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The Butcher Boom

Animal-free butcher operations around the world are changing the way customers—even hardcore carnivores—buy their proteins.

Posted on May 28, 2021

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Above: The U.K.-based Faux Vegan Butchers & Delicatessen crafts a range of vegan "meats," like this Glazed Pork Belly.

Butchers around the world are reimagining the traditional meat counter—because they’re not offering meat at all, but alternative proteins that are appealing to vegans, vegetarians and flexitarians alike. Though some of these butchers have been serving up their “meats” for years, the trend is picking up steam (and gaining major media attention) in 2021.

Across the pond, The Grocer reported in January that U.K. supermarket chain Asda was testing a vegan butcher section at one of its stores—just in time for Veganuary and scheduled for six months, offering items like meat-free lamb and black pudding. By April, The Guardian noted that independent vegan butchers were facing overwhelming crowds, who lined up for as much as one hour to sample the goods, while the BBC noted that several more of these businesses were already in the works across the U.K.

In the United States, these concepts are also taking off, one homegrown location at a time. St. Louis-based chef Chris Bertke found immense success making his own mock meats for the popular Vegan Deli & Butcher and is now moving into carnivore-approved vegan pizzas and wholesale operations. The Boneless Butcher in Dallas is serving up its signature Vegan Steaks and Boneless Ribz to widespread approval in the heart of cattle country. And The Herbivorous Butcher in Minneapolis even found itself in a legal skirmish with food giant Nestlé over using the term “vegan butcher,” according to the Star Tribuneand the small shop, run by a sister-and-brother duo, won the battle.

In light of these proven success stories, companies large and small will likely join the butcher fray, especially as technology advances to enable the creation of different cuts of meat than have been available in the past. For example, in May 2021, Vegconomist reported that the company Motif FoodWorks was working with Coasun to develop technology “that replicates animal fat, allowing for more authentic fat textures, such as marbling, in plant-based meats.” The previous month, VegNews noted that New York-based startup Atlast Food Co. was using mycelium from fungi to create “a ‘whole cut’ vegan meat.”

Hence, there's a lot of room for future growth, but cruelty-free butchers are already booming. From one-person operations to publicly traded companies with multimillion-dollar IPOs like Canada’s The Very Good Butchers, these innovators are making their mark—and changing the way customers buy their proteins. We’ve rounded up four standout examples in the U.S. and abroad to learn more about their unique approaches to vegan butchery.

Real-Meat Methods Go Vegan

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As a vegan for 27 years, Chris Bertke, chef and owner of Vegan Deli & Butcher in St. Louis, learned how to make his alternative meats the old-fashioned way—through trial and error. But this longtime chef had already learned the ins and outs of working with real meat, including prep and cooking techniques, and he brought those lessons to his faux-meat game. “I tend to use a slow-cook braised method, versus steaming, boiling or baking,” Bertke says. “It’s like making real roast beef, but with fake meat. It is a form of butchery, using traditional and true real-meat methods to make it meatier and more flavorful.”

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So, for example, Bertke will go so far as to put fat caps on roast beef, or add fat throughout a meat to emulate the original—adding texture and visuals to get as close as possible to the real thing. But he also wants to keep the process streamlined, which appeals to clean-label seekers. “Not including the herbs, I need just four to five ingredients—I’m big on keeping things basic and using things you can pronounce,” Bertke explains. “If you produce and cook the products right, you don’t need 20 or 25 ingredients.”

Bertke uses dedicated meat eaters as taste testers, and they gladly tell him whether his meat interpretations are spot-on. He takes their advice to make any necessary tweaks, so the end products are ones that even carnivores covet. “We have a good group of vegan and vegetarian customers, but a ton of meat eaters, too,” Bertke notes. “If it’s good, it doesn’t matter if it’s vegan; it’ll sell itself.”

Bertke’s original Vegan Deli & Butcher location is now shuttered as he focuses on pop-up events, pizzas, and selling meats wholesale to grocery stores. But his deli bestsellers included roast beef, corned beef, black pepper turkey, and chicken cotija sausages, which were wrapped in an algae-based casing. He also sold ready-to-eat items like sandwiches as well as meats by the pound.

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Even with his growing success, Bertke hopes that vegan butchers (and alternative meat makers in general) stay a little bit “punk rock”—i.e., crafted by local artisans rather than mega corporations. “With Impossible Foods and Beyond—people are now even 3-D printing meat—to me, there’s a little bit too much science going on; it makes me nervous,” Bertke says. “It’s a double-edged sword. These big companies are bringing huge awareness to alternatives, so they’re doing a great thing—getting people something that tastes like meat without them eating meat, bringing attention to something that a ton of people believe in, and bringing cruelty-free to the masses. But they can ruin it, to an extent. I’d like to see more local vegan butcheries and smaller operations. I’m hoping the future of vegan meats lets us say to corporations, ‘Look what we can do.’”

The Faux Butchers of Nottingham

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Ritchie Stainsby, managing director of the Faux Vegan Butchers & Delicatessen in Sherwood, Nottingham, England, notes that his company was always out to change the status quo when it came to meat consumption. “We feel that protein-rich food is often solely focused around the consumption of meat and animal products, when in fact so many different vegetables contain enormous protein values,” Stainsby explains. “Our aim is to encourage a protein-rich diet through alternative products. With readily available nutritional values and the increased amount of ‘meat’ alternatives, it has never been easier to understand how to enjoy a healthy balanced diet without meat.”

Stainsby, a non-meat eater for more than 15 years, admits that his biggest challenge was simply remembering the taste of meat; he was forced to rely on memory alone. However, like Bertke, Faux Vegan Butchers regularly tests products on meat eaters to ensure their authenticity. “Taste is something that we can replicate, but texture and how the products behave in different environments (such as in a pan or a barbecue) can be difficult,” Stainsby says. “The challenges come in attempting to create fresh, tasty alternatives that will stand up against the real thing. This is the only way we will be able to encourage those who are not as put off by eating meat to try a plant-based diet.”

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Indeed, because the “butcher” label has long been associated with animal products, the designation may offer more appeal to carnivores and flexitarians who eat plant-based on a part-time basis. And Stainsby wanted to create an authentic experience and offer products that people are familiar with. “With our main purpose to provide fresh meat alternatives, the word ‘butcher’ seemed to be the right option for us,” he notes. “We wanted to help meat eaters who want to make small changes to their diet, giving a familiar experience and not something new-age and scientific—simply a local, fresh counter to buy the ingredients they’re used to.”

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At Faux, customers have been showing a lot of love to its “chicken thighs,” for which the creators attempted to take vegan chicken to the next level by including a crispy skin. “We see more and more and more for the future!” Stainsby enthuses. “With veganism growing so rapidly, it’s going to be difficult for supermarkets to keep up with demand. This should bring the rise of other artisans attempting to create new and interesting products for others to enjoy.”

Crafting Vegan Meats in Cattle Country

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Crystal Gomez, owner of The Boneless Butcher in Dallas, believes that vegan butchers and butcher shops are bringing certain missing elements to the meat-alternative scene—especially for dedicated or newly converted carnivores. “I think people who are transitioning to a vegan or plant-based lifestyle really depend on meat alternatives as a stand-in for the meals that they’re used to cooking,” Gomez explains. “Offering alternative proteins that go beyond veggie burgers and chicken nuggets will give restaurants and consumers more ways to fill that void.”

Currently, The Boneless Butcher sells only two products—Vegan Steaks and Boneless Ribz—and both have quickly become customer favorites. In terms of making the meats, Gomez finds that mimicking the flavor of real meat is easy enough, but the proper texture can be “very challenging” when crafting these alternatives. “It’s the meatiness and heartiness that you really have to work at,” Gomez says. “Those are the elements that people miss most when they cut meat out of their diet.”

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Though vegans and vegetarians are natural consumers of The Boneless Butcher’s products, Gomez’s goal is also to appeal to veg-curious individuals and give them a final push to commit to a meat-free diet. “Another inspiration that has driven us is to offer a wider variety of specialty meat alternatives that really replace meat in the way that they’re prepared and in the way that they satisfy,” Gomez says. “We’ve received very positive reviews from our customers and partners. Of course, you can’t please everyone, especially with something as delicate as this, but we plan to continue adding new recipes and products so we can offer something to everyone!”

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Ultimately, Gomez sees a bright future with exponential growth for vegan butcher shops and plant-based products in general. “Interest in these lifestyles is at an all-time high, and the more we educate ourselves and each other, the more I see that shift taking hold,” she says. “We have already seen alternative proteins grow and evolve beyond recognition over the years, and I think the demand for specialty vegan meats will follow a similar trajectory.”

Plant-Based Butchering Hits the Big Time

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Created by Murielle Banackissa, this Meat Lovers Pizza features Smokin’ Burger, Bacon and Pepperoni from The Very Good Butchers.

From humble farmers-market beginnings in 2016 to a smash-success IPO in 2020, The Very Good Butchers, with locations in Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, shows just how big vegan butchery can grow. And over the years, James Davison, co-founder and chief research and development officer at The Very Good Food Company (parent company of The Very Good Butchers), has seen more players coming into this space. “I’ve seen a huge growth in it,” he marvels. “It’s just a testament to how many people are looking to change the way they eat.”

Davison admits that he found it amusing to use a meat-associated word like “Butchers” in the company name, especially because adding the “Very Good” designation flips expectations—suggesting that they don’t have to butcher animals for great-tasting products. In fact, the company often states, “We butcher beans, not animals.” Still, Davison knew that the term might also be somewhat controversial—and if that got more people talking about the company, all the better.

As a former carnivore, Davison wanted to create faux meats that were tasty even to meat eaters—basically, to replace traditional meats—and, like others, felt that the butcher concept creates a familiarity for prospective customers. “We wanted to change how you see a butcher,” he explains. “And it really has helped attract those who are curious, like flexitarians or people who do Meatless Monday—anyone trying to cut down on meat for health or whatever other reasons. It’s not a stretch from what people are used to. It’s not like going into a store and ordering tempeh or things that some people have no idea what they are and may be skeptical about. Instead, they can just say, ‘I’m going to have a burger,’ or ‘I’m going to have a pizza with pepperoni.’”

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Most of The Very Good Butchers’ products are made with beans, veggies, wheat gluten, and herbs and spices—all organic. Newer protein sources, like pea and fava protein, are also now making an appearance on ingredient lists, but Davison sees plenty of room for further growth and innovation within every sector of plant-based. “I don’t think anything has been fully nailed,” he says. “There’s always room to innovate. On the butcher side, plant-based fish is 100% something we’re looking into.”

Interestingly, Davison notes, the number of carnivores who enjoy The Very Good Butchers’ meat alternatives is surprisingly high—from what he’s observed, part-time plant-based eaters are driving 30% to 40% of sales. Some of its most popular items include Pepperoni, Taco Stuff’er, The Very Good Burger, and sausages like Smokin’ Bangers and The Very British Banger.

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“I think people are also gravitating toward that clean-label ingredient list,” Davison adds. “When you’re replacing a single-ingredient product, like meat, people are really conscious of what goes into the alternative. They don’t want things you can’t pronounce. The great thing is, as more people are now making these products, it’s pushing everyone forward and making all of us better.”

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