With meat substitutes improving all the time, Amy Cochrane looks at a Co Down social enterprise offering fully plant-based menu this ‘Veganuary’
As the New Year’s resolutions, short-lived gym memberships, dry January promises and fad diets start to grind to a halt only a week in, a Co Down social enterprise is urging people to continue one certain foodie trend throughout the rest of the year.
The social club, one of Northern Ireland’s only fully plant-based cafés, is hoping to challenge stereotypes around a vegan diet this January.
As over half-a-million people across the world went green last year as part of the annual Veganuary campaign, the owners of Harry’s Place want to prove that adopting a vegan diet is not all salads and chickpeas, and you can still enjoy all your favourite dishes while helping to save the planet.
Veganuary is an initiative encouraging people to enjoy a fully plant-based diet for the entire month.
It is believed one person going vegan spares the lives of about 30 animals each year and saves 1,100 gallons of water daily.
Located in Ballynahinch, Harry’s Place is owned by Gareth Little and David English, who made the decision to go vegan four-and-a-half years ago.
It serves an extensive menu of plant-based food, from vegan burgers, pies and sausage rolls to curries, wraps and traybakes.
It opened as a takeaway last February in the middle of the pandemic before launching as a sit-in later.
The initiative stemmed from a social club set up by Gareth in 2018 for adults with learning disabilities to get together, have fun and learn something new.
The group — Harry’s Mates — was named after Gareth’s uncle Harry Dunn, the first person he knew with a learning disability.
“As Harry got older, I realised there is not as much provision out there for adults with learning disabilities as is needed, and I wanted to change that,” he explained.
Harry’s Mates began meeting four years ago and now include up to 30 members aged from 18 to 77.
Harry sadly passed away three years ago at the age of 76, but Gareth said the group, and the new facility in Ballynahinch, will continue to thrive in his memory.
Harry’s Place, which is also pet-friendly, offers a chance for adults with learning disabilities to experience the workings of a business and café, food preparation and customer service.
When they first decided to open their café and social hub, Gareth said that he wanted to challenge the stereotypes around vegan food and serve only plant-based meals and drinks.
“We didn’t want to be offering salads or anything like that; it was always to be vegan burgers, pies and sausage rolls from us,” he said.
“People sometimes are put off by the words ‘plant-based’ or ‘vegan’, but we don’t want that here, we want to offer real food that real people will like.”
Gareth and David, who have been together for eight years, admitted that prior to adopting a plant-based diet they were both keen carnivores and “loved a good steak”.
Gareth actually grew up on his family’s beef farm and worked in a meat factory for some time.
The couple revealed that it wasn’t a slow transition to veganism either, with David explaining it was “quite literally overnight”.
“We were staying at our friends’ house from a party the night before and were hungover, so we just picked a random documentary on Netflix to put on and we just happened to pick the documentary that just completely changed our lives,” he said.
“It was called What The Health, which answers lots of questions about plant-based eating and the health benefits of it.”
Gareth said the documentary especially resonated with him because he is asthmatic.
The documentary revealed that adopting a vegan diet would greatly help with the condition.
“I decided to give it a go for two weeks and stop eating animal products, and David said he would do it with me,” said Gareth.
“I initially found it really hard, we did it for three days and were like ‘we can’t do this’ because it just wasn’t convenient, there wasn’t enough vegan food already made and available for us to eat quickly.”
The Co Tyrone man then decided to turn his hand to baking and, in doing so, created the starting point for what would become the business they have today.
“I always had an interest in baking but since becoming vegan I was forced to learn a whole new way of cooking and baking and learning how things are made,” he explained.
“I realised I really enjoyed it, and there was a market there for this type of food.
“So in 2018 I started The Little Bearded Baker and attended fairs and markets selling my food.
“I guess you could say it just grew from there.”
Through this business, Gareth was able to raise enough money to start up Harry’s Place, a not-for-profit enterprise, with all funds going back into the business to help all their members.
David said that going vegan for him was primarily to do with animal rights.
“People adopt a vegan lifestyle for a variety of reasons. It could be to help the environment, it could be even that they don’t like the taste or texture of meat, but for me it was definitely to help eradicate the unnecessary killing of animals,” said the Ballynahinch man.
“As we learnt more about this way of life and the true harm that the meat industry was doing, the more it was easier to accept not eating meat in our diet.
“Veganism at its core is about reducing the suffering of animals, and as an animal lover it was an easy choice.
“And if we didn’t turn vegan, we wouldn’t be where we are today, as Gareth probably would not have pursued his love of baking.”
David added although the term vegan can never truly be separated from the idea of salads or vegetables, there is so much more to it.
“People don’t realise that you can enjoy all the same comfort food likes chips and burgers and even meat substitutes, which are getting better,” he said.
“We try to reduce our carbon footprint as much as possible as well and try to source most of our ingredients locally, and now that Finnebrogue Artisan have an entirely plant-based factory only a few miles away, that makes it easier to source whatever we can’t make ourselves.”
Gareth said that the convenience of being vegan has gotten gradually easier since they first went fully plant-based almost five years ago.
“Society had now started to catch up with the idea of going vegan and now some of the mainstream fast food restaurants are selling vegan options,” he said.
“KFC and McDonald’s both sell vegan meals and Burger King has pledged to make their menu 50% meat-free.
“It’s great to see, and just goes to show that you don’t need to remove all the food you love from your life — a simple substitute of one thing per dish can make a huge difference.”
You can follow Harry’s Place on Instagram and Facebook or if you would like to make a donation you can do so via this link, https://gofund.me/a9f0a432. Harry’s Place is based on 25 High Street in Ballynahinch. Opening hours are from 9am until 4pm, Thursday to Saturday, and Sunday from noon until 5pm