Andy Shovel and Pete Sharman have gone from working 'undercover' at fast food chains to co-founding the UK’s fastest growing food or drinks brand, pivoting from a purely meat to plant-based meat business and generating £20m revenue in the process.
This, which creates realistic meat-alternatives with a company mission to 'force the world's livestock into retirement', is now part of a £600m plant-based industry and Shovel projects company profitability in 2024, four years after launch.
Over a decade ago, however, Shovel and Sharman were forging a different path in the food space ahead of launching their beef burger chain Chosen Bun.
They had both lacked fast food experience, but their remedy came with Shovel working full-time for four months at McDonald's. “It was the best operator to learn from,” says Shovel. “I wasn’t trying to learn how head office worked. I was learning about cleaning rotas, what food hygiene regimes are best and the journey of the teammates in the store.
“McDonald's has been honing in for generations on how to cook fast food efficiently and quickly. To get up close and personal with a high class operator is a great idea and I would swear by it.”
Shovel had been rejected from his three preferred branches, with management saying he was overqualified after his CV stated a degree and having started his own business in recruitment.
“I was naive and in the end I gave them a rubbish CV and I left a lot of things off," he admits today. "I tried to sound less posh in the hope they would be less judgemental."
While Shovel worked 40 hour weeks, Sharman took up shifts at pizza chain Domino's as a delivery rider. With their required knowledge, the pair then launched Chosen Bun, a fast food operation well before the likes of Deliveroo came to the fore. “The whole premise was that you couldn't get a good burger delivered. There was nothing,” recalls Shovel.
The business partners have been together since 2011 as the business morphed into This in a bid to lower the world’s meat consumption — and recruit meat eaters. Having launched in 2019, they now have close to 60 staff while 2024 will mark production and innovation going under one roof at its London base.
“A unique thing about our innovation team compared to others in food, is that all our scientists by background and have a food science degree,” says Shovel.
His team test recipes, new technologies (they have filed 10 patents), and innovate from plant-based animal fat to the fibre of plant-based chicken. “We arguably have the most realistic plant-based chicken on the market and that’s because of the innovation,” adds Shovel.
As a company, they are well known for not taking themselves seriously, concocting anything from elaborate April Fools’ videos to setting up a food truck outside chef Salt Bae’s Nusr-Et restaurant and handing out free vegan rolls.
“We’ve tended to try and build community by entertaining and surprising,” says Shovel. “We’ve almost been a media company that happens to sell food. We’ve had a lot of PR over the years through guerrilla stunts and engaged our community in those ways.
“At the end of March we get loads of messages saying they can’t wait to see what we do for April Fools. People expect a certain degree of naughtiness and fun.”
Shovel also doesn’t moderate anything he puts out as a CEO. “I don’t like corporate polished statements,” he admits, “and I don’t like the way that some businesses are sanitised in the way they talk to consumers.”
This are now well-placed in an ever-growing market — up 48% over the last three years — while the UK is second behind the US in terms of plant-based products.
In September, This expanded outside of the UK for the first time by launching into 400 Albert Heijn stores, the biggest supermarket in the Netherlands.
“It’s a big moment for us,” says Shovel. “We’ve been a solely UK brand for four years and now it’s the start of our international efforts.
“It seemed crazy with the limited bandwidth that we’ve had, to turn our nose up at Europe’s biggest plant based market in favour of a vanity project of going abroad, when there was so much ground to make up in the UK.”
Their international debut follows national UK supermarket listings as well as a partnership with high street baker Greggs.
“We are trying to make plant based the norm,” adds Shovel. “Being in chains like Greggs is so important for us. It’s a fantastic milestone on this journey.”
How to grow a company: This CEO Andy Shovel on…
Being a co-founder
“You have to be a very unusual person to be suitable for a sole founder situation. Not only do many people have the resilience but also the skill set. For me being a co-founder is pretty crucial. Pete is great with things I am bad at and vice versa. I am blown away by people who do it themselves. I can’t get my head around it.”
The funding journey
“Interested investors at different stages care about different things. Angels may not be interested in PnLs, they care about the vision, look and feel, the brand, product quality and whether the founders will get the job done.
As you go down the journey and advance through the company life cycle, VCs care more about monetising, the economics and proving the concept will fit into the market.
Later down the line growth fund and corporate will care about the road to profitability. They are already convinced by the marketability and the brand can garner engagement from customers.
That’s what our investors have tended to buy into across the journey.”
Watch: How to eat a plant-based diet on a budget