The dessert world is fairly well dominated by custard, crème pâtissière, vanilla pudding or whatever it’s called in your neighbourhood. It’s in the middle of a German Bee Sting Cake and its right at the heart of a Gateau Basque and you can’t avoid it in the middle of a Swedish Sun Bun. A Portuguese Pastel de Nata is just a pastry shell without it.

These are the things, along with a cream-filled Victoria Sponge, the Tarte Tatin and the Treacle Tart that one might assume a vegan has to go without. Butter, eggs, milk and cream are all, annoyingly, sat there between the eater and their more sustainable, plant-based diet. According to the UK’s Vegan Society figures, it would mean that 600,000 people (other surveys suggest 3.5 million!) on the small islands of Great Britain alone, would need to go without an Éclair or Chocolate Chip Cookie for the rest of their vegan lives. That the number choosing veganism in the UK alone at least quadrupled between 2014 and 2018 suggests that to ignore the growth and deny a burgeoning customer base tasty solutions is a business open goal too wide to ignore. The apparent, near revolution has hit indie bakeries like a hungry, meat-free wave, just the same as supermarket monsters and cash-hungry chain coffee shops and restaurants.

The Vegan Society: Independent shops need to step up their vegan game if they want to compete with mainstream chains.

Is it possible, both now and in the future, to be a bakery trading in a tough independent market place and not go vegan? Is it easy to please everyone by being one thing, the other or something in between? Is it possible to replace the eggs in custard? With the buttery croissant, sans butter, now winning taste awards via patient, pioneering bakers at The Artisan Bakery, London and no doubt successfully developed by other bakeries the world over, surely anything is possible.

Dominika Piasecka, spokeswoman for The Vegan Society, reflects on the simple facts contained in the numbers, saying: “With the population of vegans constantly increasing and more interest in plant-based diets overall, we’ve seen a huge number of vegan food options, products and businesses, all working hard to satisfy the exponentially growing demand. Veganism offers a tremendous opportunity for the baking industry precisely because it’s a new and exciting concept that’s slowly but surely making its way into the mainstream.

“All the major coffee shops now offer vegan bakery products, and independent shops need to step up their vegan game if they want to compete with mainstream chains.”

Specialist diets, from the high-protein gym bunnies to the necessity of a gluten-free diet for those diagnosed as medically averse to the stretchy stuff, are catered for everywhere. There’s no longer any sense of being ‘special’ when approaching the counter of a bakery or deli and saying you have distinct needs. Yet, people have short memories and trends change quickly. Too fast to properly plan a long term business strategy?

They would rather disclose that they were only vegan when vegan options were specifically asked after. They asked if they could fib about it being a ‘normal’ cake!

“When we first started The Black Cat Cakery just over seven years ago, we found that some of our outlets deliberately did not advertise our cakes as being vegan,” recalls Erika N, one of the two Erikas underpinning cake baking operations at the popular Manchester bakery. “They would rather disclose that they were only vegan when vegan options were specifically asked after. One place even said that their customers were less likely to go for our carrot cake if they knew it was vegan, so could they please fib about it being a ‘normal’ cake! Obviously, things are now quite the opposite, with vegetarian and vegan and gluten free options being advertised on menus being the norm, and cafes going out of their way to highlight their vegan wares.”

Erika N of The Black Cat Cakery with a creamy creation that belies it’s vegan credentials. 

More Vegan Society research states that 56% of people follow vegan decision making trends, checking packets to read up on welfare standards and striving for ‘cruelty free’ options whenever possible, with one in five considering a total switch. It seems that the new normal is here to stay, offering bakeries future-safe surety as they diversify. The days of people turning their noses up at the vegetarian or vegan option appear to be behind us, something that bakeries like London’s vegan-only MS Cupcake realising in the constitution of their customer base.

Owner, Ben Woodcock, says: “Can vegan baking be truly equal to non-vegan? Yes, for sure! And the testament to that is that the majority of our customers are not actually vegan. In our first year our cupcakes flew off the shelves at food markets across London each and every day. This gave us the confidence to open our first shop in Brixton just a year later.”

A 2016 study by Oxford University stated that 8 million human lives could be saved by 2050 if everybody went vegan, combining environmental security with improved individual health outcomes, so scientists are also telling us it’s in our collective best interests. For some bakeries, the very essence of veganism overrides any considerations for money making and what market forces are telling them.

Michelle Orme of The Vegan Cakery in Leicestershire says: “Finding or taking advantage of a market wasn’t my big priority, I started The Vegan Cakery to be able to donate to a wide variety of animal charities and sanctuaries across the UK, and some abroad too. That’s the core of the business and always will be. That said, though, since I became vegan 15 years ago the growth has been huge, so I knew demand was only going to develop.”

Vegan inside and out. MS Cupcakes telling it and baking it how it is. 

When it comes to bakeries making a choice about continuing to use animal-based products in their ranges, Orme doesn’t feel like there needs to be a lengthy discussion about the consequences. She continues: “If bakeries and food producers aren’t willing to actually look at the impact they’re having on animals, animal welfare and the exploitation they’re complicit in, particularly with no place to hide anymore with everything clear to see across social media and more widely with films such as Cowspiracy, then they’re going to struggle as time moves on.”

Erika at The Black Cat Cakery, on the other hand, sees the independent landscape being richer in its diversity, suggesting: “Now that there is an influx of vegan bakeries there isn’t harm in ‘traditional’ bakeries sticking to what they have always done. Vegans now have options. Personally, and from an environmental viewpoint however, it would be nice to see more places lean toward using non-animal product based ingredients.”

Independent bakeries can be forgiven for thinking it could be an existence altering, perhaps existence-threatening shift to bin eggs, butter and other animal-derived products, so integral to classic, traditional baking to go completely plant-based. Can you really get the same results by swapping plant oils and nut milks for those time-worn staples?

Mike Koritko of the lauded, ‘free from’ Rise Bakery in Washington DC offers his perspectives while surveying a range that’s constantly in high demand, saying: “We make vegan items with products that naturally lend themselves well to vegan baking, like banana nut muffins and carrot cake because you get moisture from the produce. We also do several vegan breads with multiple grains and seeds so you’re getting protein, fat and moisture from bran and seeds instead of oil.

“For the carrot cupcake, we use a coconut milk frosting. We try to stay away from margarine and oil as replacements for butter and eggs as much as we can. There are lots of great vegan ingredients you can use to add flavour and make it nice. It’s easy to make a shortening based frosting that’s vegan and, in fact, lots of grocery store cupcakes actually have vegan frosting because it’s cheaper and more shelf stable.”

The Real Deal. The perfect egg-free macaron and the hallowed cinnamon bun, vegan style, from The Naked Bakery.

In Dunfermline, Scotland, Louise Nicholson founded The Naked Bakery as a result of home baking for her and her son, who both suffer from food allergies. Now a professional baker with a business supplying a customer base of both vegans and non-vegans, she’s convinced she’s perfected a French Macaron that’s egg free, yet indistinguishable from the original. But, it takes time to get vegan, like non-vegan, recipes right. She says: “You can sometimes substitute ingredients in non-vegan recipes with vegan alternatives like soya milk in place of dairy milk for example and then in other cases this doesn’t work as well. Personally for me it was a completely new learning experience, a lot of experiments and time to develop my recipes.”

The answer to whether an independent bakery needs to consider going completely vegan is a difficult one to argue conclusively from business perspective, or from a baking quality and product range perspective. An all-butter cookie business may find it harder to adapt than those working mainly with yeasted doughs, but if not the animal welfare standards then the environmental issues highlighted by academics will surely put up a tougher moral fight against resistant arguments as time passes.

With a quarter of millennials responding to surveys stating that they are vegan, the future of independent plant-based versus animal product-based baking might be decided if future generations retain a love for a good custard tart. If so, the race is on to bake the perfect vegan alternative.

Have an opinion to share? Get in touch.