There are few scents greater than that of a barbecue. Kind of smoky, kind of sweet, the aroma conjuring up the promise of sunshine, a burger and somewhere between seven to nine pints. In the UK, barbecues tend to mean meat: sausages, burgers and chicken skewers sizzling away on the grill in parks and gardens all over. But in 2021, that could start to change.
Arguably beginning with the arrival of the Greggs’ vegan sausage roll in January of 2019, vegan convenience food items rapidly became more widely available than ever, while more brands producing fake meat rose to prominence and supermarkets’ plant-based offerings expanded exponentially. In late-2020, Tesco, the UK’s biggest supermarket brand, set itself a target to increase sales of meat alternatives by 300 percent by 2025.
While meat alternatives originated in Chinese cooking – as is too often forgotten – this recent vegan revolution has seen the proliferation of like-for-like fake meat alternatives to western dishes. In UK stores, this comes to customers in the form of seasonal launches – like vegan roasting joints for Easter, or pigs in blankets and party food for Christmas and New Year. Now, it seems that both vegan meat manufacturers and supermarkets selling own-brand items are, for the first time, taking aim at fake meat intended to tap into the summer barbecue market.
Though vegan burgers and sausages were already a mainstay of plant-based supermarket sections, this year many brands have widened their scope, and the new products have already started dropping. THIS – famous for their vegan bacon and chicken pieces – have released a range of chicken-style skewers for barbecues, and cocktail sausages intended for dining al fresco. Simultaneously, Tesco, through their partnership with plant-based chefs Wicked Kitchen, have released brand new skewers and burgers.
Jay Ghosh, Product Development Manager for Sainsbury’s plant-based offering, told me the supermarket’s new barbecue-friendly products were inspired in part by customers’ inability to travel to overseas summer holiday destinations, due to the pandemic (plus, the relative safety of outdoor gatherings as opposed to indoor ones must also have contributed to the gap in the market for vegan barbecue items).
“With travel off the table the past year, we’ve been inspired by global flavours and bringing authentic food pairings from around the globe directly to our customers’ kitchens,” he explained, adding that not all of the Sainsbury’s summer barbecue items are centred around fake meat (the chain will offer Summer Edition Katsu Butternut Burger and Summer Edition Carrot and Red Pepper Falafel Burgers).
Ghosh added that outdoor dining is an important factor for Sainsbury’s: “It was important to us that these global flavours were in recognisable barbecue form, from burgers to skewers, as we know our shoppers look out for the classics to enjoy as part of al fresco dining, regardless of their dietary needs.”
Andy Shovel, co-founder of THIS – which was started in 2019 when Shovel and his business partner, Pete Sharman, who previously owned a meat business together, “decided to go into sustainable food and try to undo some of the damage that we’d done” – told me his brand has similar motivations. He explained that the thinking behind the brand’s new THIS Isn’t Chicken Skewers was all about giving people what they’re familiar with.
“With everything we do, we try and be reassuringly mainstream, basically, because we feel really strongly about normalising plant-based food,” he said. “We basically did some work around what is normal to have on a meaty kebab, and in terms of flavour we actually took inspiration from a certain chicken chain, when it came to the lemon and herb. We just thought, ‘If it ain’t broke, let’s give people what they clearly really enjoy.’”
Sarah Augustine, Brand Manager for the vegan meat brand Squeaky Bean – best known for its vegan deli slices and chicken pieces – agreed with this approach. “It’s a misconception that vegans and vegetarians don’t want to eat products that taste and look like meat,” she told me over email. “The three main reasons that people remove or reduce meat from their diets are for their health, the environment and for the animals. Many people miss eating certain foods.”
Both Squeaky Bean and THIS, however, want to appeal more broadly than the vegan market alone, appealing to flexitarians and meat-eaters too. Shovel explained that he wants to create credible alternatives to meat: “It’s worth mentioning that we are trying to position ourselves for meat lovers as well as non-meat eaters,” he said. “The aim is for meat eaters and meat lovers to basically think to themselves, ‘Well, I can still get the stuff that I like to eat and enjoy, and is normal for me.’ But it will just be without all of the detriments of having meat.”
However, vegan meat is only set up to compete with real meat if it’s given the requisite space in the supermarkets. In fact, the reason I was so interested in looking into the growing world of vegan barbecue items was because, since plant-based food became more easily obtainable on a large scale, its seasonality has changed in tandem with that of meat items.
For example, at Christmas, when turkey crowns and pigs in blankets go on sale, the supermarkets also roll out an onslaught of vegan alternatives. This year’s wave of new barbecue launches indicates that plant-based items are popular enough to go up against meat all year round, with specific seasonal launches dependent on national trends.
I put this to Ghosh, who contextualised it for me in terms of the Sainsbury’s offering. “We believe seasonal launches are a great way to normalise vegan food and recruit more customers into this category and lifestyle,” he said. “We’ve seen ourselves outperform the market with our plant-based ranges for Christmas and Veganuary […] and we expect the same trend to continue for summer.
“The most seasonally-affected vegan products we sell are our burgers and kebabs, where we see a spike in summer, compared to mince and pastry, which spikes in winter. Earlier this year, we launched our vegan-friendly Plant Pioneers No Steak Bake, which has seen particularly impressive success as customers look to warming comfort foods when the weather gets colder.”
In recent years, vegans have been able to tell supermarkets what they want via social media, where vegan food accounts boom. One of these accounts is @accidentallyveganuk, which documents supermarket finds. It’s run by the team behind The Vegan Kind, the UK’s biggest vegan subscription box service, and an all-vegan online supermarket.
The Vegan Kind’s CEO, Scott McCulloch, told me about the impact vegan social media has had on brands in the UK, giving examples such as Hellman’s and Magnum ice cream, which have both recently launched vegan products.
“These businesses always follow consumer trends and the demand of the market,” he said. “People are going vegan in their droves, and it makes sense that all businesses give their consumers what they want. People want low impact food, which comes from sustainable sources, and in which no cruelty was involved. That is why the vegan and plant-based sector is blowing up. Social media has played a monumental part in this.”
It seems like this pattern will continue as demand only grows. One poll found that the number of vegans in the UK increased by 40 percent in 2020, with the number jumping from 1.1 million at the beginning of the year to 1.5 million by the end – equivalent to 3 percent of the population – while vegan meat brands go from strength to strength.
Shovel tells me that THIS will be continuing in its quest to provide the most credible alternatives to meat on the market, and that the brand’s next frontier is animal fats. “Animal fat is one of the things that really elevates animal meat, meaty products. That’s something we’re working really hard on,” he explained.
For now, the looming summer of barbecue looks to be the best ever for the UK’s vegans, with skewers, kebabs and sausages all on the menu. Gone are the days of the mushroom burger and the sad plate of salad – and honestly, thank fuck for that.