Two years ago, Vicky Turnbull had no idea what to expect when she launched her quirky and innovative new venture, Wheatberry, on to the North East’s burgeoning street food scene.
It was Bishop Auckland Food Festival weekend, and it was with some trepidation that the 49-year-old headed down the A1 from her home in Newcastle to the County Durham market town with her Ford Fiesta packed with a colourful array of freshly cooked vegetarian-cum-vegan-cum-gluten-free wraps, dips and salads.
It wasn’t the thought of laying out her stall and coming face-to-face with the public that made the personal chef nervous, however. That part was easy.
Her anxiety stemmed from whether her unique, home-made and ultimately extremely wholesome and nutritious brand of take-away food, would be a turn-on or a turn-off in an area renowned more for its pie eating exploits than love of exotic, freshly prepared salads, spreads and sprouts.
To be fair, it’s not just the North East that has an enduring love affair with pies, burgers and fish and chips.
They’re pretty much staples on Britain’s hustling and bustling street food circuit, although these days you’re highly unlikely to be faced with a greasy burger, soggy chips or limp hot dog.
They’ve been replaced by free range beef burgers drizzled in homemade horseradish encased in artisan bread buns; locally made chorizo on toasted brioche and hand-cut chips crafted from heritage and sweet potatoes with your choice of lovingly concocted ketchups and sauces.
Still, while today’s street food proponents may owe nothing to the tripe selling, soused herring hawking, penny pie flogging vendors of yore, Vicky knew she was offering something way beyond the norm.
In her dreams, she may have hoped to one day be competing with the McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chickens of this world with a health conscious Wheatberry outlet in every major UK town and city, but her first hurdle was winning over Bishop Auckland Food Festival goers.
“It was a nerve-racking time,” Vicky recalls. “There really wasn’t anything like Wheatberry around; a business selling fresh, wholesome and nutritious homemade street food that is largely gluten-free and which vegetarians and vegans can enjoy too.
“I’d spotted a gap in the North East market, but I didn’t know how people would take to seeing a street food stall packed with colourful salads and raw vegetable spreads.
“Wheatberry was also a very new business for me. I’d initially had the idea towards the end of 2012, but it wasn’t until February 2013 that I decided to go ahead with it and launch at Bishop Auckland Food Festival in the April.
“It was only a 10 week turnaround!”
She needn’t have worried. She had sold out of her eye-catching edible flower topped salads, gluten-free wraps, crunchy home sprouted hummus and Moroccan carrot dip, by early afternoon on that first day.
It was a mad dash back up the A1 to spend a late night peeling, cooking and mixing to replenish her depleted stocks, before going through it all again on the Sunday.
Success followed success. Wheatberry was met with equal fervour at the Tynemouth Food Festival in May 2013. Vicky was invited to take part in a special farmers’ market in the Fenwick Food Hall in Newcastle.
Two Wheatberry pop-ups followed in the department store, with Vicky expanding her range beyond her now signature wraps to include whole juices and grab and go boxed salads and dips to cater for the busy lunchtime market.
She was asked to do vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free outside catering for dinner parties, weddings and even business conferences.
Food festival organisers began inviting Wheatberry to take part in their events rather than Vicky having to fight for a place, and as her business boomed she was last autumn forced to move out of her home kitchen and find a new base in the art deco surroundings of the Gosforth Squash Club.
Now, with Wheatberry celebrating its second anniversary, Vicky is taking another leap into the unknown: launching a home-delivery service.
Initially covering central Gosforth, Heaton, Jesmond, Newcastle city centre and the quayside, Fenham and Spital Tongues (where Vicky lives with partner Simon Mallinson), the service runs Monday-Friday between 9am-5pm.
Pleasingly for Vicky, the home delivery concept – which she hopes to soon roll out further afield - has been fuelled by customer demand.
So popular has Wheatberry’s eclectic menu become that devotees were no longer prepared to wait for the next food festival or pop-up street event to get hold of their favourite wholesome treats.
The home delivery menu is relatively modest, but Vicky says “our flavours are big!”
Salads range in price from £4.50 for the medium to £6.50 for the large and include the popular Awesome Foursome of wheatberries (they’re the high fibre whole grain form of wheat before it has undergone any processing and been turned into flour), cranberries and toasted hazelnuts, red pepper, raw hummus, tabbouleh, beetroot and apples, mixed leaves and super sprinkles (a house mix of puffed quinoa or millet, dehulled hemp, sesame, linseed and sunflower seeds).
There’s the wonderfully named Beta Blast with roast sweet potato, sweetcorn, black bean, spring onion, coriander, marinated raw kale, raw shredded carrot and beetroot with house dressing.
Wraps – which cost £4.50 – are made from either a wholemeal flatbread or chickpea pancake.
There’s Wheatberry’s incredibly popular raw hummus made from sprouted rather than boiled chickpeas, tahini, tamari and cumin; daily soup choices; one pot wonders of either chickpea, aubergine and tamarind stew on cous cous or sweet potato, red lentil and coconut curry on brown basmati rice.
Juices – unlike others on the market, Wheatberry’s contain the whole fruit and vegetables, which means you get all the fibre and goodness in the one bottle – cost just £3 and include zingy Green Lemonade combining apple, cucumber, celery, spinach, ginger and lemon, and Green Goddess with pineapple, banana, spinach, parsley and cucumber.
The Wheatberry Bags of Goodness cost £10 and include a medium salad, wrap, soup or one pot wonder of your choice, a whole juice, a flatbread or chickpea pancake, a piece of fruit and a sweet potato cake or two amazeballs (the latter are a deliciously satisfying mix of almonds, dates, cacao nibs, coconut, maple syrup and vanilla).
In season, many of the raw ingredients such as kale, beetroot, and herbs, come from the allotment Vicky has tended for the past decade.
She doesn’t make any organic claims, but in the time she has had the allotment opposite her terraced home, she has never used any pesticides or other chemicals.
Vicky makes all the wholemeal flatbreads as well as the gluten-free versions from chickpea flour. She does the juicing, picking, pulling, sprouting of the chickpeas for the raw hummus, recipe development and washing up!
Amazingly, by no means are all Wheatberry’s customers’ vegetarians, vegans or living with a dietary intolerance.
Indeed, Vicky herself is neither vegetarian, vegan, wheat, nut or dairy adverse.
She is someone who loves food and believes you can enjoy everything – in moderation.
Her products, she explains, are for anyone who enjoys fresh, delicious food that also happens to be good for you. “I want to make it easier for people in the North East to get something for lunch or dinner that’s healthy rather than heading to the nearest fast food joint or that boring lunchtime sandwich.”
The idea for Wheatberry came about because Vicky spotted a gap in the North East market – albeit one that is being slowly filled now others’ have seen the success of her venture. (A couple of vegan and gluten-free friendly eat-in restaurants have recently opened their doors in the centre of Newcastle).
Vicky had been on holiday to America and while in Austin, Texas, she came across the Whole Foods Market chain, which specialises in fresh foods.
Vicky describes the experience as “like having gone to foodie heaven. There was everything from craft beers and organic wines to really unusual garden-fresh salads, burritos, sushi and natural cosmetics.”
Whole Foods Market has a handful of stores in the UK, but none in the North East.
So Vicky used the experience to inspire her own gastronomic venture.
It has helped that she is a Cordon Bleu trained cook who has worked in both professional kitchens as well as cheffing for house parties, and even as a TV food stylist for children’s dramas made in the North East, including The Dumping Ground, which is based on the Tracy Beaker books, and Wolfblood.
But Wheatberry has given Vicky the chance to push herself in a new direction.
Is she surprised by how successful it has become? “Sort of, but then Wheatberry was probably the first food business in the region to offer the vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free combination. I think we still are the only street food business doing what we are.
“But Wheatberry’s food is for everyone. That’s something I’ve noticed; that people are much more open to different foods now and like trying new things.
“I think people are tending now to have more meat-free days and are adopting a more plant-based diet. It has become a more popular choice for people over the last two years.
“They’re thinking about the environment and the cost of raising cattle and how much grain and water it takes and the impact that is having on our planet.
“I’m not obsessive about healthy eating myself. But I do love salads and I like trying new things.”
And who couldn’t be inspired by a bowl of one of Wheatberry’s zesty, pretty, crunchy and riotously colourful salads?
It’s like having a snapshot of summer delivered straight to your door.
- For more information on Wheatberry and to see the new home delivery menu go to www.wheatberry.co.uk, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0191 447 3131.
- Wheatberry is planning to hold pop-up dining events at Gosforth Squash Club, Moor Court Annexe, Gosforth, NE3 4YD. The Wheatberry dining room seats 22 and can also be hired for a special occasion.