Vegan restaurants, cafes and businesses have been increasingly popular in recent years as the lifestyle has gained traction across the nation – Dundee is no exception.
Cafes and restaurants such as Birchwood Emporium, Marwick’s, Rad Apples, Loco Rita’s and Serendipities are a few of the vegan-only businesses to have made their mark on the city in recent times.
But how has the vegan culture fared following months of lockdown in a city where several businesses are heavily dependent on the local student population?
We spoke to four owners of vegan businesses in Dundee to find out more about what the close-knit community means for them.
Since the closure of Avery and Co on South Tay Street in May 2019, owner Grant Avery found the demand for the vegan options on his menu was so great, that he decided to dedicate his next venture solely to vegan cuisine.
The plant-based offering made up about 70% of his business at Avery and Co, so when he launched Mexican restaurant, Loco Rita‘s on Old Hawkhill in May this year, Grant insisted the offering changed.
Since opening the venue Grant has found the demand for his plant-based cuisine has increased dramatically.
He said: “I think at the time Avery and Co were among only a few people in Dundee that had a good choice for vegans. So that brought us to here and we just decided to go fully vegan.
“Now, at Loco Rita’s, our menu is 100% vegan – even our Mr Whippy machine.
“Every year it seems more people are taking on a plant-based diet, or deciding to not necessarily go the full hog, but certainly reduce the amount of meat they are eating.”
‘Things have come a long way’
With many of his Mexican dishes proving popular, Grant has found himself catering for people who are fully vegan, but also those who are interested in the lifestyle though aren’t fully invested.
“Our popular dishes vary – the cheeseburger taco is very popular, we do crispy cauliflower wings with buffalo sauce and those are super spicy and super popular,” he adds.
“There are also nachos and we make our own empanadas.”
“We find a lot of our customers aren’t necessarily vegan, they’re just trying to reduce their meat intake. So a couple of nights a week they might be eating vegetarian or vegan but still with meat in their diet, almost like a ‘flexitarian diet’.
“To be honest, I think if you were to come and eat here, you wouldn’t really know you weren’t eating meat – things have come a long way in the last few years for things like meat substitutes.
“I find there are two types of vegans – some really like the vegetables, pulses etc. but the others want to feel like they are eating chicken or fish, so they want a meat substitute.”
“I think Dundee’s vegan culture has sort of established itself but it’s growing momentum all the time. You can go to the majority of places now in Dundee and find a vegan option.”
Another business that has gone fully vegan in recent years is Serendipities, which opened in 2019 at the Union Street premises that used to house vegan restaurant Marwick’s.
Owner Danielle du Plooy says that as she is vegan herself, it felt right to operate as a vegan cafe, despite the fact she doesn’t advertise this on the front of the eatery.
“It was always the intention to be a vegan, eco-friendly cafe. That was our ethos, but our main organisation is Uppertunity and Serendipities belongs to that. Uppertunity is a registered social enterprise and we’re very eco-friendly,” she says.
“One of our other directors is also vegan and we had a discussion about it. It was kind of unanimous and the whole board said it fits with our ethos of equality for all because we work with people who have additional needs, learning disabilities and mental health barriers.
“When we first started we were getting people who said ‘I’m not vegan so I can’t eat there’. We never push the lifestyle on the front of the cafe – there’s no sign to say we are vegan and you don’t realise until you come inside.”
Large vegan community
As much of Dundee’s local economy has been reliant on students in recent years, Danielle feels this has helped to drive the demand for vegan food across the city.
“There is a really large vegan community in Dundee but that’s probably because of the students,” she says.
“Although, we also have a group that come in regularly who are all over the age of 60 and are all vegan, which is not often the case as it’s normally young people.
“People seem willing to try things a lot more now, are a lot more open minded and we’re a lot busier because of it. I think people are also more aware now of their impact on the planet and their overall health.
“I think because of social media, people are hearing about it a lot more and veganism is becoming more normalised. It’s kind of seen as a cool thing to do.”
The Flame Tree Cafe
Though not fully vegan, the Flame Tree Cafe, one of the city’s busiest eateries, has found it’s had to gradually increase the number of vegan options available on its menu, due to customer demand.
Jackie Cannon, the owner of the cafe says this encouraged her to create a vegan-only menu.
“We have had vegan options available since opening in 2015, however over time the number of options has steadily increased so now we find it helpful for customers to have a separate menu,” Jackie says.
“The vegan options are extremely popular – I would say on an average day at least 30% of orders are for specifically for vegan options.
“It’s fantastic that customers now have so much choice as more and more cafes/restaurants respond to the increased demand for plant-based options. We are often asked for recommendations for restaurants people can try for dinner and there are definitely many more places to list in Dundee than there was five years ago!”
One of the stalwarts of the vegan scene in the city is arguably Marwick’s which operated as a restaurant on Union Street, then on Nethergate before turning to delivering their food to homes across Tayside and Fife.
Lois Marwick, who runs the business with her husband Mike, believes that it’s Dundee’s large vegan community which has helped their business transform over the years.
“We used to have the premises where Serendipities is now on Union Street. Before we opened, we became vegan ourselves and then turned the shop vegan due to the influence of our customers and the demand.
“Staff from Lush in The Overgate would come over for their lunch and we were basically influenced by customers saying ‘do you have any non-dairy milk?’ so we’d start buying in extra.
“When you’re serving food you’ve also got to try it. When we opened Marwick’s on Union Street we were quite open to suggestions on where the menu should go. There’s a healthy vegan community in Dundee and that was what influenced us.
“I became vegan in December 2017 and then the shop went vegan in January 2018.”
As demand soared for vegan offerings in the city, Lois and Mike moved to a bigger premises that allowed them to serve more hungry customers, before pausing their operations due to illness.
Lois continues: “We moved into Nethergate in August 2019. It was a 60-cover restaurant and at that point we ended up doing a lunch and a dinner service.
“Our chef was a friend of my husband’s and is now the head chef at Saorsa, the vegan hotel in Pitlochry.
“We had this pop-up at In Residence until the January and we were looking at taking over the entire premises, as well as other premises. We looked at what is now The Selkie on Exchange Street and Kennedy’s on Castle Street. We had visions of turning all of these places into a big vegan hub but unfortunately my husband ended up contracting sepsis.
“Then coronavirus started emerging and something just said to me to just hold off looking for another premises.”
Lois and Mike found a gap in the market that they felt they could tap into with their homemade offerings, while still keeping their client base.
“We haven’t really been trading for the last year but we have been doing weekly homemade deliveries to Dundee and north-east Fife,” added Lois.
“It’s basically food from around the world, but the vegan version. Interestingly, we still have a lot of our original vegan Dundee crowd, but we’re starting to find new customers.
“If you’re not vegan or you don’t understand it, I think it can seem a bit daunting, or even if you’re not lactose intolerant.
“It’s easier I think to just try out a vegan product from Tesco or Starbucks, for example, than walk into a vegan restaurant or cafe.
“We prepare the food in our kitchen at home, which we’ve converted. We then send it out and customers can eat the meals over the weekend.
“The vegan Dundee community is quite close-knit and we still try to be part of that community.”