‘We block 10 people a day’: culture war trolls add to UK vegan restaurants’ struggles

<span>Jim Anderson at his vegan restaurant, the Oak Tree, in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex.</span><span>Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian</span>
Jim Anderson at his vegan restaurant, the Oak Tree, in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex.Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

When Jim Anderson and his wife, Samantha, opened their vegan restaurant, the Oak Tree, in 2013, they boasted proudly of its plant-based menu. Not any more. The “V-word” has become such a target for abuse that they have removed it from their menu and social media.

“We block up to 10 people a day on social media,” said Anderson. “All we are is a restaurant that serves a type of cuisine. But for some reason, that word – the V-word – seems to cause people to go crazy, so we’ve dropped it.”

It may sound odd that anyone would be offended by chilli fried tofu or lightly battered cauliflower, but Anderson said the online abuse was relentless.

He said vegan restaurants had become a punching bag for culture war trolls who see them as a “threat to their way of life, like transgender rights and Black Lives Matter”.

Related: Vegan ‘fanatics’ blitz cafe with bad reviews in response to meat plan

Alongside sky-high operating costs, the impact of the cost of living crisis and waning appetite for plant-only food, online attacks are the latest challenge facing Britain’s vegan restaurants.

Industry experts said they were at the sharpest end of a struggling hospitality sector after a series of venues either closed or started serving meat in order to stay open.

A cafe in Cheshire last month announced that it was having to put meat on the menu to avoid closure. Last year the vegan fast-food chain Oowee closed one of its sites in Dalston, east London, and said it would put meat on the menu at a number of other venues.

Neat Burger, backed by Leonardo DiCaprio and Lewis Hamilton, closed half of its London sites in December. In the same month VBites, the vegan business owned by Heather Mills, went into administration.

In the Essex town of Leigh-on-Sea, the Oak Tree was once one of five or six vegan bistros, Anderson said. “We’re now the only one. We’ve been here since 2013 and we’re still here banging the drum – quietly.”

He said if the Oak Tree had opened in 2018 or 2019, as many other plant-only restaurants did, they would “definitely not” have survived.

In one sense, the struggle is purely economic. Independent restaurants have been battered by the squeeze on living standards, with more than 10,000 closures since the pandemic – equivalent to one in 10 hospitality businesses.

Big chains such as Nando’s, Pizza Express, McDonald’s and Wagamama muscled in on the vegan market as it grew before Covid-19, leaving smaller venues competing for a slice of an already tiny pie.

But now a change in tastes and attitudes may be under way. Paul Askew, the chef patron and owner of restaurants the Art School and Barnacle in Liverpool, said he had seen a massive shift in eating habits since the start of the pandemic.

Demand for vegan and vegetarian food had plummeted, he said, while the number of people choosing pescatarian – fish and dairy but not meat – had risen by 15-20%.

“Potentially, people who were very strict vegan have reassessed things because Covid taught us that we’re here for a good time not a long time,” he said. “I think people have loosened their strict veganism and they are willing to dip into pescatarianism or the odd meat dish.”

Industry experts said veganism was undergoing the same phenomenon as organic food before the financial crash of 2008: in perilous economic times, people prioritise value for money over food that may be more ethical but more costly.

Helen Dewdney, the consumer expert better known as the Complaining Cow, said: “Many are looking to just reduce their meat intake and become part-time vegetarians or vegans, which in turn means that food outlets serving only a vegan menu are seeing fewer and fewer customers through the doors.”

Anderson conceded that the vegan boom had “levelled out”. “Veganism was very popular for a while but maybe when Covid started people’s priorities changed,” he said.

A YouGov survey that has tracked since 2019 the proportion of diets in the UK population that are plant-based suggests it has fallen from 3% to 2% in the past year. However, a separate study by the comparison site Finder.com last month found the number of vegans in the UK had increased by 1.1 million in the past 12 months.

One trend is clear: fewer vegans are choosing to eat out, leaving restaurants deciding whether to stomach putting meat on the menu or closing their doors for good.

Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UKHospitality, said she had seen a trend away from plant-only towards “plant-forward eating”. Businesses were moving towards broader menus and experimenting with plant protein in meat dishes as a way to retain the vegan appeal, she said.

Clive Black, a retail analyst at the investment group Shore Capital, said the market for plant-based food had been progressively growing. “But the reality is far too many people thought it was going to be a bigger market than it really is.”

Ve-gone restaurants

Flower Burger The Italian vegan burger chain opened its first site in London in May 2021, with plans to open more than 40 restaurants across the UK. It opened a second site, in Brighton, later in 2021 but by September 2023 both had closed.

Neat Burger The chain backed by Lewis Hamilton and Leonardo DiCaprio shut down half of its London restaurants late last year after recording a £7.9m loss in 2022. It said last year its growth had been hampered by “multiple black swan events” including soaring inflation and the cost of living crisis.

Oowee Vegan The Bristol-born business closed one site in Dalston, east London, last May and said last week it would be expanding its meat-selling outlets. Its co-founder Charlie Watson said: “If you want to do big numbers then you have to offer the choice – you’ve got to sell meat … If you’re specifically 100% plant-based then you’re going to struggle. Because most places do a good vegan menu, friendship groups that contain both plant-based and meat eaters can easily find somewhere that caters for both.”

Greens Last month one of Manchester’s most popular vegetarian restaurants, owned by the celebrity chef Simon Rimmer, closed its doors for the final time, citing escalating costs. Rimmer, whose establishment had boasted of “terrifying carnivores” since it opened in 1990, said: “We can no longer make it work. Our landlord has increased our rent by 35%; that together with increases in power, food and staff costs have made it impossible for us to continue.”

Honest Burger The nationwide chain opened an all-vegan site, V Honest, in London’s Covent Garden in January 2022 – only to put meat on the menu six months later. The firm, which has dozens of outlets across the UK, offers four vegan dishes on its regular menus, which are more expensive than the meat options.

V Rev Manchester One of Manchester’s first and most popular vegan diners, V Rev closed in December 2022. Its owner, Dominic Moss, blamed crippling costs and a reduction in lunchtime trade. “I think hospitality has just taken such a battering over the last few years and unless you’re part of a chain or have really deep pockets, it’s just going to get harder and harder,” he said.