Sainsbury’s recently opened its Meat-Free Butchers, popping up for three days to serve East Londoners plant-based alternatives to meat and educate them about how best to prepare them. Innovation researcher Charlie Lloyd went down to take a look.
Over the past few years, we’ve covered a number of ‘vegetable butchers’ at GDR. In most cases, such as at Whole Foods and Pusateri’s in Toronto, the focus of these butchers has been to prepare vegetables for the customer, taking on the burden of peeling and chopping produce in the same way that a traditional butcher prepares pieces of meat. The latest grocer to play around with this metaphor, Sainsbury’s, has instead taken an approach more like that of Canadian deli Yamchops; selling its range of plant-based substitutes, from smoky jackfruit burgers to Veggie Ribz.
Aesthetically Sainsbury’s went to great lengths to make this pop-up look as much like a conventional British butchers as possible, albeit a very heavily branded one, from the same leafy window displays and the sausages hanging down in links, to the uniforms worn by staff. As soon as you approached the pop-up, however, it was clear that this was a butchers with a difference, thanks to chalkboards outside displaying messages such as ‘meat-free from my head tomatoes’ along with the hashtag #meatfreebutchers.
Inside there was a wide range of meat-free steaks, kebabs, bacon, sausages and more, all presented in the same refrigerated glass displays of a butchers’ shop. A nice touch that underlined the pop-up’s commitment to the concept was that all the products in these displays were sold loose, and many by weight, so staff were constantly seen weighing up customers’ orders of pulled jackfruit or veggie bacon.
The pop-up was clearly a success, as indeed you might expect in an increasingly plant-based East London. I visited on Saturday morning, having seen a fairly substantial queue outside on Friday evening, and inside a notice had been put up politely establishing a per-customer limit to quantities of certain products. I did notice customers being surprised by the low price of the food (possibly because the immersive nature of the pop-up might have led customers to expect butchers’ prices). This may have played a role in the rapidly diminishing stock, in addition to the general popularity of the pop-up.
Though the butchers was making a lot of sales, it wasn’t there solely to do so. There was also a strong focus on educating customers about recipe ideas and how to prepare the food on sale. A poster behind the counter provided some light touch suggestions for customers, recommending doing things like adding chorizo-style mushroom sausages (or ‘shroomdogs’) to a stew, while more comprehensive recipes were available on cards for customers to take home. Cooking instructions were provided on stickers added to the paper packaging that staff wrapped up customers’ orders in, and free samples of various items were available for customers to try.
Whether vegetable butchers are chopping up onions for customers like at Whole Foods, or selling them vegetarian burgers like they did here, they’re a part of the popular trend of using the language of meat to sell vegetarian foods. The metaphor makes sense for various reasons. Customers having transitioned to a vegetarian or vegan diet might miss the rituals associated with buying meat as much as they miss the meat itself, while it offers an engaging way of educating more carnivorous customers about the alternatives that are out there.
Based on my visit, the pop-up was a roaring success and it’s not hard to imagine similar counters being added to Sainsbury’s larger stores. The demand was certainly there over the weekend in Bethnal Green; while the price points were possibly not high enough to make standalone stores viable on a permanent basis, it’s an engaging proposition that emphasises the growing quality and volume of meat alternatives.