamama and Vegan Giardiniera from Pizza Express are bestsellers, as is the Pasta Arrabiata from Manchester’s Vapiano.
Conclusion: the future is most certainly green
With Britain’s high streets struggling, restaurants adapting and evolving to meet greener consumer requirements, and home delivery services such as Just Eat and Deliveroo flourishing, it’s an exciting time for specialist and independent eateries, particularly those which are vegan. But what does the future hold? Will we see more vegan chains, like By Chloe and Veggie
Pret taking over our high streets? And will the craze for vegan junk food – particularly burgers – continue to thrive and drive the UK’s home delivery services and high street restaurant menus? Only time will tell. But one thing’s for sure, the future most definitely looks green.
Kayleigh Rattle is a freelance journalist specialising in food and travel and has written for publications including The Independent, Evening Standard, Time Out and Veggie.
Sign up for our newsletter