Is Popeyes success a bad omen for veganism in Scotland?

The Popeyes chain opened its first restaurant in Scotland <i>(Image: Popeyes UK)</i>
The Popeyes chain opened its first restaurant in Scotland (Image: Popeyes UK)

AMERICAN fast-food chain Popeyes launched its first Scottish restaurant this week – prompting Glaswegians to queue for 18 hours overnight to taste its signature chicken burgers.

Popeyes has heralded its product as the chicken sandwich that “broke the internet” after a successful advertising campaign which made the restaurant go viral online.

The restaurant’s opening forced Police Scotland to issue a statement after roads were blocked by customers desperately trying to get their hands on the New Orleans-inspired burgers.

Despite growing sentiment that plant-based foods are on the rise, the popularity of a new meat-based fast food restaurant entering the Scottish market is an example of an enduring demand for meat in Scotland.

Veganism flatlining?

The furore around the Popeyes phenomenon comes following reporting that major vegan food alternatives have suffered in the past year amid increasing cost of living pressures.

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Beyond Meat – one of the most high-profile meat substitute brands – revealed in its quarterly report in August it had suffered a fall in sales by almost a third in the three months to the end of June, with net revenues falling by 30.5% compared to the previous year.

And in Scotland, vegan fromagerie Bute Island Foods – the company behind the Sheese brand – saw its sales fall by more than £3 million in the financial year ending March 2023 compared with the 15-month period up to March 2022.

The firm’s total income fell by almost 40%, from £3.6m to £2m, in the same period.

This comes despite moves towards endorsing a plant-based diet at the political level.

Edinburgh became the first capital city in Europe to endorse the Plant Based Treaty in January this year, publicly acknowledging that “a shift to plant-based diets would significantly reduce the city’s consumption-based emissions”.

However, a vote to ban meat and dairy from catering at Edinburgh University in April failed to pass.

Should activists be worried?

Vegan charity Viva! said that people should hesitate before announcing that the vegan food industry is in decline.

Speaking to the Sunday National, Jasmine Clark, senior environment campaigner for Viva!, said: “If you look at the sales between 2029 to 2023, they have significantly increased.

“And actually, if you look at the UK within Europe – looking at plant-based meats, fish, milk alternatives – we’re one of the largest markets and consumer bases for that.

“Even though people draw on the decline here and there, it’s a very fluctuating market and you need to take it out to the wider scale.”

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A report by the Good Food Institute Europe found that plant-based food sales grew 9% between 2020 and 2022 to £963.8m.

Clark continued: “When you look at Popeyes, it's one kind of niche, novelty experience but when you look at meat and dairy trends, they’ve declined.”

Figures from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) in July showed that main meals with meat, fish eggs and dairy have declined by 6% over the last year.

Clark highlighted that although some negative impacts are hitting mock-meat retailers, there are more positive trends elsewhere.

Wagamama made 50% of its menu plant-based in October 2021, claiming to be the first high-street restaurant to do so, and has maintained that balance in its current menu.

Clark added: “That [50% pledge] has been around for a year or so and they’re continuing to do so, which shows that there is that kind of uptake in demand for it.

“A lot of the other big chains don’t just have one or two vegan options – it makes up a large chunk of their menu.”

Caribbean restaurant Turtle Bay has also made around 40% of its menu plant-based since a recent push towards more vegan options in March.

Clark also suggested there is a tendency to draw larger conclusions about vegan industries from the results of singular businesses which is not replicated in the meat industry. She said: “I think focusing on singular businesses, narrowly, isn’t indicative of what’s actually going on.

“You have actually got a lot of meat companies which have had to shut down in recent years. In 2022, Vale of Mowbray pork pie factory closed after 100 years of working, meat factories in Leicester, Pilgrim’s, showed lower demand for pork and reduced activities in their site.

“So you’ve also got this happening in the meat industry – businesses slowing down and having significantly reduced sales.”

Popeyes - cause for concern?

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) highlighted the fact that Popeyes is not entirely chicken based as it does have a single vegan option available.

Dawn Carr, vice president of vegan corporate projects at PETA UK, said: “While Popeyes might not have vegan chicken on the menu (yet!), it does offer the Creole Red Bean Sandwich for those looking for southern-fried flavour – without the cruelty.”

The restaurant introduced the Creole Red Bean Sandwich to its menu for its UK launch, and the offering remains on the menu for its Scottish launch – following the trend of fast-food restaurants trying to capitalise on a larger vegetarian and vegan market in the UK.

Carr added: “On factory farms, chickens are confined to filthy, windowless sheds, often without room to spread a single wing. This needless cruelty is why vegan meats are still on the rise, and competition between brands is stronger than ever.

“Whether it’s due to price, taste, or availability, vegan foods are now competing in a high-demand market, and only the best will come out on top. But all vegan options are helping to spare animals a miserable life and terrifying death – and PETA champions them all.”

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Popeyes has already announced plans to open a second restaurant in Glenrothes, Fife following the whirlwind success of its Scottish launch.

As it stands, it would become the chain’s 30th restaurant in the UK, after plans were initially put into place for its opening earlier this year.

The company signed up to the Better Chicken Commitment to improve conditions of its livestock as well as adding a vegan option to its menu upon its entry to the UK market.