This year couldn’t have gone much better for Andy Shovel.
In less than 12 months since launching his plant-based meat company with co-founder and fellow self-confessed meat lover Pete Sharman, THIS has landed in three of the UK’s big four supermarkets.
It’s on track to hit annual revenue of £7 million, fuelled by demand for its hyper-realistic chicken and bacon (made from pea and soya beans) that doubled under the first COVID-19 lockdown.
And in August the company raised £4 million on Seedrs in just 24 hours, becoming the fastest campaign to ever raise more than £1.5 million on the crowdfunding platform.
But THIS is only just getting started.
Shovel, who gave up meat two years ago after selling beef burger chain Chosen Bun in 2016, now has ambitious plans to build a “Willy Wonka style plant-based innovation centre” in west London.
“We want to solve the big plant-based questions of tomorrow,” says the serial entrepreneur, who previously set up successful recruitment company Recruitment Squared.
Here, he reveals how the lessons learned from running a cult beef burger joint helped THIS disrupt the vegan market, and explains why Donald Trump and “fake news” have become key marketing tools in converting more consumers to eat more sustainably.
On the appeal of the vegan market……
Pete and I have a very unusual genesis as a plant-based brand, having come from selling meat to selling plant-based vegan food. When we sold Chosen Bun in 2016 we realised that sustainability had to play a big part in our next business. Our consciousness was rising, along with everybody else, around the problems with high meat consumption.
As meat-eaters at the time we realised we couldn’t find a meat alternative product that really appealed to us in terms of likeness to meat and from a branding perspective. We didn’t find them relatable. The brands of 2017 were more legacy vegetarian, vegan brands. They were a bit niche and internally looking. So we wanted to start a really mainstream brand.
On THIS’s unique selling point…..
Over the past 15 years innovative technologies, like extrusion and heat forming, have allowed brands like ours to move away from the slightly Frankenstein-style foods that made people nervous of the sector, and towards foods that greatly resemble the animal-based products that they love.
For us it all boils down to realism. That’s the KPI from a product perspective that customers care about and something we take really seriously. We have a charter for releasing new products: if we can’t fool a customer into thinking our plant-based product is real as part of a meal we won’t launch the product.
On how the plant-based meat is made…..
The main ingredients we use are pea and soy protein. We use a process called extrusion, where you add water and heat to create a textured product which we hope has a very close likeness to meat. You can then cut and flavour them.
Our bacon, for instance, is much healthier than animal-based bacon. We have half the salt per 100g and zero saturated fat. We don’t have any nitrates in our processing which you find in animal-based bacon that causes cancer. As a brand, we don’t shout that loudly about the health benefits. We’d rather shout about how good the experience is and how it’s just like having meat.
On targeting meat reducers rather than diehard vegans…..
Our time in Chosen Bun taught us how to communicate with meat-eaters. And not just meat-eaters, but meat lovers. It armed us with a vocabulary and style of communication that is quite useful now. We are very deliberately going after the mass market and the majority of consumers who also eat meat.
For example, we will use pictures of eggs alongside our plant-based bacon and five years ago that would be a big no-no in the vegan industry. And we’ve used the phrase “meat is delicious” in our marketing because meat is delicious, we just don’t think it’s the best idea to eat it.
Sometimes we’ve faced a bit of a backlash from vegans who don’t feel we act vegan enough. But we have to configure ourselves for mass-market success and not just to please the smaller niches. In our minds, it’s all about normalising plant-based food and disarming people who might have negative preconceptions about it.
On using humour – and Donald Trump – to promote sustainability…..
We like to mess around as a brand and one of the things Pete and I noticed as strangers to the sector is that it was quite serious. There wasn’t a lot of joking around in terms of marketing. A lot of brands and customers viewed the sector as quite a serious topic. And I totally accept all that and feel quite strongly about it. But from a branding perspective, we wanted to be quite light and frothy and entertain people so they fall in love with our brand and love our products.
Rather than making people feel guilty about their life choices or preaching to them that eating meat is evil, we feel that a more effective form of activism and marketing technique is to be relatable and use humour to disarm people’s defensiveness.
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On the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic…..
Fortunately our growth hasn’t been hindered by the pandemic. We saw retail sales double amid the first lockdown, and increase 40% so far during this second wave. The biggest trends we’ve seen are that people are buying more plant-based food.
People are spending less in restaurants – although this did look like it was recovering well before the second lockdown. And we’ve seen a big spike in demand from supermarkets. There’s also been a shift towards direct-to-consumer, which is why we’re launching our own DTC business soon.
On solving the big plant-based questions of tomorrow…..
Innovation is a massive focus for us. We are building a 6,000 sq ft innovation centre in west London that’s going to house state of the art research equipment and be staffed with food scientists and engineers. I’m hoping to produce a Willy Wonka vibe. It should be really fun.
One area of interest is fat. Currently, the fat that goes into plant-based products, like coconut oil, is quite useless. It leaks away from the products when you cook it. If you compare 50ml of coconut oil with 50g of beef tallow or pork fat, in terms of taste you’re always going to lose.
We want to come up with a new plant-based fat that outperforms the current market benchmarks and can then replace animal-based fat in other products. When we crack higher-performing plant-based fat I think that will broaden the appeal of plant-based foods greatly.
On the future of plant-based food…..
I feel confident that meat will no longer have a place in our diets in the long term. It will probably take 50 years or more because people really love the taste of meat and the quality of products in the plant-based sector will take some time to catch up. But the reasons for eliminating meat from our diet are so substantial and meaningful.
Livestock production accounts for so much of the world’s carbon emissions. There are so many ethical concerns and health concerns around some meats. You also have to grow a cow or grow a chicken, which is quite complicated and cost-intensive. Processing plant-based meat is much simpler.
On the next steps for THIS…..
Over the next 12 months we’d like to release 10 new products. Currently our annualised revenue sits at £8 million. In 12 months we’d like that figure to be £20 million. There’s a lot of growth we need to get there and our main focus, for now, is the UK, which is one of the highest growth markets in the world for plant-based food.
In Q1 or Q2 next year we’d like to carry out our Series A funding round which is likely to be around £7-10 million in new capital for the business. That will really set us up on our journey to profitability. It will allow us to expand our manufacturing and grow the team with industry leaders. That will hopefully be a real step-change for us.