Veganuary: More non-vegans are turning to meat-free alternatives

Kenny Rea launched Dirty Vegan Feed in early 2020. Pictures by Hugh Russell. 

AN increasing number of non-vegans are turning to plant-based foods, the founder of two Belfast meat-free food start-ups has said.

Kenny Rea launched Plant Based Plans three years ago. The healthy meals home delivery company, which took off during lockdown, has spawned a second, less healthy food venture: Dirty Vegan Feeds.

But while Veganuary is increasingly rivalling ‘Dry January’ as a New Year health challenge, the hospitality entrepreneur said the evidence shows it’s no fad.

He said around half his customers are not vegan, but simply want to introduce more meat alternatives into their diet.

Mr Rea previously worked on the operational side of Michael Deane’s business in Belfast, before catching the kitchen bug himself.

What started out as an attempt to better understand the industry he worked in, soon turned into something else.

“Once you start the cooking side of things, it’s quite addictive," he recalled.

But after turning vegan six years ago, Kenny said he was underwhelmed by the choices on the market and instead he used his cooking skills to experiment with his own recipes.

A decision to share one of his creations on social media suddenly opened a door for Kenny that would eventually take him to Glenwood Business Centre and ‘Plant Based Plans’.

“I looked into it and there wasn’t really anyone doing plant-based meals in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“I put it out on social media and people responded, and that’s where it started.”

Initially starting from his own kitchen, the scale of the operation soon required a new premises and more people.

The introduction of the first Covid-19 lockdown and Northern Ireland-wide deliveries took the business to a new level.

“That’s when it really took off. We saw the orders triple in a week.

“Lockdown was actually quite good for us. The timing was right.”

Kenny Rea and his team at work.

While the business continued to grow around healthy meals, kitchen chat often lamented the lack of a place to buy good vegan ‘hangover food’, such as burgers and kebabs.

Those conversations soon turned into what became ‘Dirty Vegan Feed’.

“It’s just that satisfying food that you crave now and again,” said Kenny.

“It’s still relatively healthy compared to the meat counterparts, but it’s the other end of spectrum to our healthy meal plans. It’s about offering people a version of the fast food they ate before they were vegan.”

Pop-up appearances, including a very successful stint at the NI Vegan Festival at CastleCourt last summer, proved a demand existed for Dirty Vegan’s meat-free ‘chicken’ burgers, kebabs and bacon alternatives.

“We want to be able to show that there’s just as much choice and variety when you go vegan, but there’s no animals involved,” said Kenny.

And while the demand for meat-free food is growing, the business owner said the market still hasn’t arrived at the point where Dirty Vegan can open as a full-time takeaway.

But a new retail range is currently in development for both supermarkets and online, with plans to sell right across Ireland and the UK.

The Double Facon Cheeze burger.

“We don’t feel there is a seven-day a week market in Belfast yet for a fully vegan takeaway, so we’ve focused on pop-up events and the retail range.”

What both ventures show however, is that the demand is not just been driven by full-time vegans.

“If we look at the demographic of the customers for our meal plans, around 50 per cent aren’t vegan, they want to introduce more plant-based food into their diet,” said Kenny.

“We aren’t preachy about eating meat. We want to give people as many different and accessible options as possible.”

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