Beet this: Sainsbury’s opens UK's first meat-free butcher
Pop-up store offers soya and wheat steaks, jackfruit burgers and ‘shroomdogs’
Anthony Maynard, one of the staff at the Sainsbury’s meat-free butcher. Photograph: John Nguyen/PA
“That mince ain’t doing it for me,” says an unconvinced Jane Taylor, peering in the butcher shop window at a pile of pink string that purports to have emerged from a meat grinder. “It looks like a plastic kids’ toy.”
But only soybeans, peas and carrots – and some beetroot for the pink colouring – have perished to make this mince, because this pop-up shop in east London is a meat-free butcher. The store – kitted out like a traditional butcher with strings of (veggie) sausages hanging in the window – is a three day-long initiative by the supermarket giant Sainsbury’s to show vegan food has moved on from worthy plates of lentils and brown rice.
Despite the soaring popularity of “flexitarian” diets – where a largely vegetable-based diet is supplemented occasionally with meat – and the growing trend for consuming meat alternatives and plant-based eating, a poll of 2,000 consumers commissioned by Sainsbury’s found more than half of Britons have never tried a plant-based alternative to meat.
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The survey also revealed that a fifth of those who considered themselves to be meat eaters regarded plant-based foods as “rabbit food”.
But what is billed as the UK’s first ever meat-free butchers aims to change that view. The window is filled with slabs of steak (albeit made from soya and wheat protein), jackfruit quarter pounders and chorizo-style “shroomdogs” without the chorizo. Inside, behind the counter, Anthony Maynard, the meat-free butcher, is ready to coax shoppers to try “sweet and smoky” BBQ pulled jackfruit as opposed to pork and Moroccan “vegbabs”.
Wrong-footed shoppers looking for the real thing will be left disappointed but Maynard is unapologetic: “I have got sausages – they just haven’t got any meat in them.”
The Sainsbury’s meat-free butcher is in London’s Shoreditch. Photograph: John Nguyen/PA
On Thursday afternoon – before it had even opened – the store had already become a curiosity among passing shoppers. “It doesn’t make sense,” said John Roberts, out shopping with his wife Helen. “A butcher is a butcher … you expect it [to] come with meat.” But Roberts had already texted a picture of the store front to his vegetarian son: “It’s changing times.”
A recent YouGov poll showed that for the first time, the majority of the UK population (52%) are reducing their meat consumption, while only 4% are strict vegetarians and 2% vegans. Sainsbury’s says it has seen a 65% increase in sales of plant-based products this year compared with 2018.
This shift in attitude has seen manufacturers, supermarkets and restaurants scramble to cash in on the burgeoning vegan market. Consumer goods giant Unilever has bought meat-substitute company The Vegetarian Butcher and the UK’s first 100% vegan hotel has opened in the Highlands.
This year also saw Greggs launch a vegan sausage roll that was so popular the high street baker has said its annual profits will now be higher than expected. Earlier this week Tesco, the UK’s biggest retailer, also announced a major push into the market with a new ready meals brand – Plant Chef - that would result in a tenfold increase in its vegan range to up to 300 different items.
James Hamilton, a Sainsbury’s buyer tasked with developing the supermarket’s meat-free product range, said selling plant-based versions of traditional meal time favourites like burgers, sausages and mince helped remove some of the mystique around cooking with exotic ingredients like jackfruit and tofu.
“Whilst we’re seeing a huge climb in sales of our plant-based foods, we know from conversations with customers that there is a sense of trepidation about cooking with them,” he said. “It’s about familiarity. People see tofu and are not sure what to with it but if you see veggie mince it is is simple to communicate what to do with it.”