16th-22th May marks National Vegetarian Week in the UK. Established in the UK in order to raise awareness of climate change and the possible extinction of some well-loved UK-based species, the campaign asks people to swap just one meal a week to a vegetarian based dish, offers tips on how to reduce meat intake and provides some great veggie recipes from well-known plant-based chefs.
In honour of National Vegetarian Week, we’re shining a light on NCASS member The Vurger Co, who have gone from street food stars to owning a string of much-lauded vegan restaurants nationwide.
We last spoke to Neil and Rachel in 2018, back when they had one restaurant under their belt. Within just one year of establishing The Vurger Co, they had gone from pop-up to fixed site and managed to secure a place on the Startups 100 index and in 2018, were the only vegan business to make the cut. We managed to track Neil down for a quick chat in between the flurry of running 3 (soon-to-be 5) restaurants, and an ever-burgeoning retail business.
Hi Neil, thanks so much for talking to us today. Last time we spoke, you’d just opened the first restaurant in London. How have things developed in the last few years?
We’ve had a busy few years for definite. We now have the three restaurants, two in London and one in Brighton, with two more to open in the next six months. We’re also scoping out sites for other locations throughout the UK.
That’s incredible. It’s been a tough couple of years for the industry; how did the pandemic affect the business?
The restaurant side of things has been tough, we had to put off the Brighton opening and navigating the rules around various lockdowns has been logistically difficult.
Did you pivot the business in a way that allowed you to trade throughout 2020?
Initially, no we didn’t. When covid first came about, obviously we had no understanding of the virus and so our priority was the wellbeing of our staff. We closed everything down as we didn’t want to put the team at risk. In subsequent lockdowns, we played with opening hours, takeaway, outdoor only etc. It’s been tough but we’ve weathered the storm and we’re optimistic about the future.
That’s so good to hear, and we love that your staff were your priority in such a difficult time. Did you manage to retain all your staff?
Thankfully yes, we did. We never had to go through any redundancy processes which was a huge relief. We employ about 60 people now: soon to be around 100. It’s a huge responsibility and we take it seriously. We take good care of our staff.
Moving on to the retail side of the business! Vurger Co. sauces can now be found in some top tier retailers from Selfridges to Ocado and even Spinneys in the UAE. Can you tell us more about the product and the process of getting into the retail side of things?
We started developing the product range in 2019 and thankfully, we were ready to launch in very early 2020. Rachel was a fashion buyer before we established the business, so her experience has been instrumental. It developed very organically; we had always made our own sauces since our market days and customers had always asked to buy them and we had to turn people down frequently; we never set out to be a product business. But we saw an opportunity for a great tasting vegan sauce and went with it. We worked closely with manufacturers and a development team to ensure that we could have a product that not only had a long shelf life, but also tasted great and wasn’t packed full of additives. We started out in Planet Organic and Wholefoods, and as the product gained traction, companies began to approach us. We’re now in Planet Organic, Wholefoods, Selfridges, Waitrose and Ocado. We’re also in the US and Spinneys in the UAE.
That’s a mind-blowing accomplishment. For readers who aren’t familiar with your backstory – you set up The Vurger Co as you found a plant-based diet helped to alleviate health issues you were having. To have gone from a market stall which was a sort of personal, passion project, to being an international retail business, is astonishing.
Yes, we never could’ve envisaged this five years ago. We never had a masterplan; we just took each opportunity as it came. We’ve made a couple of mistakes of course; if we were going to do it again, we’d probably grow a little slower, but we’ve genuinely learned from it all. Sometimes I’ll just sit down for five minutes and contemplate everything that’s happened – it’s rewarding.
We know that businesses of every size have their challenges. How are the challenges now, different to how they were in the beginning?
The challenges then were getting up early when it’s still dark outside to load a van. The constant setting up and taking back down. Now we’re more removed from the product and the customer and we’ve got a lot of staff to take care of, which as I said we take very seriously.
When you started out in 2017, there was much less competition in the vegan food landscape. Is this something you worry about?
Yes and no. In London especially, there is a lot of competition now, but we have a lot going in our favour and we’re pretty well known. In theory, yes – people could replicate what we’re doing, but everything we do is unique – we make it all ourselves and we always have. Doing what we do takes a lot of time and stress; if people think they can do it and make it a quick, easy buck, they’re mistaken. It’s taken us five years and probably a few million pounds to get this far, so it would be hard to reproduce.
I mentioned at the beginning that you initially converted to a plant-based diet as it alleviated some health problems you were having. Can I ask, are you and Rachel still wholly plant-based?
Yes, we can’t imagine it any other way.