Green Pioneer interview: Andy Shovel, THIS Co-Founder
The plant-based meat alternative market is heaving with products in 2022 – but perhaps no brand has quite captured the attention of flexitarians, vegetarians and vegans alike quite like THIS. With its hyper-realistic versions of common meat products, THIS has been making it easier to make plant-based like-for-like ingredient swaps since its launch in 2019.
Andy Shovel co-founded THIS alongside business partner Pete Sharman, with whom he now shares the role of Co-CEO. Prior to THIS, the pair established and ran a burger restaurant chain – yes, serving real meat. While the origins of the company seem antithetical at first, Andy says it actually makes perfect sense – both are big lovers of the taste of meat, who want to be able to replicate it in a cruelty-free, sustainable way.
It has been a whirlwind few years for the team, who have dealt with it all with a tongue-in-cheek, lighthearted approach. Highlights include a Christmas product range, restaurant stockists like Caffé Nero, Honest Burger and Prezzo, and of course, a Food Matters Live Award for Plant-Based Product of the Year in 2020.
We caught up with Andy to reflect on the last three years, and discuss THIS’ latest mission: crowdfunding.
Starting at the beginning, what was the biggest motivator for establishing THIS – especially given this is already quite a saturated market?
We really felt that as meat-lovers at the time, no brand was making products we’d be happy to sub meat out for, and that we could have a shot at delivering the brand and product lineup for others like us.
Although it is a congested space, most other brands aren’t leaning very hard into the tech side like THIS is. There are a lot of copycat products with little variance in quality.
Finally, we were really motivated to do something constructive with the next stage in our careers.
How did your previous work experiences and education set you up for launching THIS?
We co-founded, grew and then sold a restaurant business called Chosen Bun, which sold mostly meat. It really taught us a huge amount about leading a team, creating and maintaining a consumer-facing brand, social media, food development – even IP development. We designed, produced and patented packaging, made to keep burgers in perfect condition during delivery.
THIS won a Food Matters Live Award in 2020. What’s been happening to the brand since?
We’ve won a bunch more awards, including a gold award for startup of the year. We’ve hit an annualised revenue of £17.5m and we’ve created 11 products since launching three years ago. Also our team has grown to 60 people and we’ve raised £20m in funding. We’ve been busy!
“We really felt that as meat-lovers at the time, no brand was making products we’d be happy to sub meat out for, and that we could have a shot at delivering the brand and product lineup for others like us.”
The flexitarian is the customer that food brands are increasingly interested in attracting, but the huge number of vegetarians and vegans which are enticed by THIS can’t be ignored either. How do you ensure your products, branding and company are attractive to all of these slightly different consumers?
It’s a really tricky one to get right, and we don’t always! The messaging and tone required to attract vegans are different to those needed to communicate meaningfully with meat-eaters. I guess we try and default to being funny. Or trying our best to be. Also shocking sometimes. Those two reactions are generally pretty universal.
The branding and marketing for THIS completely eschews a lot of the tropes usually associated with plant-based food, like leaves and greenery. What made you opt for this approach, and why do you think it works so well?
See above! We configure all of our comms and branding to appeal to meat-eaters. No green packaging or super holier-than-thou messaging.
THIS is featured in and works with a lot of restaurant partners. Why have you chosen to split focus between the foodservice and the direct-to-consumer side of your business?
Our restaurant partnerships are hugely valuable for us in many ways. As well as bringing revenue, they also help with brand awareness, as almost all of our restaurant partners choose to co-brand with us. i.e. they call out THIS on their menus and marketing materials.
“The messaging and tone required to attract vegans are different to those needed to communicate meaningfully with meat-eaters. I guess we try and default to being funny. Or trying our best to be. Also shocking sometimes. Those two reactions are generally pretty universal. ”
We’ve seen an increasing number of foodtech companies offer crowdfunding opportunities for fans to get involved. Recently you crowdfunded on Seedrs and surpassed your target of £4M by nearly 50% in the first few days. Why did you do decide to do this too?
It’s a great way to engage and build our community. We did an initial round with Seedrs when we first launched and we became the fastest ever FMCG business to hit target and fastest ever campaign to hit £1.5m+. That was huge and really helped catapult our growth and the start of a great THIS community. It felt like the right time for us to launch crowdfunding again. We’re at a really exciting place as a business and the demand for quality plant-based products continues to soar.
This crowdfunding campaign will be the latest move in a series of huge successes for your company in a short space of time. How are you working internally to ensure your growth is sustainable and long-lasting?
Trying our best to hire great people, who all get along and believe in what we’re doing! Also we are working hard to get our margins healthy, as that will allow our business to grow much more sustainably.
How do you promote a positive working environment at THIS?
We try and promote some key values, like “You’ve got THIS”, which is basically “be positive ‘cos stuff is hard”, and “Be kind loads”, which is cringe but sincere. We also try and be incredibly transparent with the team. As a senior team, we hide absolutely nothing from the wider team.
We’ve also introduced the “THIS knows that London costs loads” initiative, which ensures our lowest salary in the company is £35k, regardless of how inexperienced anyone is.
You say your company recruits more meat-eaters than any of your competitors. Why do you think this viewpoint is so important in your mission?
The really crucial thing is to increase the number of animals taken out of the food chain and the only way to do that is to attract brand new customers such as meat-reducers.
Interest in plant-based food is at an all-time high – where do you predict the market is going to go next? And how will THIS react to this?
The addressable market size is around 40% of the £20bn+ meat market, since 40% of meat-eaters are consciously trying to reduce their meat intake. We’ll react to it by carrying on our march of releasing amazing new products.
What comes next for THIS?
Tonnes of new products, new international markets and big tech step-changes which will allow consumers unprecedented realism in their plant-based foods.
What advice do you wish you’d been given before starting THIS and what advice do you have for those wishing to start their own food company?
– Make sure you make senior hires sooner.
– Don’t make too many promises to retailers about new product launches, unless you’re sure you won’t drive your Innovation team crazy to deliver them!