This article first appeared on VICE US
2015 was a different time. In most restaurants or cafés, if you'd asked for a "vegan option", the best you could have hoped for was a Portobello mushroom dug out from the back of an industrial fridge and slapped between two slices of bread. It's understandable: until very recently, veganism wasn't a widely understood concept, and the vegan market was a bit of a mystery to most food manufacturers.
That, however, has changed, as we well know. Since the beginning of this year, veganism has proliferated enormously. In 2019, a record 250,000 people took part in "Veganuary", an annual period in which people are encouraged to try out veganism, and vegans have been inundated with new choices, from takeaway pizzas with vegan cheese, to the availability of vegan smoked salmon in Sainsbury's.
It's basically never been easier to be vegan in the UK – and as convenience is what feeds so many of our appetites, the demand for even more convenient vegan items is growing. If people can order a tasty black bean rice box for lunch just as simply as they'd grab a sausage-y all day breakfast sandwich, it stands to reason that they’d be more likely to give veganism a go than if they had to plan all of their outings around their proximity to a Holland and Barrett (It Happened to Me).
I've been vegan for almost five years, and as such I've lived through two time periods: B.V. (Before Veganism) and A.V.S.R. (Anno Vegan Sausage Roll). The first of these eras was basically marked by my memorising which restaurants did the least bad salad, and losing my entire bodily shit every time a supermarket brought in a new veggie item, because there were so few mainstream vegan choices. Even as things started to slowly improve, most vegan offerings at non-specialist outlets were centred around tarted-up vegetables (which, don't get me wrong, definitely have their place: I'm lentils 'til I die), even though what vegans routinely go most batshit over is an accurate vegan version of a previously beloved meal.
Now, we are living in the golden age, because the people who make the decisions about what makes it to our shelves, plates and bellies are finally in touch with what vegans actually want.
News broke earlier this week that Burger King would be trialling a version of its trademark Whopper with a fake meat patty at locations in the US. This was quickly followed by reports that the company was considering giving this veggie burger a go in the UK. Though some vegans are reticent to endorse fast food outlets like BK because of their heavy reliance on animal products, others recognise the importance of such a widely available vegan option.
The move towards a fake meat burger – rather than the dry, potato-ey veggie patties which have so far been available to vegans at fast food restaurants – is significant because it seems to acknowledge sentiments that lots of vegans have been expressing for a long time. Firstly, that going vegan doesn’t necessarily mean not liking the taste of meat; secondly, that we want eating to be as easy as it would be if we consumed meat and dairy; and thirdly, that veganism for most ordinary people isn’t about crystals and wellness and chia seeds, or whatever – it’s about creating kinder versions of the dishes we already like, and that includes junk food (@uglyvegan, after all, has existed for four years now).
The release of the Greggs vegan sausage roll at the beginning of 2019 felt like a sea change. While a few high street chains, like the Italian restaurant Zizzi (which introduced vegan cheese pizza back in 2017), recognised the space in the market for vegan options which mimicked non-vegan ones early, no brand had met the demand for a one-two punch of convenience and the satisfaction provided by a genuine meat alternative in quite the way that Greggs did.
As such, the floodgates have now been mown down, with restaurants and supermarkets alike in the UK seemingly clicking, at last, that "vegan option" doesn’t necessarily have to mean "something unholy done to an undercooked butternut squash". I used to look forward to trips abroad, particularly to the US and parts of Europe, because I knew I'd be able to eat so much more interestingly (and, in the case of America, more stomach-destroyingly), but now I can usually get my fix of whatever I want in the UK – often at big chains, too – whether that’s a fake meat burger at Wetherspoons or a vegan Caesar salad-making kit from M&S.
All of this isn't to take away from the amazing vegan-only establishments which have been offering this stuff for ages, but more to simply state that when proper vegan alternatives to meat and dairy are provided en masse, take-up is high (the introduction of the vegan sausage roll saw Greggs’ profits soar above £1 billion for the first time earlier this year), because this is what many vegans actually want, and because it's easier for curious people to get involved and give a vegan item a try. It's something I hope we see continuing, with outlets big and small offering great vegan options in order to meet demand, prove naysayers wrong and go some way towards driving down the environmental damage done by meat farming.