How sharpening knife skills can bring shoppers vegetable confidence
The Vegetable Butcher initiative in a south London Sainsbury's store was a huge hit

How sharpening knife skills can bring shoppers vegetable confidence

Angela Youngman
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Vegetable Butcher - board
Consumers are looking for adventurous ways of using vegetables

In June, J Sainsbury’s store in Wandsworth, south London was the venue for an innovative trial concept – the Vegetable Butcher. The aim was to inspire customers to look at vegetables in a new light, and discover different ways of preparing them using the expert knife skills traditionally used by butchers. Produce Business UK looks at the longer term impact of the initiative

Georgina Lunn, product developer for fresh produce at Sainsbury’s, says: “We are always looking for new and interesting ways to inspire our customers. The innovative products we’ve recently introduced to the prepared vegetable category, such as courgetti and beetroot rice, have been really popular, so we love the idea of an in-store Vegetable Butcher.”

Artistic inspiration

Vegetable artist Amber Locke, who is known for incredible geometric, swirling fruit and vegetable paintings, took the role of Vegetable Butcher. “I’ve been trying to use vegetables in an exciting and inspiring way for years, but I know it is new to a lot of people who are used to the traditional ways of cutting up and cooking courgette, carrot and broccoli,” she says. “I have a passion for showing people how fun and delicious vegetables can be and, more important, how you can avoid wasting parts of them that may seem unusable.”  Sainsbury’s placed Locke’s pop-up shop prominently at the entrance to the fruit and vegetable section of the Wandsworth store. Customers could buy their fresh produce then bring it to the butcher who prepared it in a variety of ways including spiralizing, mandolin slicing, wave-cut and ribbon cut as well as demonstrating ways to use the entire vegetable such as grating, roasting and juicing.

Vegetable Butcher - cleaver
Vegetable artist Amber Locke, the Vegetable Butcher

Overwhelming response

The response was overwhelming. “People of all ages were absolutely intrigued by the idea,” says Locke. “They were coming back on a daily basis for me to cut up their vegetables. They were very keen on the concept. Everyone was fascinated by what we were doing and really understood the idea. People brought along unusual items to see what I could do. Someone brought along a pomegranate and was surprised when I showed them the easy way of getting the seeds out – I just cut it open, hit it on the back with a rolling pin and the seeds were dislodged.”

Both the Vegetarian Society and the Vegan Society greeted the arrival of a Vegetable Butcher with approval. “To see the word butcher in a context that doesn’t exploit animals, is just fantastic,” says Jimmy Pierson of the Vegan Society. “Most of us know we ought to eat more vegetables, so the more exciting they look and appealing they are, the better.”

Vegetable Butcher - Alex Connell, Cordon Vert Principal Tutor
Alex Connell

Sainsbury’s has received praise from vegetarians too. “We think that Sainsbury’s has hit on a great way to get the va va voom into veg and to engage people whilst they do their weekly shop,” says Alex Connell, principal tutor at the Vegetarian Society Cookery Schools. “Home cooks want to create an impressive plate of food and share it proudly, looking for inspiration about using familiar ingredients in new ways. The spiralizer is always a great hit and adds an extra twist for presentation.”

Meat-free expansion 

The success of the concept reflects the increasing growth in using vegetables. Vegetarian food is widely eaten and adventurous ways of using vegetables are constantly being sought. Connell highlights how the Vegetarian Chef of the Future competition “took vegetables to new heights showcasing just how incredible vegetarian food can get,” he says. “At our cookery school some of the most interesting ways include using cauliflower as a pizza base.”

Vegetable Butcher - spiralising
Spiralizing adds an intriguing extra twist to vegetables

Consumers are buying an ever-greater range of vegetables and are inspired by chefs and restaurants serving innovative vegetable dishes. Research commissioned by The Vegan Society and Vegan Life Magazine indicated that there are now over 500,000 vegans in the UK. Veganism has become one of Great Britain’s fastest growing lifestyle movements, and is one that is driven by young people; some 42% of vegans are in the 15-34 age bracket, compared to just 14% of the over 65s. It is no longer seen as an extreme lifestyle, but one that is easy and accessible, and associated with health, fitness and wellbeing. 

The Vegan Society’s research says that around 1.68 million people are committed vegetarians or vegans. This does not count many others who do not belong to either society but follow a vegan or vegetarian diet.

Sainsbury’s claims that more than two thirds of households are consuming at least one vegetarian meal a week. This does not surprise the Vegetarian Society, which says that its own research is showing that more and more meat-eaters are having vegetarian meals in a step towards improving their diet. Sainsbury’s says it has had a year-on-year surge in vegetable sales especially avocado, asparagus spears and broccoli. Sales of avocado rose by 147% and asparagus spears by 118%.

Vegetable Butcher - spirals

Butcher future 

The end of the Vegetable Butcher trial was greeted with sadness by shoppers. “They were quite upset that we were not going to be a permanent fixture,” says Locke. So far, Sainsbury’s is remaining tight-lipped as to where it will take the concept from here. However, what is certain is that it was really appreciated by shoppers. This is something that has not been lost on other businesses. “I have had approaches from other companies and retailers about the idea,” says Locke, “but I am contracted to Sainsbury’s for the concept. It is a fantastic idea as it gets people thinking. Consumers like having someone in store they can talk to about food, and get lots of ideas.”

Vegetable Butcher - with 2 shoppers

Sainsbury’s shoppers were sad to say goodbye to the butcher

And Pierson is convinced we haven’t seen the last of this. “Together with the Herbivorous Butcher which opened earlier this year selling vegan versions of meat and cheese, this stall at Sainsbury’s is not only a sign of the times, but an indicator of a more compassionate future,” he says. “More and more people recognise that plant-based living is healthier, significantly better for the environment and for animals, and as a result we will see more interesting ventures like these starting up.”

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