'Flexitarians' join vegans in stampede for meat free restaurant treats

| 15th August 2017
Josh Eggleton, the Michelin starred chef, offers a menu where vegetables make up the main meal and meat and fish feature only as side-dishes.
There has been a huge rise in demand for vegan and vegetarian meals at cafes and restaurants across Britain - often from meat eaters. CATHERINE EARLY reports
You don’t have to be vegan to eat vegan

A quiet revolution is taking place. Restaurants, pubs and cafes around the UK are rethinking their menus to cater for growing customer demand for dishes without meat.

Crucially, these people have not necessarily become vegetarians or vegans, but are consciously reducing their consumption of meat in response to environmental and health concerns.

“Flexitarianism”, as it has become known, has no rules but generally involves eating less meat, and when eating it, insisting that it is more ethically-sourced.

Health food chain Whole Foods predicted it would be one of the biggest food trends of the year. One fifth of British people are now interested in meals that contain less or no meat, according to Mintel in a report published last month.

Feedback from customers

The consumer research company has also even predicted that food originally designed for vegetarians or vegans could take over the mainstream.

Food outlets that have caught onto the trend include sandwich chain Pret, which has expanded its “not just for veggies” meat-free food range in response to “overwhelming” feedback from customers.

They also include cafés on RSPB reserves, where meat-free dishes now outnumber those with meat; and Wetherspoons pubs, which has expanded its vegetarian range and introduced a specific vegan menu.

The Vegan Society says it is working with chains including Zizzis, Ikea, and the Handmade Burger Company on expanding their ranges of dairy-free food.

“You don’t have to be vegan to eat vegan,” Abigail Stevens from the Vegan Society pointed out. “A lot of people wrongly assume that the market for vegan products is just vegans, but in reality a lot more people are choosing vegan because they want to cut down on meat.”

More vegan dishes

Upmarket restaurants are also shifting away from an emphasis on meat. Croydon’s Alberts Table has introduced an extra menu with both vegetarian and vegan options.

Michelin starred chef Josh Eggleton has just opened “Root”, a restaurant where vegetables take the starring role and meat and fish feature only as side-dishes; while chefs the Gladwin brothers are experimenting with intensifying the flavour of meat so that diners will feel satisfied with smaller portions.

These moves have mainly been in response to customer feedback. Alberts Table head chef Josse Anderton said: “People kept asking us for more meat-free options so we thought we should just do something about it. Now we’ve done it, they’re asking for more vegan dishes!”

Londoner Paul Kaye is also trying to eat more vegetable-based dishes after realising that not consciously thinking about what he was eating meant that meat was on his plate a couple of times a day. “I’m sensitising myself to think about it more. Now if I’ve eaten a lot of meat, I consciously choose the vegetarian option even if the meat option looks really good. But the choice of vegetarian meals on a menu has a big impact on whether I can stick to that,” he said.

Annabelle Randles, co-founder of retailer By Nature felt so passionate about spreading the word on flexitarianism that she set up a blog about it. A self-confessed “committed carnivore” previously, she decided to lower her meat intake in response to environmental concerns, a change that became more radical when she noticed that her health improved. “Meat is not something I crave any more,” she said.

She has noticed an improvement in options available when eating out, though menus are generally better in London than outside. “Pizza Express now has a vegan pizza, which you wouldn’t have found a few years ago,” she said.

Happy to experiment

While there is definitely a move towards more meat-free options, there is still a lot more that restaurants and cafés could do to capitalise on the trend, according to Tom Tanner, spokesman for non-profit membership organisation the Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA).

The SRA has this month launched a campaign to encourage restaurants to increase their vegetable-based options. The Food Made Good campaign is “a celebration of all things plant, not an imposition of a vegan’s charter”, he explained.

When creating meat-free dishes, chefs should start with a blank canvas, rather than trying to reshape traditional meat dishes for people who want more vegetables.

“That’s really liberating for a chef. Anyone can grill a steak, but getting them to create a really delicious dish with a cauliflower or a bunch of carrots will really make them earn their corn,” he said. If a chef can create a really imaginative vegetable-based dish then customers will be happy to experiment, he added.

This Author

Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and the former deputy editor of the environmentalist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76.