How Greggs Made Its Vegan Sausage Roll a Social Media Sensation

(Bloomberg) -- Think of British food and there’s a good chance fish and chips are on the list. While it may be a Friday family favorite, the sausage roll remains the go-to lunch snack for frugal students and blue-collar workers. Problem is, the pastry and sausage-meat concoction is definitely off limits for the ranks of vegans.

It now looks like the no-frills food chain Greggs Plc, ubiquitous in U.K. towns and transport hubs, has found a secret marketing ingredient for both carnivores and herbivores -- a sprinkle of social media. The company introduced a vegan sausage roll in January and the online brouhaha turned its plant-based alternative into a hot seller.

“More and more people are choosing to eat less meat and more vegetable-based things,” Chief Executive Officer Roger Whiteside said in an interview. “That’s the trend we were looking to appeal to, and if we can make it vegan, then the pure vegans are also prepared to come and shop.”

Another reason for its success, though, was the social media campaign that turned viral. Greggs had sent the vegan rolls to “opinion formers” in a sleek box more like the iconic iPhone package than a fast-food container. That whetted the appetite of Vice journalist Hannah Ewens. She shared her eating experience in a series of photos published on the magazine’s website.

But what really pushed the product viral was an outburst from the unabashed Piers Morgan, a former tabloid editor and U.K. breakfast TV host, when he tweeted to his 6.5 million followers:

How did the company respond?

Greggs got the publicity it desired because of the fun attitude to marketing, showing it’s a brave and modern brand, British publicist Mark Borkowski said.

“In a very noisy world where it’s very difficult to raise your head above the parapet, to extend the story, to keep it running as your main marketing initiative, you need noise,” Borkowski said in a phone interview. “Piers Morgan gave that sort of noise.”

The company perfectly timed the launch, Borkowski said, pointing to the post-Christmas focus on New Year’s diet, fitness and health resolutions. It was a huge success: the chain of 1,850 shops last month said it had an “exceptionally strong start” to the year, thanks to the buzz around the vegan roll.

How Greggs Made Its Vegan Sausage Roll a Social Media Sensation

Greggs first came up with the concept about two years ago, Whiteside said. But it needed to come up with a vegan product -- including the puff pastry shell -- that would also attract meat eaters, leading the chain to team up with meat-substitute maker Quorn Foods Ltd.

“Probably the most challenging thing was how to get the pastry to be nice when you weren’t allowed to use things like egg glaze,” Whiteside said. In the end, they took the glaze out, and a lot of customers liked it. “It’s drier basically because it doesn’t have the glaze on it, so therefore it’s more a matte finish rather than a gloss finish.”

While Whiteside wouldn’t say exactly how many vegan rolls have been sold, he told journalists it’s the fastest-selling new product since he became CEO in February 2013. In January, the company said it was selling 1.5 million traditional sausage rolls a week.

“It’s a very strong seller,” he said on the media call. “People like it and they’re buying it more than once, which obviously is very encouraging.”

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