It is that time of year again: new year, new me, new veganised version of a classic Greggs product.
Just as the Christmas period has come to be intertwined with a cutesy John Lewis advert, 2 January is now The Day of the Vegan – particularly those vegans partial to baked goods.
Last year saw the bakery chain-come-national treasure seize upon Veganuary, a month in which the more carnivorous among us attempts to forego any animal-based produce. Back then, to much excitement and queues across the country, Greggs launched a vegan version of its bestseller: the sausage roll.
Despite predictably boring snowflake-based criticism (much of which appeared to be a clever PR stunt), the Quorn-filled pastry was an undeniable success. Tasting almost identical to the meat version, it stormed into Greggs’s top five products, and was credited with what the Financial Times reported to be the chain’s biggest ever sales growth: a 58 per cent increase in profits in the first half of 2019.
This year it’s the humble steak bake’s turn to vie for the spotlight. While its arrival was already heavily rumoured after a sign for the vegan bake was spotted in a store last week, Greggs teased the release only with a cryptic all-black poster worthy of a new iPhone, simply reading “Greggs X Vegan”.
Yet despite the billboards and the “Vegan Steak Bake Locator”, an online tool for finding your nearest branch selling the products, the reaction has this year been more muted. Last 2 January, when my colleague visited the branch on London’s Strand hoping to get her hands on a vegan sausage roll, she had to queue out the door – and wait for a new batch to be cooked.
Today, on the other hand, I waltzed straight in and up to the till, where there were five vegan steak bakes sitting on the shelves. (Although a somewhat frenzied-looking employee did look relieved to realise she still had some in stock, and claimed to have sold “literally eight in the last five seconds”.)
I, too, was far less excited by this year’s offering than I had been by the sausage roll, something I had long dreamed about during particularly bad hangovers. Yet I have to say: vegan steak bakes are very good.
The pastry, which is somehow more golden than that of the weirdly pale vegan sausage rolls, is filled with Quorn, diced onions and vegetable gravy. It costs £1.55 and is extremely delicious, but as I have never actually tried a regular steak bake, there is little more I can say: I have nothing to compare it to.
To me, it tastes like a Linda McCartney Deep Dish Country Pie – a staple of my childhood. My colleague Anoosh, who is much more qualified to draw comparisons, said the vegan alternative tastes just like the original. The satisfied murmurs of agreement around the New Statesman web desk suggest she is right.
Asked which I prefer, vegan steak bake or vegan sausage roll, I am surprised to struggle. I expected the steak bake could offer no competition to my beloved sausage roll. If pushed I would probably say the sausage roll slightly edges into the lead, but it’s a close competition. To put it simply: it would not at all be a disappointment to order a sausage roll and be told there were steak bakes left.
In fact, the only disappointment of the vegan steak bake is that its release likely means we will have to wait another year for another like it. Although Greggs CEO Roger Whiteside announced last year that he has become vegan – and the bakery chain reportedly plans to launch vegan versions of all its most popular items – it seems the publicity and popularity of Veganuary is just too good an opportunity for businesses to miss.
KFC, too, today jumped on the bandwagon, launching its first-ever plant-based burger. Chicago Town will this month have its first vegan offering among its frozen pizzas. Co-op will next week release a vegan range. Café Nero will do the same, featuring plant-based croissants and vegan cheesecake.
The annual mass launch of so many vegan products is an undeniably good thing, and something to look forward to for many of us. But until Greggs can launch a plant-based snack on, say, a random Tuesday in June, its doing so won’t be an ethical decision but a marketing gimmick.