SME - Vegetarian invasion - A niche market is going mainstream as food manufacturers cash in on the increasing awareness of healthy eating and the country's fastest growing food trend.
Vegetarians used to be regarded with a mixture of pity and scorn.
When most people were ploughing their way through the European sausage mountain, a vegetarian's choice of food was limited to grated cheese and lettuce. Nowadays, the boot is firmly on the other foot. Meat is murder.
Vegetarianism and healthy eating generally - for which read 'organic' - is resurgent. The wise business executive is wooing the custom of a healthy, growing and often well-heeled minority market.
'Times have changed. (Vegetarianism) isn't just for lentil-munchers, people who wear open-toed sandals and never wash their hair,' says Roger Browning, the eminently presentable deputy art director of the Guardian, and a confirmed vegetarian. 'There are plenty of professional types and high-flying executives who've gone veggie, too. There's certainly no social stigma anymore.'
Vegetarianism has become the country's fastest growing food trend. If people continue to spurn flesh at the current rate, we'll all be on meat-free diets by the year 2030, according to Vegetarian Society figures.
'There's been a big cultural change over the past few years,' confirms Gill Fine, Sainsbury's chief nutritionist. 'Vegetarianism has come out of the closet,' she says, 'and a wide variety of people eat vegetarian foods, even though they're not vegetarians, partly because there are so many more exciting foods available.'
There's money in this market, which includes around six million vegetarians in the UK, with 5,000 people said to be joining the cause each week and further converts no doubt to be made this month, which is 'Veggie Month'.
Sir Paul McCartney, Victoria Wood and Spike Milligan are just some of the celebrities donating their favourite recipes in support of this year's Animal Aid initiative to promote vegetarianism in the UK. A small and growing army of health-conscious eaters, who are cutting down though not necessarily cutting out their meat intake, and are prepared to pay extra for their chemical-free vegetables, are also contributing to the boom.
In a market that is growing fast, there are plenty of opportunities for spin-offs. They range from the more obvious recipe books and on-line stores to specialist hotels and holidays, cafes and restaurants, cycling and athletics clubs, shoes and clothing, vitamins, soaps and cosmetics, annual festivals and even a dating agency, Vegetarian Matchmakers. Its recorded voice message promises 'introductions to like-minded people, leading to romance and ultimately long-term relationships, including marriage'.
Ever sensitive to market trends and keen to cash in on any new money-maker, the supermarket giants are climbing on the bandwagon. The niche is going mainstream. Asda and Safeway already stock vegetarian wines supplied by vegetarian and organic vintner Vinceremos. Sainsbury stocks over 50 different types of organic product across its 200 stores, including in-store baked bread, ready meals and chocolate ice-cream, and a Tesco spokesman reckons that demand for organic products, which already account for £35 million of its annual £18 billion business, will grow at 100% a year for the next two years at least.
'We use a range of suppliers, large and small,' says Sainsbury's Fine.
'There doesn't seem to be any shortage of new products or new ideas.'
Smaller businesses are run off their feet. 'The supermarkets are taking organic foods very seriously at the moment and offering people three to five-year contracts. I simply can't keep up with demand,' says Paul Jones of Soyfoods, whose core business is supplying farm-fresh produce 'Because of the lack of government investment in organic farming, however, a lot of produce has to be flown in from abroad.'
In fact, some 80% is imported, mainly from the Low Countries but also from France, Germany and Austria where, perhaps surprisingly, 50% of farming is self-sustaining.
Jones welcomes the growth in the market but remains sceptical. He has been involved in the industry for 25 years and, while he believes there is a strong core to the market, he has seen the supermarkets flirting with 'green' products before. 'A few years ago, you couldn't move for environmentally friendly cleaning products and soap but, since the recession, they've all but disappeared. The mainstream is certainly very interested in organics but I can't help wondering whether it's just the flavour of the moment.'
That hasn't stopped some of the larger food manufacturers putting their weight behind the trend - Fox's Biscuits and Heinz both make ranges of vegetarian foods - but, by and large, it is the specialist companies that are best-positioned to address the needs of more discerning consumers. Edinburgh-based Macsween produces a range of meatless haggis, while the right-on sounding Hemp Collective trades in a whole host of hemp-based products including shampoos, lip balm and shaving oil. There are even ultra-niche companies making a healthy living out of producing vegetarian pet food and Chinese fortune cookies.
'There's been a real upturn in all things green. Loads of people are jumping on the eco bandwagon,' says Jem Gardener, director of Vinceremos.
'It got derailed somewhat during the recession but now it is back with a vengeance.' He started his business 12 years ago, importing curiosity wines from unusual places such as Russia or Zimbabwe, but over the years the 12-strong Leeds company has reinvented itself. It now supplies a wide-ranging list of vegetarian and organic wines, beers, ciders and juices. A few years ago, the fact that a wine was vegetarian was buried firmly in the small print: 'We didn't want people to think we were weirder than they already did,' admits Gardener. Now, that has become the wine's major selling point. They are sold by mail order to independent off-licences, supermarkets, hotels and restaurants.
The New Covent Garden Soup Company is another company that has taken advantage of the trend towards vegetarianism and healthy eating. A few years ago, it changed many of the stocks used in its range of fresh soups from a meat to a vegetarian base. Now, well over half the soups carry the Vegetarian Society's 'V' stamp of approval. 'The pressure base was there anyway but the BSE scare certainly increased it,' says Kate Raison, the company's marketing director. 'The American idea of eating five portions of fruit or vegetables a day is also gaining popularity over here.'
Produced in factories in London and Peterborough, New Covent Garden Soups are sold on a ticket of healthy, natural ingredients. They contain no preservatives, additives, flavourings, colourings or modified starch.
It is telling that the fresh soup market is currently growing at almost six times the rate of the tinned soup market. Although the main competition for the company is supermarket own-label soups, the business is more than able to hold its own. Last year, it achieved a turnover of £23 million, within an overall market of £60 million. 'We don't have any breakdown figures but we believe that the majority of people who buy our soups aren't actually vegetarians,' says Raison. 'People are much more aware of diet and the health benefits of eating fresh fruit and vegetables on a regular basis.'
Raison's rationale is old news to Cranks. It has underpinned the company's success as it has turned from a single restaurant in London's West End in the 1970s to a chain of restaurants with plans to expand still further.
'Vegetarianism has become an umbrella term for two distinct groups: those who don't want to eat animals and those who want to eat food that is better for them,' says managing director Gavin Heys. 'Concentrating on health and vitality removes any confusion and appeals to the majority.'
Taking its thinking beyond the norm, Cranks has also cannily rebranded its products, to meet the needs of another potentially receptive audience for its fare: the morning hangover market. Recent innovations include the Ginger De Tox, made with ginger, pineapple juice and a hint of lime, which Heys claims is 'perfect for flushing out the toxins in your body and making you ready for the day ahead'. Or the revitalising Mango Smoothie, which offers a whole day's supply of vitamin C. Just the job if you've over-indulged on the vegetarian wine the night before.
Cranks is not the only business to expand from more humble vegetarian origins but, while it has gone more mainstream, 15 year old Nottingham-based Veggies has remained faithful to its roots. It is more politically motivated, dedicated to furthering the aims of the movement, with links to organisations such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. As a non-profit-making enterprise, it uses the money it makes from selling wholesale quick-frozen veggie burgers, 'sosages' and burger mix to fund a variety of community-based programmes in the city.
'A major part of our work has been to encourage a vegetarian outlook,' explains its co-ordinator, Patrick Smith, 'and, while there has been an exponential growth in vegetarian trade, availability is so widespread that people aren't necessarily coming to us for their veggie burgers anymore.'
The company is fighting back. With two members of staff and a host of volunteers, it supports The Circle A cafe in the centre of Nottingham and is generating further revenue from catering - anything from small private weddings to street parties. Over the past few years, it has had two stalls at the Glastonbury Festival, feeding up to 2,500 muddied music fans a day. 'We've kind of turned the business ethic on its head,' explains Smith. 'You could liken the way we operate to Oxfam, where the Oxfam shops fund the serious charitable side of the organisation.'
Whatever their underlying motivation, small to medium-sized businesses involved in the vegetarian and organic sector agree that there are currently plenty of opportunities to be exploited. And with a stream of BSE-type food scares and a general move toward healthier living, this time it looks likely to last.
SOYFOODS CATERS FOR THE INFORMED CONSUMER
Paul Jones set up Soyfoods some 25 years ago, out of frustration more than anything else. 'I was a student of macrobiotics in the 1960s but found there wasn't any macrobiotic food available,' he says. 'That encouraged me to set up my own business. I was following a US model, which moved from California to the American East Coast and then over the Pond, the way things often do. It was a lifestyle issue for me, a kind of New Age thing.'
Maybe so, but today it has also become a tidy little business, with 25 employees, a turnover of £1.2 million and year-on-year growth of 30% to 50%. The Melton Mowbray-based company provides a two-pronged service: the core business of sourcing and delivering organic produce (including veg and tofu) and the manufacture of vegan-friendly consumables such as gluten-free Christmas puddings, organic nut roasts, tofu and vegetable pasties, and five-grain tofu and nut burgers. It also supplies a wide range of speciality breads such as focaccia, rye and sweetcorn sourdough, olive bread, organic yeasted spelt bread and brown rice bread.
'In France, boulangerie-patisserie baking is a real craft,' says Jones.
'It's a perfectly respectable bourgeois profession. Not so here. Most of the bread here is industrially baked by button-pushers, and it's been like that ever since the war. When people go abroad to France, Italy, Germany or Greece, they taste all these great breads and want them when they get home.'
Jones, who says he has been obliged to invent himself and become an expert in every aspect of his market, supplies some supermarkets, but mainly what he calls the secondary market, independent specialist shops and voluntary 'box schemes' run by organisations such as Friends of the Earth. He describes his customers as 'informed consumers who are cynical about mass-produced industrial foods'.
CRANKS HAPPILY RIDES THE WAVE OF THE MARKET
The Cranks chain of vegetarian restaurants was established in 1961, when the idea of eating a salad for lunch was anathema and its range of lentil casseroles was regarded with suspicion by all but the faithful.
Today, Cranks markets itself as a 'health and vitality' concern - it is estimated that 80% of its customers are non-vegetarians who simply want a quick, healthy lunch.
With a new management team on board, the company has recently revitalised its image to 'make it more accessible to the mainstream, less clubby, less niche', says managing director Gavin Heys. As part of a £2 million investment, its six London restaurants, all of which offer take-away services, have been refurbished to look more contemporary and are soon to be joined by another branch in Canary Wharf. The only Cranks restaurant outside the capital is in Dartington, Devon, but there are plans to launch several more, initially in the M25 corridor and later in several northern metropolitan centres.
'The move towards healthy eating was started by doctors and nutritionists and then taken up by the consumer press in the 1980s as part of an attractive lifestyle message,' says Heys. 'First, it was the women's magazines but, more recently, they've been joined by men's magazines, which are also putting across the benefits of healthy lifestyle and nutrition.' Heys, who has been in the job for three years, admits that Cranks is quite happy to 'ride the wave of the market'. And why not? You certainly can't accuse them of jumping on the vegetarian bandwagon.
Cranks has sold over a million cookbooks since 1982, the latest volume being Cranks Light: 100 Delicious Recipes for Vitality and Health. It also supplies half a million loaves of organic sunflower seed bread per annum to supermarkets.