STORY: INTERVIEW: The Vegan Cakery

Michelle Orme has been baking vegan products since long before plant-based diets became a national eating sensation. But where does the eating trend end and complete lifestyle begin? She talks to Rosanna Spence about her award-winning business The Vegan Cakery

I remember sitting in a bakery presentation last spring, listening to an incredibly interesting piece of consumer psychology being cleverly picked apart. The speaker was examining the difference between labelling products.

Those customers drawn to food marked as ‘vegan’ were more likely to seek these products from an ethical standpoint based around animal welfare, while ‘plant-based’ eaters were more interested in the health benefits of such a diet.

The two causes are vastly different, but both consider lowering the environmental strain of food production on our planet. And both, regardless of intent, have impacted the food industry – making long-lasting changes to the ingredients list. 

Now, businesses have been able to tinker and tailor recipes and menus to allow for vegan options and an exciting new culture of eateries devoted to the vegan cause have popped up all over the country, with new venues flooding Bakery Business’ inbox every week. 

But, in the grand scheme of things, this new way of choosing ingredients and eating food (resulting in mass commercial value) is relatively new, especially in the UK, perhaps five or six years. I’m sure many people know a previously devout carnivore who is now proud of their occasional plant-based meal choices. 

Yet this new-wave veganism – whether it’s a freshly-adopted strict lifestyle or curious, intermittent dietary forays – wouldn’t have been possible without the relentless work of food producers originally championing the freedom, creativity and taste experiences still possible for someone choosing to avoid all animal products. 

Enter Michelle Orme, who’s been baking professionally since 2012, and who’s been scooping nationally recognised vegan awards (including Vegfest UK) for her business The Vegan Cakery ever since. Orme has been vegan herself for more than 15 years and was vegetarian before then – but it was her flair for creating vegan bakes that rivalled traditional baking that carved out her path to a nationally acclaimed bakery today. 

Animal welfare has always been central to Orme, and her decision to avoid all animal products in her bakery business is supported by her charity work. The Vegan Cakery selects a ‘charity of the month’, which then receives a donated percentage of all sales in that given month and helps a wide variety of animal charities and sanctuaries in the UK and abroad. This, Orme says, was always her driving force. Let’s hear what else she has to say about the success of her vegan bakery...

How has your journey to veganism been shaped? What motivated you to create a vegan bakery rather than one using animal products?

I was vegetarian for years and thought that was the best you could do, but then I saw more and more about the dairy industry and, by extension, other types of animal exploitation and I just couldn’t be part of any of it any longer. Moreover, animal products just aren’t needed – as I like to think I’m proving.

Veganism is a complete lifestyle though, it’s not just a diet like ‘plant-based,’ which I think a lot of people confuse it with. That seems to be especially the case in the mainstream media now veganism is gaining a lot more attention. 

People have different reasons for becoming vegan, but mine was all about animals and animal welfare and that’s why everything I do is centred around being an ethical vegan. Obviously, that meant when I started thinking about setting up a baking business it was always going to be 100% vegan as that’s who and what I am.

Have you ever baked with animal products, and how do the two experiences, methods and processes compare?

When I was younger I did, so when it came to starting The Vegan Cakery I wanted all of the recipes to be my own, so I worked on adapting ‘traditional’ recipes to create my vegan ones. There aren’t really major differences between any methods or processes, it’s all chemistry at the end of the day. The dairy aspect is very easy to change, just replace with dairy-free versions, but where eggs are concerned it depends what the egg is being required to do. For example, aquafaba is an amazing egg white replacer in something like meringue while flaxseeds are a go-to for things like brownies.

You’ve been an award-winning vegan baker since before plant-based options were essential on menus – why did your business stand out then and now? What do you attribute your success to?

With my recipes being my own it means The Vegan Cakery products have a real USP, and I think that has been a big plus over the years. I also create products others aren’t, such as my vegan ‘cream’ cakes, and they’re extremely popular. One of the biggest aspects of the business from day one was the online shop for postal orders, and that’s still very popular with customers across the UK. Other than very delicate items, like some of the pastries, I post most of my range and that’s something which is still pretty unique. Of course, knowing the business is run and owned by an ethical vegan is a big thing for a lot of customers too, and the support I give to animal charities is also something which is popular with a
lot of people.

How have your conversations about vegan bakery changed since you first began this venture? How has the perception of your business changed over the years?

People used to think a vegan lifestyle was something extreme, I suppose some still do! But nothing could be further from the truth and I think that’s being seen more and
more now. 

You used to get a lot of questions from non-vegans at events and more of a reluctance to try something, but over the years more and more people have started to try vegan
products and it’s amazed me how many non-vegan customers I have, just because they love the taste and quality of my products. 

How do you tend to educate people who are sceptical about vegan bakery quality? What approach works best?

I just get them to try the product, which speaks for itself! I’ve been running afternoon tea experiences around the country since the end of 2017 and I get large numbers of people coming along who aren’t vegan, or even vegetarian. They’ll come with family or friends and you know some of them are sceptical, but then they soon realise there was no need to be.

It’s like any aspect of the food industry, there is good quality and bad quality. If you’ve had the misfortune to eat something which isn’t great you shouldn’t think that means everything vegan is poor because the standard is improving all the time. Vegan products should never be a ‘second best’ option.

What are your most popular types of orders, and who are your typical clientele? How have both of these elements of your business evolved?

To be honest I don’t really have a typical customer, there are people from all over the country and from all different backgrounds. Most are vegan, but there are large numbers who aren’t, and they just love my products.

My afternoon teas have been extremely popular since starting them. I hire venues around the country and the teas are then served over three courses in a high-end style. For actual products, the ‘cream’ cakes are the most popular at fairs and festivals – things like my mille-feuille, jam and ‘cream’ doughnuts, apple turnovers etc. It’s all the things people miss, like Bakewell tarts, Battenberg and that kind of thing.

What advice would you give a baker just starting on their journey to experiment with vegan bakery?

Don’t be disillusioned if something doesn’t work straightaway. If you really have a passion for it, that will drive you on to improve. I always wanted to create my own recipes, and be unique, and I think that’s the best approach… and it’s a fantastic way of experimenting to find what works for you. There are some things I see in recipes online or in books you really don’t need to use, so experimenting is definitely the best way for me. 

Why do you think veganism has become so popular? Do you think people will remain committed to this lifestyle?

One of the biggest driving forces in recent years has been social media. It’s shone a huge light on the dark practices of the animal farming industry which had remained hidden away. Everyone is indoctrinated from childhood to think we ‘need’ animal products, but that’s simply not the case – the proof is out there. More and more people are seeing this now.

There aren’t any excuses anymore and it’s increasingly hard for people to keep blinkers on where animal welfare issues are concerned. As more and more ‘celebrities’ pursue a vegan lifestyle as well, that can only help to broaden the exposure. If you’re vegan for animal welfare reasons, and not using it as a fad or just a diet, then I believe the population of vegans is only going to grow and grow. The world is changing… 

How does it work?

The Vegan Cakery (TVC) distributes products around the UK using Parcelforce Worldwide or Royal Mail Special Delivery. Hand delivery is available, where possible, in and around the Leicestershire area and also for large specialist orders – for example, wedding cakes – and trade customers. Additionally, TVC operates a popular Order and Collect service in Leicester city centre in partnership with stockist Café Mbriki on Carts Lane.