Veganism is one of the UK’s fastest growing lifestyle trends, but how can operators capitalise on its popularity and what is currently stopping them? MCA’s Steve Gotham reports.

Decisions, decisions … I don’t know what it’s like in your house, but in mine I often make the call on whether we go out to eat. However, in terms of where to actually go, well that’s usually a very different matter and it is my partner who will be found wearing the trousers. Now what is interesting is how her decision-making on venue selection is changing. More on this shortly, but the key change catalyst here is Paula’s decision to go vegan.

Fast growing lifestyle trend

At the outset, I should say her mind is made-up and yes, I have received plenty of condolences from meat-loving friends and colleagues. In truth, it is actually not such a major upheaval as I have almost naturally been transitioning towards far greater flexitarianism myself in recent years. And to be fair, Paula is by no means alone. It is estimated there are over half a million people in Britain now following a vegan diet and not consuming any animal products – equating to just over 1% of the adult population. Previous estimates 10 years ago, put the figure at 150,000, which helps to explain why veganism can be regarded as one of Britain’s fastest growing lifestyle trends. Delving a little deeper into the demographic profile of vegans and it is interesting to note that females outnumber males two to one, and that getting on for half are under 35 years old. Given these growth rates and the skew towards both key decision makers and more frequent eaters out, there is a strengthening case for vegan preferences to be more widely embraced by the out of home community.

Growing in- and out-of-home interest

Certainly, the in-home retailers are getting more on board. Online retailer Ocado has reported plant-based sales were up by a staggering 1,500% over the course of 2016, while strong growth has prompted Sainsbury’s to double the number of dairy-free milks it offers and to roll-out dedicated non-dairy bays with milks, yogurts and other drinks.

Encouragingly, more out of home operators are recognising the vegan movement. MCA’s Menu Tracker shows how vegan product flags on menus are becoming more commonplace. Back in Spring/Summer 2016, out of the 150 brands being tracked, 23 operators flagged a total of 135 items as suitable for vegans. Fast forward 12 months, and these numbers have increased to 41 brands and 284 products. A quick shout out of those brands offering 10 or more vegan items unsurprisingly includes salad-led players Tossed and Chop’d, as well as Asian-inspired chains Abokado, Busaba Eathai, Tampopo and YO! Sushi. More recently of course, Wagamama has joined this list with a new dedicated vegan menu comprising an impressive 29 dishes, including the likes of Kare burosu ramen, Yasai pad thai and a raw salad.

Looking more closely at the engaged brand list shows a good presence of contemporary fast food and to an extent, casual dining chains, but a paucity across pubs and less surprisingly, traditional fast food. I mention this in large part because pubs are at best being somewhat tardy, and at worst, at risk of missing out on some custom. This point is highly relevant to my dear partner and our changing eating out habits. Paula is a self-confessed foodie, but also, dare I say it, something of a food snob. It used to be quite a battle to encourage her to visit a High Street chain restaurant. For Paula, independent restaurants and a decent food-led pub were much more natural habitats. But since converting to an animal-free diet, she is having to abide by different rules, and now vegan-friendly High Street chains are back in play!

Product winners

So from personal experience, the Fettucine con verdure (flat ribbon pasta with courgettes, peas, roasted tomatoes, green beans and spinach, seasoned with chilli and garlic, and topped with olive tapenade) at Ask Italian is highly recommended, as is the Giardiniera pizza (with olives, asparagus, artichoke, onion and vegan mozzarella) from PizzaExpress.

This latter pizza product was also selected among PETA’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) award winning vegan products of 2017. Also highlighted among the award winners were: Best vegan burger (Beefeater), best curry (Wagamama), best menu (Loungers) and best luxury food (Pollen Street Social). I recognise PETA has its own agenda to promote, and its reported statistics might need to be taken with a pinch of seasoning, but even if it is somewhat overstated, reporting that two-thirds of Britons are interested in trying more vegan foods does highlight a significant and growing level of consumer interest.

Prospective barriers?

Now it might be reasonable to ask what is stopping more operators from doing more with vegan food (and drink), particularly when on the face of it, there is considerable potential for attractive gross profit margins to be had considering the relatively cheap input costs. For sure, low volumes will be a concern to some, particularly those with a more mature and male-oriented customer profile. Many vegan dishes can also require a disproportionate amount of preparation time and separate handling that is an inconvenience at peak to time-pressed kitchen staff. There is also the no small matter of requisite skill sets and some inventiveness, because vegans can be a demanding bunch who know more than a handful of ways to sex up humble vegetables with creative combinations and judicious use of herbs and spices. A post meal comment that “I could have done better at home,” has unfortunately, been an all too frequent review.

More to come

So what of the future? Well, the march of the plant-based enthusiasts would appear firmly established as an enduring consumer trend and one that is potentially gathering momentum. MCA’s survey of industry executives as part of our Menu & Food Trends report earlier this year asked about food types that were most likely to grow in presence on menus over the next 2-3 years. Ranked in third place, behind vegetarian and gluten-free, was vegan. So, there appears to be an expectation on the part of the supplyside that more will need to be done. Vegans – and their partners – will be just be hoping this does not lag too far behind growing demandside appetites.

Steve Gotham is MCA’s director of insight