Food & Drink

Why Manchester is at the forefront of the vegan movement

Veganism is here to stay in Britain – and Manchester has become a hub of the movement in the North.

On an industrial estate in Trafford on a grey afternoon in March, former corporate banker John Roper stands in an apron behind a table covered with a gingham tablecloth.

He tells me about how vegan markets like this are essential to his business, founded in 2022.

He said: “I’ve been doing markets for about 18 months now. I split my time and business between wholesaling and markets, and with the bigger vegan events, they do tend to be worth travelling for.

“The ones in Manchester are the biggest. The one near Christmas is always really busy, and I’ve also been to Leeds for their events.”

John Roper, the one-man-show behind The Vegan Picnic Basket

Wigan-born Roper makes vegan versions of picnic favourites such as Bakewell tarts, scotch eggs and ‘porkless’ pies – which recently won bronze at the British Pie Awards.

His story is one that demonstrates the impact of veganism on mainstream UK food culture – and also how it is making inroads into unfamiliar territory.

“I think a good endorsement of it is that my dad will often get me to send him twenty or so pies back so he can give them to his friends,” he said.

“If I can win over the opinion of 70-year-old born and bred Wiganers who aren’t vegan, then there’s something for everyone in the things that I sell.”

Some of Roper’s baked goods, including the ‘porkless’ pie

It’s a sentiment shared by many who want to see the vegan food offering in their area continue to develop.

The Northern Vegan Festival, held at Bowlers Exhibition Centre in Trafford in March, was a prime example of the widespread popularity the market format has in spreading the meat-free message.

More than 100 stalls were set up, selling everything from vegan fish and chips, marinades and cakes to plant-based dog food, baked goods and skincare products.

It was far from a one-off event though – even Melton Mowbray, the home of the British institution that is the pork pie, has its own vegan market scheduled for November this year.

And Vegan Events UK, who organise many of these markets up and down the country, have rapidly become a national leader in the field since being founded in 2017, staging over twenty-five events this year alone – with at least one per month across Northern towns and cities.

Map of vegan market locations in 2023:

From thriving awareness campaigns and varied supermarket options through to food markets and craft fairs, a plant-based lifestyle has embedded itself in British consumer habits.

And Manchester is establishing itself as a vanguard city for its vegan offering.

Origins of The Vegan Society

Led by Donald Watson, a joinery teacher from West Yorkshire and a member of the Leicester Vegetarian Society, a November 1944 newsletter entitled ‘The Vegan News’ sought to spread the message that vegetarianism had no meaning if it still allowed the exploitation of cows for dairy products.

Seventy five years on, a joint study by The Vegan Society and market research organisation Ipsos Mori revealed that between 2014 and 2019, the number of vegans in the UK had quadrupled from 150,000 to 600,000, making up about 1.2% of the population.

Watson, who many call ‘the original vegan’, is credited as a trailblazer who was central in bringing this way of life to a much broader audience.

Vegan Society timeline:
The vegan society’s journey by Nathan Blackwood

The impact of the pandemic

But setbacks for the movement here have come in many forms – and not just from mainstream media figures like Piers Morgan, who infamously ate a steak in front of an Animal Rebellion protester on TalkTV as he branded vegans as ‘extremists’.

For Middle-Eastern-inspired brand Cuzena, the Coronavirus pandemic was the major stopping-block in the road to their success.

Lewis Brown-Stark, head of marketing for the Manchester-based fledgling business, said: “You can’t sell a new food product without tasting – a lack of understanding around food is the key barrier when it comes to purchasing.

“We were in the Ocado offices literally five days before Boris Johnson announced the first lockdown, but unfortunately the listing was pulled,” he added.

Having been so close to such a major milestone for their brand, the Cuzena team regrouped and thought up a new product with the hope of finally breaking through and being stocked in retailers across the country.

“That was just part and parcel of being a business at that time – so we went back to the drawing board.

“We then relaunched with our vegan three-minute marinades which are now stocked in Co-ops all over the UK, and actually Manchester Ancoats is our best-selling store nationwide,” he said.

Lewis Brown-Stark and Sally Middleton of Cuzena

The ambitious nature of the new, vegan brands now appearing regularly on supermarket shelves is evident.

But what is it like to be a vegan foodie in Manchester?

Clara van Biesebroeck, a vegan of five years and a Manchester resident, said: “The standard of vegan restaurants in Manchester is high.

“There were so many vegan restaurants when I first moved here, and although that has changed a bit now, the options and quality are still amazing,” she added.

“The Allotment, for example, makes really innovative dishes – not just risotto or stuffed peppers or dishes you can make at home, and that is just one of many.”

While some dedicated vegan restaurants now struggle due to increased options in non-vegan restaurants, Clara feels certain that the future for Mancunian vegans is bright.

She said: “The number of people choosing plant based diets is just increasing and you very rarely go back once you become vegan.

“Social media is a big help – it spreads the reality of the cruelty in the meat and dairy industriesm and because of that I can only see the number of vegans here and across the UK continuing to grow.”

Another way of measuring the appetite for veganism is through campaigns like the popular annual challenge of Veganuary.

Veganuary signups graph:
Veganuary sign-ups since 2018 by Nathan Blackwood

From 168,500 sign-ups in 2018 to over 700,000 this year, a four-fold increase in official participants doesn’t even tell the full story – research from data analytics company Kantar suggests that the actual figure of participants globally is around ten times this amount!

International Head of Communications at Veganuary Dr Toni Vernelli said: “Our post-pledge participant surveys show that roughly a third of people who signed-up planned to stay vegan when the month was over.

“Of the rest, more than 75% planned to reduce their consumption of animal products by at least 50% going forward,” Vernelli added.

It is more evidence of the lasting impact that veganism has on those who give it a go.

The number of plant-based products on offer at supermarkets, combined with the brand visibility that vegan markets bring to smaller retailers is a plant-powered recipe for success.

The UK stands at the forefront of the vegan movement – and Manchester looks set to continue leading the way.


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