As the VegeBurger marks an anniversary, we speak to its inventor, Greg Sams.
Born 40 years ago to Greg Sams, an Anglo-American health food pioneer who helped popularise macrobiotic diets in Britain, the VegeBurger was the first of its kind on the market: an unassuming bean-and-oatmeal patty the colour of mud.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and in the early ’80s Greg and his older brother Craig had accountants breathing down their necks. Despite the brothers’ outward success – their company, Ceres Wholesale generated a £2.5 million turnover in its first year – things were starting to fray. ‘In the food business there are very slim margins. It takes time and effort to sell brown rice to people, and then there’s no brand loyalty: if someone finds brown rice for a penny less they’ll change brand,’ says Sams, who speaks in a transatlantic murmur. ‘I realised I needed to invent a product that was cheap to make, that would sell well, and that no one could copy.’
Just as American-style burgers were wending their way onto British plates; here were two Yanks trying to flog flaxseed and okra, something that, while its nutritional goodness was evident, could not compete. ‘People ate what they saw on television,’ Sams says with barely masked disdain.
While the existence of meatless patties today seems a given, the road to the original VegeBurger was not straightforward. When the Sams brothers relocated to London from America, grey, miserable England was a far cry from southern California, that cradle of vegetarian goodness, sunshine and macramé.
Opening SEED in a Paddington basement was a big risk, but within a year the smooth-talking duo had wooed legions of investors and collected a hessian sack-load of celebrity friends, among them John and Yoko, who became SEED regulars. The restaurant’s existence in a sea of musty antique shops and pubs created an instant stir, and hungry hippies soon came knocking.
All sorts trudged through the door. ‘One of the Paddington railway porters would come down for a bite,’ Sams recalls, ‘I met him again, years later. He told me: “I never liked the food, Greg, but it was the only food I could dance all night on.”’
The brothers catered big music festivals, including Glastonbury, handed out flyers in SEED for the free Stones concert happening in nearby Hyde Park and hung out with Marc Bolan over lentils. Sams started a magazine, Harmony, to which Lennon submitted a cartoon. ‘It was the core of the British counter-culture, and we got to know them all,’ he says with a sigh.
He fondly recalls the day he spent in Lennon’s Rolls Royce, shuttling SEED customers to Queen Charlotte’s Hospital in Chelsea for testing since Yoko needed a transfusion and only wanted to receive blood from a clean, green vegetarian – who turned out to be Vince, SEED’s resident artist.
A couple of years later they opened Ceres, Britain’s first natural health food shop, on Portobello Road. Until then it had proved impossible to find wholegrain foods locally. Sams recalls having to schlep as far as Wimbledon for shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) and the only place one could find tahini was in Polish delis. There were a lot of blank stares.
Yet Ceres, while a hive of activity, involved notably less partying. At one point they had a packing room, a peanut butter line, a sugar-free jam making plant, 40 staff, a stone flour mill and dozens of forklift trucks whizzing to and fro. Sams was glad to leave this hassle behind, as the VegeBurger was swiftly becoming his all-consuming passion.
It was in 1981, and house-bound with a bout of hepatitis, that Sams set to work on what would become the VegeBurger. The idea was to make a natural alternative to the hamburger, though Sams, who’d been vegetarian since age ten, had never actually eaten one. Six months of trial and error with taste and texture followed. Around month three Sams knew he was getting close when ‘my long-suffering wife, Sandy, asked for a second bite of the latest sample forced upon her.’
The resultant patty comprised sesame seeds, blended oats, soya, wheat and dehydrated vegetables, and received its christening at the last Helfex trade show in the spring of 1982, trading as The Realeat Company.
Sams was challenging the fast food industry at its trans-fattened peak, so the advertising had to be sharp. For brand name there’d been many contenders, including ‘Greenburger’, ‘Sesameburger’, ‘Earthburger’ and ‘Plantburger’ – but VegeBurger just had that special ring, and he trademarked it.
Sams had a lot to lose but the gamble paid off. VegeBurger was a success and patties flew off shelves. In 1983 the trial run at Carrefour in Southampton sold more than 2,000 packets of VegeBurgers (containing four patties each) in just three weeks – a victory in spite of the
fact that the Television Companies Association had banned Sams from running the taglines ‘delicious, nutritious and kind to animals’ and ‘the no-cow burgers’ in his television advertisements.
The business received fan mail. A teenage girl from Oban, Scotland, wrote to Sams, thanking him for saving her from a life of endless pizza. Conducting the first ‘vegetarian headcount’ through Gallup in 1984 brought a swathe of latent vegetarians ‘out of the closet’. The VegeBurger even found its way into the hands of Mikhail Gorbachev during a trade show in Moscow.
All good things must come to an end and Sams sold The Realeat Company on August 8th, 1988, then left the food industry altogether. He simply couldn’t ‘fly from the seat of my pants’ any longer. And where was the fun in that?
Spending the ’90s on Goan beaches, he moved out of food and into fractals, founding ‘Strange Attractions’ – ‘the world’s only shop ever dedicated to chaos theory’ – and writing several tomes about the Sun as a celestial power.
Sams looks upon the VegeBurger’s short life with great pride. One of his most treasured pay-offs from all those years of toil is the ‘ability to easily buy the healthy organic foods that I once had to import, pack, sometimes even manufacture.’ Now if Greg wants tahini or
lemongrass, he just pops to his local supermarket. But you certainly won’t catch him buying an OG veggie burger: ‘I don’t like what they put in those things. If I want meat, I’ll buy organic.’