Late on a Thursday afternoon in early March, just off Brick Lane in the heart of London’s nightlife hotspot Shoreditch, 23-year-old Louisa Davidson is taking calls and co-ordinating cables and scaffolds, as shocking pink Vegan Nights banners are hung around the expansive courtyards of the Truman Brewery. There is a chill in the air, quickly warmed by a buzzing atmosphere more like a music festival than an ethical food fair, as BBC Radio 1Xtra and House of Camden DJs play records, cocktails are poured and entrepreneurs sell zines and street wear alongside the vegan sushi, patisserie and “filthy vegan junk food”.
Davidson had been running weekend markets at the venue when she noticed a sharp increase in the number of vegan food businesses and vegan menus on offer. So last September, with her colleagues, she decided to put on a one-off vegan night market, with music, drinks and food. “On the day there were queues around the corner,” she says. “We were not prepared for it at all! There was so much interest that by Christmas we decided to make it a monthly thing. It’s all happened very quickly.” Inspired by its success, and the traders she was working with, Davidson switched from vegetarian to a vegan diet in January.
“We’re riding on that wave of veganism getting into the mainstream,” Davidson says. “People are curious about it and they’re finding out that vegan food is not just a boring salad, it’s experimental, and the food traders are amazing – people can have a drink, listen to music and hang out. First and foremost, we want to offer a positive platform, whether you’ve never had a fried jackfruit before or you’re a longstanding vegan.” Many of the traders are new to it as well, with a couple of them having launched their businesses at Vegan Nights. “It is a community and everyone supports each other’s businesses. It’s great to be a part of it.”
Veganism in numbers
Rise in the number of vegans in Britain from 2006-2016; 542,000 people said they were vegans in 2016.
Veganuary 2018 participants, of which 60% were under 35, up from 3,300 on its 2014 launch.
Increase in vegan products launched in the UK between 2012 and 2016.
The year the term vegan was coined by woodwork teacher Donald Watson. Rejected words include ‘dairyban’, ‘vitan’ and ‘benevore’.
Percentage of under-35s who have tried a vegan diet.
Veganism might have recently acquired a hipster cache at buzzy London events such as Vegan Nights and the weekly Hackney Downs market established by influential blogger Sean O’Callaghan, AKA “the Fat Gay Vegan”, but its surging popularity is a national phenomenon, with plant-based food festivals and businesses booming from Bristol to Inverness.
The high street is adapting with incredible speed. Big chains such as Marks & Spencer and Pret a Manger have introduced vegan ranges, Wagamama has a new vegan menu, Pizza Hut recently joined Pizza Express and Zizzi in offering vegan pizzas, while last year Guinness went vegan and stopped using fish bladders in its brewing process, after two and a half centuries. Scrolling through Twitter’s popular #veganhour (an hour of online recipes and ideas running 7-8pm every Tuesday, and trending at number seven nationally when I looked), alongside less surprising corporate interventions from Holland & Barrett and Heavenly Organics is a tweet from Toby Carvery, trumpeting its vegan cherry and chocolate torte. Sainsbury’s and Tesco have introduced extended new ranges of vegan products, while the latter recently appointed American chef Derek Sarno to the impressive job title of director of plant-based innovation.
If this is the year of mainstream veganism, as every trend forecaster and market analyst seems to agree, then there is not one single cause, but a perfect plant-based storm of factors. People cite one or more of three key motives for going vegan – animal welfare, environmental concerns and personal health – and it is being accompanied by an endless array of new business startups, cookbooks, YouTube channels, trendy events and polemical documentaries. The traditional food industry is desperately trying to catch up with the flourishing grassroots demand. “What do you mean, weak, limp and weedy? In 2017, the vegan category is robust, energetic, and flush with crowdfunding cash,” ran an article headlined “Vegan Nation” in industry bible the Grocer in November, pointing to new plant-based burger company Vurger, which hit its £150,000 investment target in little more than 24 hours.
The rapid explosion of the annual Veganuary campaign, in which curious omnivores and vegetarians sign up to try out veganism for a month and are then plied with recipes and other advice, shows how fast veganism is growing. (The choice of January is significant, given the resonances of fresh starts, good intentions and post-Christmas diets.) Veganuary was launched in 2014, with 3,300 people signing up; by 2016, there were 23,000 participants, then 59,500 in 2017, and a staggering 168,000 this year – and these are just the numbers that signed up officially online. Notably, 84% of this year’s registered participants were female, while 60% were aged under 35. Showbiz magazines and websites are full of lists of fully vegan celebrities – Ellie Goulding, Natalie Portman, Ariana Grande, Woody Harrelson, JME, Ellen DeGeneres, Liam Hemsworth; we could go on – all of them making Beyoncé and Jay-Z look a bit wet, having tried a vegan diet for just 22 days.
A weekend outing to Blackpool in 2018 offers much of what it always did: seagulls, slot machines, big-screen sport, family meal deals, “traditional fish and chips”, pirate rides, poncho vendors, palm-readers and pound shops. But there are other, newer diversions, too. On a grey Saturday morning in low season, at St Thomas’ church, north of the city centre, the Blackpool Vegan and Green festival is humming with people. Something of the church’s evangelical spirit is alive here, too.
“We’re in a non-vegan world,” says volunteer Elizabeth King, delivering her “10 steps to going vegan” talk in a back-room. “But things are changing rapidly – and if you’re trying to go vegan, you’re a pioneer.” She talks about shopping challenges and getting around social stigma, meal-planning and vitamin supplements, how to make holidays and dining out easier, how to check labels and online resources – and the group of new vegans and could-be-vegans asks keen questions and shares local tips. “People have an assumption you live off lettuce, don’t they? But that’s changing.”
With almond milk and vegan ranges now available in supermarkets, it’s a testament to soaring public curiosity that people are being drawn to once specialist events in such numbers. “It’s jam-packed isn’t it!” says Michelle Makita, with a laugh, from the Little Blue Hen vegan soap stall. Over the course of the day, hundreds of people stream in; visitors from across Blackpool, the north-west, even Spain. There is an African superfoods stand, a Glaswegian jerk pie company, Turkish gözleme flatbreads, cakes, curries, wraps, sushi, vegan candles, vegan pet food, shlocky T-shirts and accessories (“Zombies eat flesh, go vegan”). Darting around in a high-vis jacket, organiser Roddy Hanson squeezes past the prams, teenagers, bearded veterans in earth-tone baja tops, normies and newbies.
Grabbing some air and calm when the lunch rush has finally subsided (at about 4pm), Hanson is a mine of information about vegan history and culture and has seen a tightly bound, activism-driven outsider community become an accepted phenomenon in a matter of a few years. “When I went vegan in the 1980s, it was primarily two groups: hippies and punks. Some people who come to our events think it’s going to be wall-to-wall people with pink hair and piercings, but the whole culture has changed – it’s a very broad cross‑section.”
He has been vegan for 30 years, a veteran of animal rights activism, but this convivial, family-day-out approach to winning converts is more his speed. “I’ve never been the sort of person who wants to stand outside fur shops and get into arguments with people. It’s more positive this way and you can choose to engage with it if you want, rather than be confrontational. I’ve been involved in anti-circus demos where fights have broken out with some of the protesters and the circus staff; that kind of thing was a lot bigger in the 80s. Now it’s based around vegan groups and fairs, which didn’t really exist then.”
Last summer, Paul White opened Faringo’s, the first vegan restaurant in Blackpool. Only a year ago, he was an omnivore, running a hotel with an Italian steakhouse attached in which he was also head chef. One weekend, they had a vegan guest staying, which prompted “lots of lengthy conversations” about veganism and he decided to try running a small vegan menu alongside the existing one. “Within two weeks, we had more people eating vegan food than anything else,” he recalls. “What surprised us was people were coming from all over Blackpool. There were hidden vegans in Blackpool who were struggling in silence! That was June last year and at that point we decided to turn the restaurant 100% vegan and it just exploded on Facebook. I went vegan as well, as head chef, and I feel better for it. We have such a wide range of people coming in: we’ll have a table of six people who are protesters from an anti-fracking demonstration [Preston New Road fracking site is just three miles away], sat next to a table of two people who are multimillionaires, sat next to international rugby players.”….