29 November 2017 Startup 2018: The companies and issues to watch

Can meat-free go mainstream?

Startup 2018: Vegan businesses could be set to go beyond being just part of a food trend. There are signs of a wider change in attitudes.

In pockets of London, San Francisco and New York, vegan food suddenly seems to be everywhere. Meat-free meals are on the menu across the dining scene, from high-end restaurants through to fast-food outlets.

London now has dozens of specialist vegan joints, some of which have been so successful that they’re already opening second sites: Redemption Bar has spots in Notting Hill and Shoreditch, while Boxpark Shoreditch cult cuisine Cook Daily has ventured south to Croydon.

In a telling move, By Chloe – one of New York’s most popular vegan chains (which has nine sites across the US) – has chosen London for its first international outpost. It will open soon in Covent Garden, and another site will open near Tower Bridge in 2018.

But can what works in New York bed down in London, let alone translate further afield in the UK? There’s certainly appetite from diners, who are adopting ‘flexitarian’ diets in ever greater numbers, and eating fewer meat-based meals per week. Research firm Mintel reckons more than 35% of Brits now call themselves ‘semi-vegetarian’.

A marked change

Big corporates are taking note too, which is usually a sure sign of a trend setting in: McDonald’s is trialling a vegan burger, Zizzi’s has a vegan menu (sales from which are up 246% on last year) and Pret has just opened its third vegetarian outpost.

‘Over this year, there’s definitely been a shift in how people are eating,’ says Adam Hyman, founder of hospitality website Code. ‘It’s twinned with the health and lifestyle side of things.’‘We’re starting to see more Michelin-starred chefs making vegan options as well,’ he adds.

While some new vegan businesses – crowdfunded burger brand The Vurger Co, for one – are hoping to start plant-based equivalents of Eat or Byron, Grace Regan, founder of vegan street-food business Spice Box, has a different strategy. She plans to build out something more akin to a lifestyle brand than a restaurant chain, hoping to do for vegan what Glossier has done for beauty; create a loyal band of followers through social media and deliver products to them directly.

Food for thought

Regan is steering clear of the word ‘vegan’ though, instead choosing to focus on the nutritional and environmental benefits of a plant-based diet, as a strategy ‘to build a brand with mass-market appeal’. She reckons avoiding mentions of blood, bones and animal welfare is key to getting meat-eating customers onboard: ‘I don’t  want to make people feel bad about their food choices.’

Branding will most likely make or break a number of vegan businesses, which need to capture hype around health benefits while shaking off the militant hippy image of veganism. ‘I don’t think anyone has nailed it yet,’ says Regan. If somebody can perfect the formula, London could well have its first meat-free food chain before long.