ndy Shovel’s start-up THIS had spent £100,000 and a year perfecting the perfect plant-based chicken cuts when he and co-founder Pete Sharman approached their first venture capitalist to raise the funds needed to start production. Shovel nervously offered a taste of the THIS Isn’t Chicken Pieces prototype to a vegan billionaire investor and waited for his reaction.
“Then he threw up in the trash,” Shovel recalled. “There was an awkward silence, he disappeared into the toilet. The bin was there in the corner of the room, full of sick people. We were obviously very worried and shocked, assuming he hated it. But then he s cleared his throat and told us he just hadn’t eaten meat in over ten years and it was so realistic it made him vomit.
That realistic meaty feel has taken off. Hammersmith’s THIS head office now covers 11 products ranging from plant-based sausages and bacon bits to chicken tikka bits, with sales expected to reach £20million this year. THIS now sells £1.4m worth of meatless food every month and is not yet three years old.
Shovel and Sharman were previously on the other side of the food barrier – starting a Chosen Bun beef burger delivery business (pre-Deliveroo growth) before selling to a major franchisee Domino’s Pizza in 2016 for seven figures. Soon after, Shovel, who is 34, quit eating meat. “My God, it’s been almost five years now. I miss KFC. I loved their family bucket,” laughs the entrepreneur. “But we decided that our next venture would be about sustainability, as we were both becoming more aware of our unsustainable habits and diets. Then, when we tried the meat substitutes available in the UK, we weren’t impressed with the quality, meat-likeness or brand image of the market leaders. We felt like we could give meat lovers a better option that didn’t look like Fisher Price food and tasted the same as what they were used to.
The duo initially invested £100,000 of their sales proceeds, which they spent on R&D – mainly consultancy work with scientists and visits to research institutes across Europe. “We also spent a lot of time on Google Scholar, to understand what cutting-edge technology was at the time. Pete and I then produced prototypes. Then came the VC meetings, and this dramatic vomit. The duo THIS raised £1m from VC, including Seed Camp and business angels contacted via LinkedIn, which was enough to start production of its first products, plant-based bacon strips and chicken pieces.
Early customers included Holland & Barrett and Patty + Bun restaurants, which sold (and still sell) THIS “bacon.” “We had a lot of high-fives after those early wins,” said Shovel, who is 34. “But once the brand was launched in the wild, we started gaining more customers quite quickly.” THIS hit Waitrose shelves in 2020, quickly followed by Tesco; then Asda, Morrisons, Sainsburys and Ocado also entered them. They are now also cooked at Caffe Nero, Prezzo, Cote, Ask and Honest Burger. Turnover reached £5.5m in THIS’s first year of trading and doubled to £11.8m last year.
The duo have since raised over £20m, with more venture backers giving the business a valuation of £150m. The entrepreneurs also launched a Seedrs crowdfunding campaign today – “it’s great for engaging a community and the appetite to own a piece of THAT was high – we’ve been asked hundreds of times when they can invest. ” Shovel has filed three patents for some of THIS’s innovations, including a steel gadget inside his chicken-making machine, which agitates the product stream to create more fiber and make it more “chicken”.
Being backed by VC, “it’s implied that we’ll have a release one day – either sell to a major food operator or float in public markets, probably within the next five years,” adds Shovel. Before that, CECI launches in Germany and another European country. More deals are on the horizon: THIS is launching with one of the world’s largest restaurant chains in the coming months and building a £3m ‘Innovation Hub’ lab in Chiswick, on the theme of a “retirement home for animals” (“this is what we want to do for the livestock of the world”, to work on new products. “Making peas and soybeans taste like chicken and sausage is really hard,” adds Shovel. But he’s good enough to make it look easy.
Based: July 2019.
Turnover: £20m this year