Britain’s love affair with fake meat was more of a fleeting romance, as consumers turned their backs on it as soon as they fell in love with it.
It is claimed that the vegan market could be worth up to £50bn globally by 2030, but sales in the UK appeared to have plateaued.
It has possibly been exacerbated by the cost of living crisis (vegan products tend to be more expensive than meat and dairy) along with an oversaturation of the market.
Like the craft beer market, which boomed over the past decade but retreated in recent years, one could argue that plant-based foods have had their moment in the sun.
Food critic Grace Dent appears in ESTE’s first television advertisement testing its vegan sausage
For Andy Shovel, co-founder of fake meat brand THIS, it’s all part of the process.
THIS has taken the market by storm, growing more than 50 per cent in the last year and recently launched a dazzling advertising campaign, namely a TV advert with food critic Grace Dent and billboards across the London Underground network.
Armed with a team of scientists, Shovel believes its patented Fat 2.0 technology has the potential to revolutionize a market that, for the most part, has become obsolete rather quickly…
From meat lovers to launch THIS
When you walk into THIS office, a former aircraft factory in west London, you’re met with a table tennis table, whiteboards galore and loud music.
You’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve entered a tech startup.
That is, until you notice the refrigerator full of fake meat, an employee cooking THIS bacon, and cardboard cutouts of two women, Anya and Jo.
They are, I was later told, THESE typical customers. Shovel tells me: ‘Anya is vegan and she is in her twenties. She is a young professional, she is busy, has no children and lives with friends.
“He misses the taste of meat, but he doesn’t want to eat it because he doesn’t want to be cruel to the animals.”
‘Jo is a busy mother of two children. She is a flexitarian but is trying to reduce her meat consumption for climate reasons. She cares about the environment but she doesn’t want to compromise on taste.’
I made the decision early on that it doesn’t make people hungry to be prudish, to lecture them.
The cardboard cutouts may be an odd feature, but they indicate the changing demographic that fake meat brands are trying to appeal to.
Once hippies wore socks and sandals, veganism and flexitarianism have become commonplace.
“Flexitarians are our main target… because that’s where we think big social changes can happen,” Shovel says.
In fact, Shovel and his co-founder Pete Sharman weren’t even committed vegans when they launched THIS. They launched and, in 2016, eventually sold their own burger delivery company, Chosen Bun.
Since launching THIS, they have become staunch vegans, although they say it is not a criterion when hiring staff.
After selling Chosen Bun and taking some time to travel, the duo sat down to brainstorm ideas for their next venture, eventually settling on plant-based foods, after the success of companies like Beyond Meat in the US.
‘When we think of a good [idea]we would test it with a financial model and then meet with people in the industry to find out the facts.
“We kept trying to find a reason not to do it…when we did that process with plant-based foods, we didn’t find a reason not to do it.”
Shovel and Harman put up £150,000 of their own money to develop some prototypes and put together a business plan, until they secured funding from investors.
THIS says their Fat 2.0 technology means their food has maintained the taste and smell of meat
THIS wasn’t launched into a completely new market. Companies like Quorn and Linda McCartney had been in the market for decades, but Shovel and Harman thought they could go one step further.
‘We wanted more realistic products so people could have the experience of meat without its downsides. The flavor, the succulence, the smell.
‘We also wanted to improve the brand. The brands at that time did not speak [meat-eaters]It was a very vibe for us, for us.
‘They were unidentifiable, holier than thou, come and join the club. It wasn’t very outward.
“I made the decision early on that it doesn’t make people hungry to be prudish, to preach to them.”
What happens is what happened with craft beer… We reached the peak and it began to consolidate.
What sets THIS apart from its competitors, Shovel says, is that instead of calling factories to order a vegan burger or nugget, it has an in-house innovation team of about 20 scientists working full time.
‘We are a vertically integrated mini research center. We have filed 10 patents for all the innovations we have created around fat systems or texture improvements.’
Their Fat 2.0 technology is made from olive oil and water, and while it looks and cooks like meat, the fat content is minimal.
“They trick you into thinking it’s succulent and fatty with essentially a lot of water and a little bit of oil,” Shove says. “It’s a way to provide the experience without it being too unhealthy.”
The main criticism of many vegan alternatives is that they are full of nasty preservatives.
Growing awareness around ultra-processed foods (UPF) means brands have come under fire for claiming to be a healthy alternative.
Shovel quickly rejects this: ‘The important thing is to make fair comparisons.
“I think people often take our plant-based bacon or sausages and compare them to eggplant or salads and say it’s not a whole food.
“We’re not trying to replace eggplant, we’re trying to replace bacon, which is processed, unhealthy… with a lot of cruelty and emissions.”
THIS claims its bacon has 95 percent less saturated fat and half as much salt, but for health food enthusiasts the ingredients list will still be too long.
THIS bacon has 20 ingredients listed, while real bacon tends to have around seven.
‘The gold rush in the vegan market is like craft beer’
Recent figures suggest there is less demand for vegan alternatives, and some analysts predict we have reached peak fake meat, after big companies jumped on the market.
‘Brands large and small have preferred speed over quality.
“For the most part, there are big brands that offer products that are clearly objectively terrible, but they put them on the shelves because the retailer has given them the space and therefore the profit potential.”
“The problem is that now it is coming back to haunt the category.”
This year, Beyond Meat reported a 33 per cent loss in sales, while British brand Meatless Farm went into administration in June.
Shovel is unfazed by this and predicts that the “gold rush” of big brands entering the market will only lead to consolidation, from which he expects THIS to benefit.
‘What is happening is extremely non-exotic and happens every time there is excessive proliferation in the category.
‘It happened with craft beer.
“There was a huge explosion, people said we had reached the peak of craft beer and then it started to consolidate from, say, 20 brands to five.
“It happened with smoothies in the mid-2010s.”
Shovel seems to think the vegan market is in a corrective period, but it’s not worried about THIS, which has grown 55 per cent year on year and is forecast to hit £22m in sales this year.
Shovel is also confident THIS will be profitable next year, although he admits that combining this with growth will be a challenge.
The iPhone of veganism?
Beyond reaching profitability, Shovel says, “the plan is to pioneer the next form of protein…I would love for us to be the iPhone-style game changer.”
Shovel says he plans to develop plant-based foods that are “not like meat and unlike anything that has come before.” Think if tofu were invented in 2023, what would it be like?
It’s a bold ambition and one that could alienate the very customers ESTO seeks to attract, but Shovel is convinced the category will eventually transition to offering a whole foods alternative.
THIS’s astronomical growth is largely due to its appeal to meat eaters and its successful replications of refrigerator staples.
Its move to ‘Protein 2.0’ might be a step too far for some, but if there is a substantial change in consumer habits, Shovel hopes to be at the forefront.
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