East Croydon Cool talks…Vegan Fast Food

East Croydon Cool talks…is a blog series that explores topics of cultural interest via local area experts. Veganism, (the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products, particularly in diet) has seen a huge increase in popularity in recent years. Earlier this year, The Vegan Society reported that over 7.2 million British adults were now following a meat free diet and the number of vegans in the UK has rise by around 40% in the last 12 months. In January, a record half a million Brits signed up for Veganuary (whereby you pledge to go Vegan for the month). With these statistics, alongside the fact that Generation Z (aged 18-23) is currently the most meat-free generation, it’s no surprise that demand for Vegan Fast Food has also seen huge increase.

We caught up with Jack from The Gnarbecue at Boxpark Croydon, who serve up “vegan sarnies of doom” (burger and sandwiches made with their unique homemade seitan steaks and patties) to find out more.

Why do you think there has been such popularity for veganism in recent years?
We’ve discussed this a lot as a team as there are certainly a wide range of influences (from people becoming more health conscious and being more aware of the environmental impact of food production to people wanting to know the provenance of their food and the increased availability of vegan products). But overall, we think a key catalyst for loads of people was the horsemeat scandal (aka ‘Horsegate’) back in 2013. This made everyone realise that they really didn’t know what was in their meat and sparked a general interest in what is actually on the country’s plate. I think for lots of people that resulted in them cutting down on their meat altogether. From there the Veganuary movement helped people jump from that general evaluation of the meat they were eating to seeing if they could abstain from it altogether. And then from there, every Veganuary’s new haul of vegan cheese, meats and general treats means that people make the change for good! I don’t think the popularity is going anywhere soon. We’re just at the beginning.

Do you think the pandemic has impacted people’s food choices?
Lockdown has certainly had an impact on people’s food choices as being limited to a weekly shop meant people had to plan their meals in advance. There’s certainly been an increase as The Vegan Review reported but how much that was because of the pandemic and how much was is because it was already a growing trend, I’m not sure. But with food becoming a key source of entertainment, lockdown definitely helped people learn about the takeaways near to them in great detail! We definitely got a lot of new regulars out of it that still order with us post lockdown (although with slightly less frequency now!!!)

What do you think about the vegan options at the big fast food chains?
We think it’s cool! Some of them have really nailed the vegan versions of their own products. If they helps somebody make the leap from full carnivore into being even just a little bit flexitarian then it can only be a good thing (and hopefully they’ll be likely to check out our food someday too!) The big guys are basically making a gateway drug to veganism!

How have you adapted your menu to make it appeal to a ‘fast food’ generation?
Our dishes are a reaction to what we saw when we started in 2017 – a lack of really “meaty” vegan options. Unsurprisingly, it was a pretty untapped market at the time. Vegan burgers in the shops have, to be fair, come on leaps and bounds since then, but we think our patties (as well as our homemade sauces) are the best in the game. The burgers and bacon are both technically seitan (a high-protein vegetarian food made from cooked wheat gluten) but they have entirely different recipes. Which is testament to seitan’s ability to mimic any meat! Our unique recipes also mean that we can get a fresh, piping hot burger to you about 3 minutes after you order, which definitely caters to the ‘fast’ in fast food. We’ve honed these skills thanks in part to our hungry Croydonites customers who need to run to catch their train!

What’s your favourite item on the menu?
The Texas Toast for sure, easily the most hedonistic. It’s a cheeseburger (so our seitan patty and nacho cheeze sauce) sitting on vegan mayo and lettuce in between two doorstop cut slices of brioche (baked in Penge especially for us) which is griddled in a garlic and herb oil. A garlic bread cheeseburger sandwich basically. It is as good as it sounds.

Do you think entertainment platforms like Netflix have impacted peoples decisions to go Vegan?
Yes, definitely! ‘Cowspiracy’ & ‘Earthlings’ are probably the most quoted as changing people’s minds, but ‘The Game Changers’ has been the most obviously influential to us. It links Veganism to benefits in both health and muscle building. We never used to see many hench blokes ordering with us but these days, we are clearly the post workout treat for loads of people!

What made you want to open in Croydon?
I am local! I live in Wallington with my partner who is a born & bred Croydoner. Jamie & Carl, the other
two guys who make up the Gnarbecue, live in Zone 2 and needed a little convincing when we first considered going to Croydon, but after a day out here they knew it was the right choice. We just did festivals before this so the business didn’t really have a home. We thought that the fact that Croydon has a real community vibe but is aware of the negative stereotypes the rest of the country has and keen to disprove them, was really cool. We definitely made the right choice, and since opening we have had customers of every shape, size, background, creed & age! A full cross section. It’s awesome.

Some argue that Veganism is tied to socio-economic status. What do you think about this?
I don’t know if that’s true when you consider your weekly shop as straight up veg is always going to be cheaper than meat?! However, I can see that being the case when you eat out or buy vegan ‘meat’ products. We’re certainly more expensive than Burger King! But we make everything from scratch and are here early morning to handcraft everything we serve. So our higher cost is because of our labour costs. And our prices are still cheaper than our meaty neighbours at Boxpark 😉

Is Vegan fast food healthy?
It certainly can be! That was never our aim though, we are a naughty treat that tastes better than the meat dish it’s mimicking rather than being a health food. However, its still got less cholesterol, no fat, no antibiotics and no carcinogens when compared to it’s dead cow version!

What are the future plans and dreams for The Gnarbecue?
We can’t waaaaaait to get back on the festival circuit, we have one in Beckenham Park this August but that’s it for 2021. Obviously it a really odd & risky time to commit to any big events given the government’s tendency to change the rules with 24 hours notice. We currently trade out of the kitchen at The Amersham Arms in New Cross and we would love to one day get a pub of our own. All 3 of us met whilst running pubs together so it’s in our blood. When we do eventually open one it is going to be called “The Goblin”! You heard it here first 😉

For more info on The Gnarbecue, visit their website.

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