How Brighton’s independent vegan shops are staying ahead of the curve

Catherine outside Green Kitchen, an independent cafe on Preston Road
Catherine outside Green Kitchen, an independent cafe on Preston Road

It wasn’t long ago when I was buying a bag of apples for my lunch as it was the only appetising thing in Sainsbury’s that I could eat.

Fast-forward to today and it seems like vegan food can be found almost everywhere.

The new vegan cheese and pesto toastie at Caffe Nero

The new vegan cheese and pesto toastie at Caffe Nero

A recent study published in the journal Science concluded a vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce our ever-increasing carbon footprint. Echoing similar reports, the countless benefits of a vegan diet haven’t fallen on deaf ears.

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Infinity group outside their North Road location in 1973

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This not-so silent revolution has been steadily growing and has exploded in the last year alone. In 2017 demand for meat-free food rose by a phenomenal 987 per cent.

Brighton is no stranger to veganism. During my earlier years of vegan exploration, arriving in this seaside town felt like a warm embrace in terms of choice.

Now with larger companies jumping onto 2018’s biggest trend it’s even easier. Whether it’s Pizza Express’ highly publicised vegan range or Hellman’s latest vegan mayonnaise, it’s almost impossible to keep up.

But how is the widespread availability of vegan-friendly foods in chains and supermarkets, likely to be both easier and cheaper to obtain, affecting the way that people shop?

Guy Walsh, a Brighton-based ‘vegetarian with vegan leanings’ said although he tries to shop more at independent shops such as HISBE, price is usually a limiting factor: “If I was to buy fake meats I’d usually go to my local supermarket but I’m more interested in places like Pret and Itsu bringing in more vegan options for when I’m in a rush.”

This type of feedback reflects the UK’s growing meat-free market and many ‘fast food’ outlets in the UK have responded.

In September Caffè Nero introduced a vegan cheese and pesto toastie and currently rumours are rife that even Greggs is testing vegan sausage rolls.

With accounts such as @accidentallyveganuk, which posts readily available items which are ‘accidentally vegan’, amassing over 147k followers on Instagram, it is clear demand for such products is huge.

Catherine Gregson-Bourke, who owns Green Kitchen on Preston Road with her wife Katie, believes the bigger impact has been the number of mainstream chains and even independent omni cafes offering vegan options.

Green Kitchen’s breakfasts and burgers have always been the most popular items and they continue to sell very well, however, Catherine said they don’t sell a great number of snack bars as you can pick these up anywhere now.

She said: “I think people will always eat out, but there is so much choice now, vegan cafes have to compete.”

This sentiment was echoed by Phil Brown, one of the buyers and co-op workers at Infinity Foods in the North Laines, who believes the only way they can compete is by diversifying their produce.

“If we only had a small range then it would be difficult but by providing more interesting products, such as banana blossom, jackfruit and wheat gluten flour, we make sure to provide what supermarkets can’t,” he said.

Enjoying a loyal fan-base, Infinity Foods was established in 1971, and staying ahead of trends is what keeps the shop and adjoining bakery thriving.

Phil added: “Supermarkets have done this in the past with organic produce, they tend to get a whiff of trends and go after where the money is but then dump them and go where the sales are. I don’t know if this is a cynical view but hopefully they won’t do that here.”

When asked his opinion on Greggs’ vegan sausage rolls Phil replied: “Good on them.”

I spoke to Sophie Delarny, festivals manager at Viva! – a UK-based vegan charity – at Viva!’s Brighton Vegan Festival.

While she’s noticed a reduction in people coming to vegan festivals solely to buy plant-based alternatives, she believes the future is still bright:

“There will always be a place for these events, they’re where existing vegans can talk to like-minded people and where those who are curious can learn more about the diet,” she said.

Now in its third year of running vegan festivals and with a steady number of attendees every year there seems to be no sign of these kind of events running out of steam.

To combat the increased competition in vegan stockists, with people now able to pop into their local Tesco to find meat and dairy alternatives rather than a specific shop, Viva! is looking to focus on increasing talks about veganism and interactive activities rather than just products.

It seems that anything pushing veganism in the mainstream, regardless of what the agenda is, is being received positively by vegans and businesses alike.

Anything that helps V-curious individuals take the leap, consequently reducing demand for the meat and dairy industries, is a victory.

Luckily local businesses are responding instead of being overrun by the cheaper, easier options flooding the vegan market.

Even though most people may turn to supermarkets to buy their vegan ‘essentials’ from time to time, speciality shops are keeping up.

By offering home or locally-made produce and coming up with novel items ahead of the supermarkets they are able to stay afloat and still ahead of the vegan wave.