Big ambition of The Fat Vegan

As he celebrates more than a year in business, MIKE MCGRATH BRYAN catches up with Christopher O’Brien, the man behind The Fat Vegan
Big ambition of The Fat Vegan
Chris O’Brien, of The Fat Vegan at the Farmers market in Fr. O’Flynn park at Passage, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

THE change isn’t coming. It has arrived. Veganism, a lifestyle that emphasises eliminating consumption of animal-based products and byproducts, including food and clothing, has gone from a fringe interest, inhabiting the speciality sections of health-food shops and sparsely-populated ‘veggie’ shelves in supermarkets, to a cultural force in its own right.

More and more people are choosing the lifestyle for a number of reasons: the benefits to their health, their ethics regarding animal rights and compassion, and their (admittedly small) personal role in avoiding environmental disaster. And it’s growing: restaurants and supermarkets around the country are factoring the needs of vegan diets into their offerings and specialist eateries like Earth Café are increasingly popular.

Among the many businesses that have cropped up in Cork around the growth of veganism is The Fat Vegan, a stall running at farmers’ markets around the county. For stallholder Christopher O’Brien, his journey began with a common discussion, as awareness of animal conditions via recent documentaries has brought the diet into conversations in households up and down the country. That being said, he had a little help.

“Male pettiness! (laughs) My better half, Katherine, had toyed with the idea. Her sister, a real poster child for veganism, had followed the lifestyle for a long time and recommended to Katherine she should follow suit. I knew it was coming down the line for her, just a matter of time!

“Lo and behold, Katherine spent her birthday with her sister in Tipperary in May, 2017, and on her way home to Cork I get a phone call from her telling me she is going vegan. I said I would ditch the animal products too, it would be easier for her if I were providing vegan dishes for her — really, I just wanted to last longer than her and when she failed, rub it in her face! Little did we think what it would become in such a short space of time.”

From there, identifying the need for something like the Fat Vegan in Cork was a matter of finding what choices were needed by beleaguered herbivores, and exploiting the lack of agency, if not unfounded suspicion, that vegans have historically felt in markets and other mainstream retail situations.

“Very quickly, I noticed not only the distinct lack of options available to vegans, but also the lack of understanding and general disdain toward vegans. I remember one day commenting to Katherine, ‘You know what, I can do so much better than this’, and so I did!

“Some vegans will engage in activism which involves protesting outside abattoirs, etc, my activism is in providing an alternative to anyone who wants one. Simply giving an option to people allows them to exercise choice in what they want to consume.

“I had made a decision to create a blog and track my transition, I wondered about a name and I thought to myself, as a lifelong non-vegan, I found veganism unapproachable, I insisted I couldn’t have that in my blog as I wanted to pique the interest of non-vegans. I also thought of the initial conversations I had with people when I identified myself as a vegan and they responded with the tilted head and a ‘really?’; all this made me think ‘You know what, not all vegans are the same, I’m a big guy, I’m a vegan, we do exist’!

“So I settled on The Fat Vegan, it was met with some resistance but most people came round to my way of thinking!”

Getting the products out, and working with markets, stalls, etc, was a difficult transition for O’Brien, who initially felt the brunt of the attitudes still prevalent in many quarters toward veganism and its adherents.

It would take dogged determination and persuasion on his own part to get to square one, and after considering a tilt at opening a restaurant, he found an unlikely ally in rural Cork: Bandon Farmers’ Market.

“I met with the market co-ordinator, Shirley, and she was on a health journey herself, working in a healthfood store, we spoke the same language. She offered me a pitch in Bandon and the funniest part was she asked me to be there the following week, I made excuses and settled on February 24 as my first trading day. I made excuses because as I was asking her for a pitch, I had zero in terms of equipment, stall, products, etc, it really was hilarious. So I panic-bought everything, and got myself ready.

“We worried about how we would be received in Bandon, but our friends turned out en masse and created a bit of a buzz around the stall, drawing others into us too, it really was a great day and I loved it.

“Now, I have a pitch in Blackrock Village Market. Positively Eventful vegan market, a commercial kitchen, has been nominated for a food award, has two casual staff members, commercial buyers and a whole heck of a lot more experience!”

Making the jump to a plant-based diet is a nerve-wracking affair for the most fastidious of vegetarians. Meat-eaters might well miss their creature comforts, much the same as veteran vegetarians find themselves getting hung up on the role of cheese in their diets and cuisine.

O’Brien’s advice, if you’re thinking about herbivorous living, is to take the transition easy.

“If you’re considering veganism, start small, make an extra veggie dish per week, then build it up to two extra, three, and so on. Slowly cut out animal products, and find one alternative at a time to replace the thing you simply can’t live without.

“Experiment with flavours, make new dishes, and please, make mistakes, as that is where a lot of learning will come from.

“And one big one here, that the vegans reading this may not appreciate, don’t beat yourself up if you slip up and have something not plant-based.

“Everyone makes mistakes, everyone will be weak at one point or another, brush yourself off and start again. The mistake won’t define you, your actions afterwards will!”

In terms of development and expanding The Fat Vegan’s operations, O’Brien’s vision for the future takes in the kind of experiential marketing and engagement that many major chains are quietly eyeing up, as consumption patterns change and more space gets taken up, both on shop floors, and in consumers’ priorities.

“I see The Fat Vegan being a brick-and-mortar place in the future, I have this idea in my mind that people could come to my space, go through the gardens and poly tunnels, picking the ingredients they would like to try, learn about them as they go along, then come to the kitchen and prep the food themselves, or have it prepped for them, learning what flavours go together, what foods compliment each other on a nutritional level — a real in-depth experience connecting us with our food.

“It is a long term goal, yes, but not unrealistic. In the meantime, I want to expand to new markets in Cork, start doing festivals, and grow the companies I supply to.”

The Fat Vegan stall appears at markets around the county, including the Blackrock Village Market every Sunday. For more, check, or search ‘The Fat Vegan’ on social media.

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