KELLY Benson didn’t mean to start a business – he just grabbed the ball and ran with it.
The 23-year-old Macquarie Scorpions A-Grade hooker was playing for the Tweed Head Sea Gulls mid last-year when his team mates noticed the vegan meals he was eating.
“I am a certified chef and mad cook and always jumping on the web to test recipes, going down to the shops, grabbing greens we’ve never used, experimenting and sharing the best recipes on Instagram,” he says.
“My team mates would see what I was cooking, and I’d be writing a caption of how much protein was in each meal, because when you play semi professional you need to ensure your diet is in good balance to optimise recovery.”
Since adopting a vegan diet two years ago, Benson had dropped 10 per cent of his body weight and his team mates, impressed by his performance and strength, began to ask him to prepare their meals for them too.
Just over 12 months later, Benson founded Newcastle Vegan Eats, which has three arms. Firstly, it has a stall on Sundays at Newcastle City Farmers markets. Secondly, it does meal catering. Thirdly, it will kickstart a vegan cafe every Saturday from September 15 at Hunter Organic Foods on Glebe Road, whose kitchen Benson hires for his catering business.
Benson chose the vegan path after becoming aware of “what happens behind closed doors” in abattoirs. “It didn't sit in my stomach too well, I didn't want to contribute to it. I pretty much went cold turkey,” he says.
Within a month on a plant-based diet he saw benefits – including weight loss and a reduction of inflammation of the skin, which hinders recovery – and halved his grocery bill. On field, he moved from the front row to the demanding hooker role. His gym “deadlift” increased from 180kgs to 220kgs.
Benson threw himself into the business, learning on the fly and aided by his accountant father. Sundays are busy: he heads to the farmers’ market to set up his stall and do his weekly shop for catering then ducks away to play footy. He then heads to the kitchen to cook his catering meals with his chef, Chloe. Mondays he packs orders for Tuesday delivery.
Business is building, with repeat customers aplenty, and Benson is keen to debunk the myth that vegan meals are hard to make.
“Most recipes you can substitute one or two ingredients then keep the same methods,” he says, adding that lentils are a tasty and nutritious substitute for meat he judges to be mostly bland unless you pay top dollar.
“Once you do taste the food you realise it’s all flavour - you can have a really enjoyable, plant-based meal which is why we are leaning towards, rather than trying to be pushy vegans.”