Even independent stores that specifically target the vegetarian market are going down the same route as Premier Foods by looking at ways to draw in meat-reducers and consumers looking for a healthier diet.

One store is Unicorn Grocery, based in Chorlton, south Manchester. Unicorn has chosen to market itself as offering a wide range of fresh and wholesome foods.

The 10,000 sq ft site, established in 1996 - with 3,500 sq ft of retail space - sells about 3,000 lines, including fruit and vegetables, delicatessen produce, packed goods, alcoholic drinks, household and general grocery - all from non-animal origins.

It also has an on-site processing facility where it makes between 6,000-8,000 bags a week of packed goods such as muesli and cereal mixes.

"Although we are a vegetarian and vegan retailer, we don't market ourselves that way," says Adam York, a buyer and one of the founding members of Unicorn Grocery. "It is a chance to get more shoppers through our doors. We want to be a mainstream retail grocery store rather than operating in a niche or minority area. We attract a large cross-section of people regardless of what they eat."

The store pulls in shoppers of all ages, but it is popular among younger people, with many well-educated singletons and professionals living in the local area, says York. Trade is busy as people return home from work, so the store opens until 6pm or 7pm most evenings. York estimates Unicorn attracts between 4,000 and 4,500 shoppers a week and has a turnover of £4m, despite being situated just 150 yards from a Morrisons store and six Tesco Express outlets being within three miles.

He doesn't see supermarkets as a threat and says Unicorn's prices are similar to or lower than the multiples'. Unicorn's attraction over supermarkets is the way it's run, he says. It operates using a co-op model, with all of its 50 staff owning a share in the business.

"It is not enough to just be a vegetarian store now," explains York. "People are taking a greater interest in green issues, sustainability and food miles."

Unicorn is keen to highlight this philosophy to customers. A copy of its principles, which include secure employment and fair trade, is displayed at the tills.

Where possible, it will buy directly from producers or as near to source as it can to keep its supply chain as short as possible, adds York.

The future looks bright for the vegetarian category and York believes the number of meat reducers will continue to grow. "Vegetarian and vegan imply a niche diet, but this is not the case. People realise they can get a healthy diet from vegetarian food." n