I can remember a time when people’s idea of a vegan was drippy Neil on the Young Ones, whose health food diet left him with a deathly pallor.
Today, as we know, veganism has undergone a cultural revolution as more people are choosing a plant-based diet, many of them being sports stars including, it seems, Newcastle United players.
The latest phase perhaps draws inspiration from the 2018 documentary The Game Changers about athletes who have achieved success because of, and not in spite of, shunning meat.
It’s a phenomenon husband and wife team Gareth Zeal and Sarah Cochrane have witnessed at their Little Green Social in Sandyford, Newcastle, which was recently rated one of the best vegan restaurants in the country ‘even carnivores will love’ by a national newspaper.
The film detailed how athletes on a vegan diet could bulk up and often recover quicker after competition or training regimes than those on a meat-based diet.
Sarah said: “After Game Changers we noticed a lot of people coming here in gym gear, some looking a bit nervous, who said it was their first time in a vegan cafe, and they wanted to try us out.
“They didn’t have the knowledge of plant-based food and how to prepare it.”
However vegan food does not always mean healthier food. Many plant-based snacks and meals are actually highly processed, calorie-laden, or contain high quantities of sugar and salt.
This is where Gareth comes in, a nutritionist who studied at Bastyr University in Seattle in the US.
He has trained professional and amateur athletes including rugby players, MMA fighters and football players, and has been vegan for more than 30 years.
The interest has led to a ‘business within a business’ at Little Green Social beginning soon to be run by Sarah.
Called Goodness Me, it’s a food prepping service in which they prepare food over a period of time from three days to a month for customers who can either collect it or have it delivered.
The idea is to be ‘road tested’ by Sarah’s brother Micky Cochrane, a vegan who is soon to star as North East boxing legend Glenn McCrory in the play Carrying David at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal.
“At least 30 people have shown a definite interest in it,” said Sarah.
They include Newcastle United player DeAndre Yedlin who, by coincidence, comes from Seattle where Gareth trained as a nutritionist.
“He and his girlfriend came in,” Sarah revealed. “I didn’t have a clue who they were then. They enjoyed the food and put up a nice review pic of what they had.
“They came back and had a Valentine’s Day meal and he brought his grandparents here, I suppose they must have been visiting.
“Gareth got talking to him about nutrition and he said that as a vegan, he makes all his own food. So we of course told him we were starting this up and he’s already expressed an interest, and said two of his team-mates were interested too.”
The Little Green Social has been open for two years now occupying the space of the former Italian eaterie Caffe Zonzo in Goldspink Lane.
As well as the restaurant, Gareth acts as on-site nutritionist while there is also the ‘Weigh Aye’ shop there with refill station, zero waste goods, and health shop, offering a plastic-free solution to shopping.
Sarah, who taught sociology-based subjects at the likes of Gateshead and Derwentside Colleges, explained how it came about.
“I was getting to the point I’d had enough of teaching for lots of reasons and wanted to something else,” she said. “I went out for a vegan meal at a really small place which hadn’t been open for very long.
“It was a couple of years back and I just got thinking that there’s not that many 100% vegan restaurants in Newcastle.
“I’d been a vegetarian for a lot of years and had just turned vegan. I thought there’s a bit of a gap in the market for a place that offers 100% plant-based foods and with Gareth being a nutritionist these things go hand in hand, so why don’t we open a new one?”
She also wanted to spend more time with Gareth whose expertise in nutrition sees him in great demand all over the world.
Sarah said: “I was coming up to 50 then, I was thinking if I don’t do something different now I’m never going to.
“I like to take a risk now and then and this has certainly turned out to be one of the biggest risks I’ve taken,” she said with a rueful laugh.
“If I knew at the time how difficult it was going to be I wouldn’t have done it but ignorance is bliss. I’m glad we’ve done it now.”
Gareth, who is 60 this month, used to work in a health shop as a teenager and was keen on sports like powerlifting and martial arts.
Of powerlifting, he said: “I was competing against guys who were taking drugs. One had the gall to inject himself in front of me before we competed knowing we weren’t being tested.”
Despite this Gareth won a number of competitions. “It was very satisfying for a non-cheat to beat cheaters.”
He was also teaching martial arts and his students then included some hunt saboteurs.
“One of them said you don’t need to kill to eat. And I thought you’re right, I don’t. As a powerlifter I did eat tuna because I thought I needed the protein, then stopped. I can still lift as much if not more, I recover faster from fighting, I bruise less and so it was all positives.”
He was living in Saltburn by the time he met Sarah and he moved to Newcastle when they got married three years ago.
The vegan scene then, they said, was limited and Gareth said there was a lot of junk vegan food, which they wanted to avoid.
“My instruction to the chefs was put a rainbow on every plate and they’ve done a really good job of that. Food has to be colourful, appealing to the eye but nutritionally dense. A lot of junk vegan food is not much different to junk food, other than it saves animals.
“Not many places were doing healthy vegan food at the time and that is what we set out to do. To lower the degree of asthma, lowering your cholesterol, your blood sugars, potentially reversing type 2 diabetes, all can be done by adopting a plant-based diet.
“Your blood pressure doesn’t have to go up. This tends to be associated with aging but in certain countries with a traditional vegetarian diet they don’t have high blood pressure in their 60s and 70s.”
Sarah said: “Gareth is passionate about the positive health effects of plant-based vegan diets.”
It cost around £100,000 to open the Little Green Social, cash raised from a bank loan, a company which backs start-up firms, as well as family.
“It was a lovely size and space,” Sarah adds. “We didn’t just want it to be a vegan cafe, we wanted it to be a social and community space where you can stage events. It already had an alcohol license, all the components were right but it took a lot of work.”
They thought about naming it Crazy Baldhead after a song by Bob Marley.
“It’s about a racist slave owner so I said best not,” said Gareth.
Sarah added: “I thought of Little Green because it’s my favourite Joni Mitchell song. It just fits with what we’re doing.”
She said everything is cooked from scratch there, from pizzas to vegan versions of the full English breakfast and even Sunday lunches. The menu includes home-made pies, nut roast, and a ‘beet’ wellington, coming with all the trimmings, including Yorkshire puddings, followed by desserts like rhubarb crumble.
“I suppose it’s familiar food people love and if they went vegan would miss,” Sarah said. “We’ve been open just two years and we’re turning a bit of a corner but it has been scary and a little hair-raising. We invested all of this money and have got 14 staff.
“We really believe in what we’re doing, we really want it to work for so many reasons, but there’s been times when we’ve thought is it going to work?
“But I feel a lot calmer about that now and I feel launching the meal prepping service is going to help add another string to the bow.”
* The Little Green Social – vegan restaurant, can be found at 83-89 Goldspink Lane in Sandyford, Newcastle