You’ve been doing this for over a quarter of a century now...
I’ve been involved with Veggies since the mid-eighties and have gone all over the country with the van. We get to about a hundred events over the course of the year – one day we’ll be doing outreach work with fifty kids from a local school, the next we’re campaigning at Glastonbury. We try to support as many causes as possible – we’d sell Veggies burgers anywhere, bar a BNP camp. If I had the time I’ve spent cooking Veggies burgers over again, I’d probably spend it cooking Veggies burgers.
So how did you actually start? Presumably you couldn’t buy your burgers off the shelf...
Our veggie sausage mix was made by Direct Foods, which had been formed by a compassionate farming charity. They realised there was a market for vegetarian food as nobody was making it. Ironically, they’re now owned by Archer Daniels Midland Company, which is the second largest food conglomerate in the world. At one point the company was temporarily bought by Unilever. We have obvious issues with them - which is why, now, we make our own mix. We have a shipping container where we make it by the half ton.
Who were your original clientele?
There were a lot of people from the animal rights groups and the vegan/vegetarian society at that time, probably around a hundred or so attending meetings. So there was a high contingent of supporters who were around. There was no real problem or antagonism from the general public; possibly they found it all a bit strange, but no problems.
The van must have been a barometer as to how many vegetarians were about...
We were there from ‘85 to 2000, and I’d say the numbers stayed pretty much the same - obviously, because the increase in vegetarians was matched by the increase in outlets supplying vegetarian food. We like to think that we contributed to this, by supplying cafés and pubs with food to sell. Then places like V1 and Squeek opened up.
So what are you – campaigners or caterers?
We’re both. They can’t be separated – although it does seem to be a bit of a problem for bureaucrats, who prefer you to be one or the other. Take Glastonbury; how you are categorised there determines how much you have to pay for your place. In 1990 tickets cost £38 and our trading fee was £600. This year tickets are £200, and our trading fee will be £3,500. On one level we’re seen as market stalls but we see ourselves as campaigners too, so it can be frustrating to be between boundaries. We need a good position to attract the kind of people interested in our work as well as sell enough food to cover our costs, as we want that stall to pay for the campaign areas that don’t generate money.
How do you draw the crowds in?
We offer a variety of entertainment to draw attention to our campaigns such as the pedal-powered DJ stations, 12 volt cinema clubs, performance stages, cookery clubs… at the moment we’re working with the Vegan Society to put together a more economically viable and healthier school dinner menu. We use festivals to test ideas. Of course just getting parents involved in the cooking helps break down perceptions of vegan food.
Does your involvement with certain activist groups make it difficult to operate as a business?
We actually had a meeting with some of our core crew the other week to discuss whether we should tone down our image a bit, but it’s hard. We’re ‘campaign caterers’ – we get involved with the frontline stuff. We were in London when Ian Tomlinson was killed and have seen it all. Although this might limit us in expanding into some areas, we get a lot of work from word of mouth, such as doing punk weddings for people who we fed at Climate Camp and who believe in what we stand for.
Is raising the money difficult?
It is when you want to help out so many worthy causes. When we go and feed fifty kids in Bestwood Park, we’ve still got to cover our bills. Our first concern has always been to help everyone else through exhibition spaces or affordable catering, but to do this we need to make money. So one thing we’ve discussed recently is doing a bit more fundraising for ourselves.
What’s the most difficult thing about your life?
Finding enough hours in the day. We take on so much because we hate letting anyone down.
How’s your relationship with the Council?
We have a funny relationship with the Council. On one level we’re a local green business and so help them meet their targets, but then we cause them problems when we pitch up stalls on the street and start giving away free food. That isn’t official enough for them – though to be fair we’ve never been given a hard time or moved along. We hired the Council House for six years for the East Midlands Vegan Festival, but they stopped that last year; they said the 2,000 people we were bringing in caused too much wear and tear. We considered hiring the Market Square, but that would have cost £2,000. In the end we did the Vegan Festival as ten separate free food giveaway stalls.
What’s the attitude of the police towards you?
A lot of our colleagues and people we work with have faced a lot of oppression.
You knew Mark Kennedy, the undercover Met officer. What was he like?
I can only speak personally, not on behalf of the many others whose trust he abused. He was a very popular lad at the Sumac Centre. He first got in the scene through environmental campaigning in Nottingham, got involved in G8 and climate camps, and was – seemingly – a good mate. For example, our favourite coffee is sourced from the Chiapas Highlands region of Mexico, from farmers who are trying to protect their indigenous culture in the rainforest areas. Mark was the courier who would collect the coffee from Hamburg and drop it off to centres and squat cafés across Britain. That’s how I remember him – a cool guy with a flash car who dropped off this cool coffee. He got involved with helping anyone with transport, because he was ‘climate’ by trade.
Did you ever suspect anything?
Sometimes he’d have jobs on the side and would disappear, but because of the couriering you never really knew here he was. We were under the impression it was all black economy. He’d be like, “don’t worry - I’ll get you a drink next time I see you.” So he was seen as a bit of a geezer.
What’s the atmosphere been like in the wake of the trial that exposed him?
For those people who knew him personally, it was like losing a close friend or brother. When someone special dies it’s a total tragedy, but you know where you stand and you have the happy memories. But to lose someone that close and not have the happy memories – and to know he’s still out there somewhere, and you don’t know what stories he’s telling people – that’s difficult. Yes, he quit the force in the end, but he’s set up his own private investigation firm, working freelance and using all the knowledge he gained as a police spy for the benefit of private industry. Even when he was trying to make amends he was still lying through his teeth – he was supposed to have done a runner to America, but he’s also been spotted at Euston station.
You were there at the Ratcliffe-on-Soar protest debacle…
Alan Simpson, an MP at the time, was totally outraged when he found out the police spent £150,000 smashing up a school to get to environmental campaigners who were planning to do a protest at Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station. There were up to two hundred cops smashing up the school because campaigners had booked the place for an environmental skill-sharing class. One of our friends ran an independent cake business out the back, which she lost afterwards. Even though she told the police, “I’ve got the keys, here. Let yourself in,” they still went all the way through the school, smashing up equipment.
Why do you think they did that?
To blacken our names. To make it look like we resisted. I guess if they had gone straight to the correct door, it would have aroused suspicion as to how they had known we were there. But it still begs the question: why didn’t they just park their cars outside and wait for the people to come out? Did they really need to cause so much destruction to a school? They knew where we were because Mark Kennedy had told them… so what was the point?
Why isn’t the van still on the streets?
As we got involved in more campaigning, we couldn’t guarantee when we could be out on the street and it wasn’t fair to let customers down. We operated out of the Rainbow Centre on Mansfield Road, which we used as a café, library, meeting place and office space before taking a mortgage out for the Sumac Centre in Forest Fields. It took a long time to sort out as it was pretty run down, but we’ve been here ever since.
What’s the Sumac Centre like?
It’s many things to many people. Firstly, it’s owned by no-one, and everyone. As a cooperative, it will remain in common ownership long after the current crew have moved on. Those that make use of the facilities share a commitment to mutual aid within the community, whether that is the local neighbourhood or the community of shared concerns for social justice across the planet. One day there may be Forest Fields residents sharing skills for sustainability and self reliance and the next there may be indigenous visitors from Canada, Australia or Central America raising awareness of their struggles. As much as possible Sumac subverts the cash economy, sharing food by donation, running a free shop or inviting anyone interested to grow organic veg in the Sumac Garden. The DIY ethos goes from anyone cooking a meal to share to everyone washing their own plates! Whilst the bar runs as private members’ club, membership is easy and guests are welcome.
How do you think the locals perceive it?
We are the locals – many regulars at Sumac have lived in the area for a quarter of a century or more! We consider ourselves privileged to live in such a vibrant and mixed community and try to be welcoming to everyone. But it is for others to judge how well that is achieved.
Do you still cook free-range puppies?
Heh. Last year we hooked up with Animal Aid to dress up a spare catering trailer to pretend to be selling organic, free range dog meat, raised with the highest welfare standards. After all people eat other animals, often with lower standards than ‘our’ dog meat. When we pitched up in the Old Market Square or on Farmers’ Markets across the UK the reaction was very mixed, to say the least, with some people close to tears for the “poor puppies.” Many people now look differently at the meat on their plates!
One criticism of chief executives of NGOs or charity groups is that they often earn more than they raise. Are you a secret millionaire? You can tell us, we won’t tell anyone...
Whilst everyone at the Sumac Centre is a volunteer, Veggies catering enables two of us to share one minimum- waged job, such that we earn little more than unwaged crew members. Some might criticise that we don’t pay loads of tax or fuel the consumerist economy, but we feel that we provide a valuable or even essential service for a fraction of the cost of most other so-called voluntary organisations, let alone government agencies. We reach thousands every year with a message of fair shares for all but our entire annual turnover is less than the salary of one top charity chief executive.
What other veggie places do you rate in town?
There are many places in Nottingham now; from Annie’s Burger Shack at The Old Angel with over forty types of vegan burgers, to Café Nomad in Carrington with Moroccan-style cuisine, made by Malcolm in semi-retirement after years on the circuit as a top chef. There’s the Alley Café just off the Old Market Square and mm…deli in Sherwood, a veggieterranean delicatessen who recently celebrated their tenth birthday. There is Squeek in Hockley, the Flying Goose in Beeston and the volunteer-led Crocus Café in Lenton. There are different places to enjoy vegan food seven days a week. And Veggies and the Sumac Centre too.
VEE-gan or VAY-gan?
It used to be an issue, but these days I think it is commonly known as VEE-gans. Vee...vay... (looks around the Sumac) Are we Vee-gans? (people nod, some smiling as suspecting a trick question) Does it matter? We don’t eat meat.
When do you feel that all your hard work has been worth it?
When some kid comes up to us at Glastonbury and says, “I became a vegetarian because my mum used to go to this stall on the streets of Nottingham that did veggie burgers.”
The Veggies Scoffer, a vegan cookbook compiled by Veggies staff, will be published soon.