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Decoding the 1980's - the Rise of the Vege Burger

(Photo: The Vege Burger range, courtesy of Gregory Sams)

Photo: The Vege Burger range, courtesy of Gregory Sams)

This weekend, I took some time to meditate on the subject of packaging design from the 1980s. Inevitably, I took the sideroads of my own personal recollection of the period. Essentially, I went with my gut in recalling what I ate during this period. For a large portion of the decade, I was a vegetarian. I cannot precisely remember the inauguration date of this particular regimen with any certainty, or what prompted it, except that it was most definitely 'the thing to do' in my particular left-wing milieu back then. We grew up listening to anarcho-punk bands and going to alternative rock festivals where the implicit message - that meat was murder - was in song lyrics and in common parlance long before the Smiths nudged it into mainstream public consciousness. As for me, I smoked red Leb, got the munchies, and made veritable veggie burger towers with two, sometimes three patties that would rival any Hanna Barbera victual offering.

*** In 1982, the American entrepreneur Gregory Sams trademarked the 'vege' prefix and soon after released an entire range of food products under the brand name of Realeat onto the UK food market. It was an immediate success and became one of the most financially successful health food products ever launched. The Vege Burger was different than most of the products that tip-toed around the burger moniker up until that time as it did not rely so heavily on textured vegetable (soya-based) protein as a main ingredient, but rather a blend of oats, soya, wheat, sesame seeds and vegetables. I can personally attest that it was far more palatable patty than many of its forebears. TVP burgers were often dry and rather tasteless (wood-pulp, anyone?) and required much seasoning and extraneous fixings to, in essence, 'sex them up.' Sam's Vege Burger, however, was moister and had an attractive pink color unlike the dolorous monochrome hue of many of those that had come before.

Left: an ad for Vege Burger in the Vegan Magazine 1983, courtesy of Gregory Sams and The Vegan Society. Realeat's Vege line-up appeared as the new kid in class, on the shelves alongside established companies such as Protoveg and Direct Foods. These product lines were unknowingly at a disadvantage: Releat had a secret weapon in its arsenal, one which positioned its brand prominently in the mind of the consumer. They had a certain something-something that many of the others lacked - to wit, a vastly superior corporate identity, and packaging design ethos. Releat stood out from the crowd, wrestling the consumers' eyeballs towards their product and consequently, coaxing the pound notes from their pockets.

Realeat's main competitors, Protoveg and Direct Foods. Images Copyright Leslie Austin at

The design of the Vege Burger packet is arresting and colorful - an antithesis to the linear, 1970s 'small ad' illustration look that was typical of a lot of wholefood product at that time. The rendering of this particular burger, set against a russet field, embraced an air-brushed realism, yet simultaneously proclaimed a subtle naivety, a home-spun decorative quality that visually set it apart from a more moneyed, Madison Avenue style of esthetic competence. The lettuce had a feathery filigree quality, while the alfafa sprouts (cress) likened diminutive green butterflies fluttering away from the sesame-seeded bun.

Photo: The Vege Burger, courtesy of Gregory Sams.

The brand name, set in the Edwardian typeface Belwe, was given a new lease of life via a scorching in-fill gradient of yellow and red; a design decision that added dynamism, further distancing itself from the limited gamut of its older cousins. This design seemed to speak to a new generation of vegetarian consumers, one that sought to segue into the sensiblities of a new and colorful emerging futurity, a move away from all the burlap and the woodpanelling, the earnest orthodoxies of yore. This was vegetarian food for the newer tribes, those who wore their cruelty-free lipgloss in almost imposssible shades of pink and mauve.

Realeat's Vege Burger: an iconic, yet often overlooked piece of 1980's graphic design that gave the world an entirely new moniker for these plant-based, disc-shaped delights.

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