WHEN you say you’re a vegetarian, you expect familiar, rather boring stereotypes to be made about you – and the same goes for a vegetarian eating establishment.
But Oak Tree Market, in Leigh, is a far cry from the assumed interior of patchwork quilts woven out of recycled tights and posters for socialist bands and baby yoga groups.
With a sleek, stylish interior and smart, pretty feel – not to mention the modern, mixed-fare menu, which doesn’t have a lentil burger or mung bean in sight – the new vegetarian eaterie and grocers might just inspire even the most devoted of carnivores to give it a go.
But, then again, its owners Jim and Sam Anderson don’t pander to the stereotypes you get used to smiling weakly at when people find out you don’t eat meat either.
Jim, a property developer who owns Oakleigh Homes, and an avid West Ham fan, stopped eating meat when he was five after watching a TV programme about turkeys being slaughtered for Christmas, and Sam, who fronts the new project now its up and running, has recently gone the whole hog and gone vegan, after studying for an animal management degree.
“None of my family are vegetarian,” says Jim. “As a family, every Boxing Day we used to go and watch West Ham play and on the way we’d have MacDonalds – and the big moment in my life was when I was six, rejecting chicken nuggets.
"Until then, my parents thought it was just a phase, but then I think they accepted it was really happening.”
The animal-loving pair were brought together by a mutual love of dogs – and today have something of a menagerie at home, including dogs, hamsters, rescue rabbits and foster hedgehogs that they let hibernate in their shed through the winter before releasing back into the wild through a charity.
“Jim came into where I used to work with a puppy in his arms,” recalls Sam. “I was like ‘I want you’ – to the puppy. I went over and took it out of his arms, and that’s how we became friends.
"We’ve been married three years and we’ve been together five and a half – and the dog’s now mine.”
The business – which is part deli, part grocery, part bakery and part cafe – only opened at the beginning of July, but has already been busy with customers giving great feedback.
It offers freshly baked cakes and brownies, ciabattas, salads and breakfasts, as well as fresh coffee and a fridge full of meat-free treats and ingredients to take home.
And although there’s a tempting array of delicious, healthy salads, the pair were also keen to include more hearty fare, as veggie comfort food can be hard to find.
While a meat eater can always pick up a sausage sarnie or a burger to tuck into when they fancy some junk food, it’s generally assumed that if you don’t eat meat, you only eat health food, which Jim says isn’t the case in their experience.
“This is definitely hangover food,” he says as he brings over their toasted pepperoni pizza ciabatta – a fresh, fragrant ciabatta stuffed with melting cheese (vegan option available), basil and fake meat pepperoni.
“It can be really difficult to get that kind of food,” he adds, recalling miserable att-empts ordering lettuce-filled pitta bread in kebab shops and once getting given a bun full of raw onions at a burger van at the football as it was all they could muster.
Sam agrees and says: “It’s like if you go for a roast dinner and the veggie option is something like a lasagne – and you think ‘I just want the same as everyone else, just not with meat’.”
Both know how hard it can be when it comes to ordering food in regular establishments and Sam says:
“I went on a hen party with some friends and we went out to eat.
“We let them know three months in advance that there was going to be a vegan, but when we got there they said they just couldn’t do anything – and that was with a proper chef with three months’ notice.
"It was really disappointing. You don’t think that’s going to happen in this day and age, I just had to sit there and not eat anything at all, while everyone else had a lovely meal.”
The pair took inspiration from trips to Brighton, where veggie and vegan eateries are round every corner.
But they admit that many of their visits to more typical veggie cafes, where unkempt style and tie dye is de rigeur, inspir-ed them to develop their own look and style and move away from the expected way of doing things.
They looked to Jim’s experience as a property developer and adopted the same sleek, stylish, modern look as his property portfolio.
The pair are also supporters of animal rights campaigns, but they insist that the eaterie is welcoming to all and their style is always to attempt to educate about the things they feel passionately about and never to preach.
“We did some posters last time the circus came,” explains James.
“And lots of businesses were really supportive, putting them up. All we were asking people to do was think about it properly. A lot of people get given a poster for the circus and think it looks like fun, and we’re just explaining to them that although it looks like a lovely poster, there are caged animals.
“And also there are plenty of great circuses that don’t have animals. We just want to ask people to think about it – but not in a forceful way.”
Being vegetarian and vegan themselves, with a lactose intolerance for Jim to boot, they know how hard it can be to order food and enjoy a meal out – so the pair are always happy to cater for allergies and intolerances with lactose-free milk, soya milk, gluten-free bread and baked goods, three types of vegan cheese and a welcoming attitude to anyone who might have an unusual allergy.
“We had someone order a salad who was allergic to lettuce,” says Sam.
“But we managed to make her one anyway.” Jim adds: “If we can’t serve people exactly what they want, who can?”
Oak Tree Market is now open on Leigh Road, Leigh seven days a week.