Britain’s love affair with fake meat was more of a fleeting romance, as consumers turned their back on it as quickly as they fell for it.
It’s claimed the vegan market may be worth as much as £50billion globally by 2030, but sales in the UK seemed to have flatlined.
It has possibly been compounded by the cost of living crisis – vegan products tend to be more expensive than meat and dairy – alongside an oversaturation of the market.
Much like the craft beer market, which boomed over the past decade but retreated in recent years, you could argue that plant-based food has had its moment in the sun.
Food critic Grace Dent features in THIS’ first TV advert trying its vegan sausage
For Andy Shovel, co-founder of fake meat brand THIS, it is all part of the process.
THIS has taken the market by storm, growing by more than 50 per cent in the past year and recently launched a glitzy advertising campaign – namely, a TV advert with food critic Grace Dent and posters around the London Underground network.
Armed with a team of scientists, Shovel believes its patented Fat 2.0 technology has the potential to shake up a market that has, for the most part, become stale quite quickly…
From meat lovers to launching THIS
When you walk into the THIS office – an old aircraft factory in west London – you’re met with a ping-pong table, whiteboards galore and music blasting.
You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into a tech startup.
That is, until you notice the fridge full of fake meat, an employee cooking up some THIS bacon and cardboard cut outs of two women, Anya and Jo.
They are, I’m later told, THIS’ typical customers. Shovel tells me: ‘Anya is a vegan in her mid 20s. She’s a young professional, she’s busy, she doesn’t have any kids and lives with friends.
‘She misses the taste of meat but she doesn’t want to have it because she doesn’t want to be cruel to animals.’
‘Jo is a busy mum with two kids. She’s a flexitarian but is trying to reduce her meat intake for climate reasons. She cares about the environment but doesn’t want to compromise on taste.’
The cardboard cut-outs might be a bizarre feature but they indicate the changing demographic fake meat brands are trying to appeal to.
Once the preserve of socks and sandal wearing hippies, veganism and flexitarinaism have become mainstream.
‘Flexitarians are our main target… because that’s where we think the big societal shifts 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’ve become staunch vegans, although he says it isn’t a criteria when employing staff.
After selling Chosen Bun and taking some time out to travel, the duo sat down to brainstorm ideas for their next venture and eventually settled on plant-based food, after the success of the likes of Beyond Meat in the US.
‘When we thought of a good [idea], we’d stress test it with a financial model and then we’d meet people in the industry to fact find.
‘We’d keep trying to find a reason not to do it… when we did that process for plant-based food, we didn’t find a reason not to.’
Shovel and Harman put in £150,000 of their own money to develop some prototypes and put a business plan together, until they secured funding from investors.
THIS says its Fat 2.0 technology means its food has kept the taste and smell of meat
THIS didn’t launch into an entirely new market. The likes of 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 the downside. The taste, the succulence, the smell.
‘We also wanted to improve the brand. The brands at the time weren’t speaking to [meat-eaters], it was a very for us, by us vibe.
‘They were unrelatable, holier than thou, come and join the club. It wasn’t very outward looking.
‘I made the decision early on, that it doesn’t make people hungry to be sanctimonious, to lecture them.’
Where THIS differs from competitors Shovel says, is that rather than phoning factories to ask for a vegan nugget or burger, it has an in-house innovation team of around 20 scientists that are employed full-time.
‘We’re a vertically integrated mini-research centre. We’ve filed 10 patents for all of the innovations we’ve created around fat systems or textured improvements.’
Its Fat 2.0 technology is made from olive oil and water and while it looks and cooks like meat, the fat content is minimal.
‘You’re being tricked into thinking it’s succulent and fatty essentially by lots of water and a bit of oil,’ says Shove. ‘It’s a way to give the experience without making it super unhealthy.’
The chief criticism of a lot of vegan alternatives is that it’s full of nasty preservatives.
The growing consciousness around ultra-processed food (UPF), means brands have come under fire for claiming to be a healthy alternative.
Shovel quickly bats this off: ‘The important thing is to make fair comparisons.
‘I think people often take our plant-based bacon or sausages and compare them with aubergines or salads and say it’s not whole food.
‘We’re not trying to replace aubergines, we’re trying to replace bacon which is processed, unhealthy… with lots of cruelty and emissions.’
THIS claims its bacon has 95 per cent less saturated fat and half the salt, but for health-food enthusiasts the ingredient list will still be too long.
THIS’ bacon has 20 listed ingredients while real bacon tends to have around seven.
‘The gold rush in the vegan market is like craft beer’
Recent figures suggests there is less demand for vegan alternatives, with some analysts predicting we’ve hit peak fake meat , after big companies rushed into the market.
‘Brands big and small have piled in with speed over quality.
‘You’ve got mostly big brands delivering products that are clearly objectively terrible but they’re putting them on shelves because the retailer has given them the space, and therefore the earning potential.
‘The trouble is it’s now coming back to haunt the category.’
This year, Beyond Meat reported a 33 per cent loss in sales, while UK brand Meatless Farm went into administration in June.
Shovel is unfazed by this and predicts the ‘gold rush’ of big brands rushing into the market will only lead to consolidation, of which he hopes THIS is a beneficiary.
‘What’s happening is extremely un-exotic and happens every time there’s an over-proliferation in the category.
‘It happened with craft beer.
‘There was a big explosion, people said we’ve reached peak craft beer and then it starts 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 he isn’t worried about THIS, which has grown 55 per cent year-on-year and is projected to £22million in sales this year.
Shovel is also confident that THIS will become profitable next year, although he admits that marrying this with growth will be challenging.
The iPhone of veganism?
Beyond reaching profitability, Shovel says: ‘the plan is to become pioneers in the next protein form… I would love us to be the iPhone-esque step change.’
Shovel says he plans to develop plant-based food that ‘isn’t like meat and is different to anything that’s come before it. Think of if tofu was invented in 2023, what would it be like?’
It’s a bold ambition and one that might alienate the very customers THIS is looking to entice, but Shovel is adamant that the category will eventually move into offering a whole food alternative.
THIS’ astronomical growth has largely been down to its appeal to meat-eaters and its successful replicas of of fridge staples.
Its move into ‘Protein 2.0’ might be a step too far for some but if there is a substantial shift in consumption habits, Shovel hopes to be at the forefront.