ndy Shovel’s start-up, THIS, had spent £100,000 and one year honing the perfect plant-based chicken pieces when he and co-founder Pete Sharman approached their first VC investor to raise the cash to start production. Shovel nervously offered a taster of THIS Isn’t Chicken Pieces’s prototype to a billionaire investor who was vegan, and waited for his reaction.
“Then he vomited into the bin,” Shovel recalls. “There was an awkward silence, he disappeared to the loo. The bin sat there in the corner of the room, full of sick. We were obviously really concerned and shocked, assuming that he hated it. But then he cleared his throat and told us that he just hadn’t eaten meat in more than ten years and it was so realistic, it made him vomit.”
That realistic meat-feel has taken off. Hammersmith-headquartered THIS now spans 11 products ranging from plant-based sausages and lardons to chicken tikka pieces, with turnover set to hit £20 million this year. THIS is now selling £1.4 million-worth of meat-free foods each month, and isn’t yet three years old.
Shovel and Sharman had previously been on the other side of the food fence – building up a beef burger delivery business Chosen Bun (pre-Deliveroo’s growth) before selling to a big Domino’s Pizza franchisee in 2016 for seven figures. Soon after, Shovel, who is 34, stopped eating meat. “God, it was nearly five years now. I miss KFC. I loved their family bucket,” the entrepreneur laughs. “But we resolved that our next company would be sustainability focussed, since we were both becoming more aware of our unsustainable habits and diets. Then when we tried the meat-alternatives available in the UK, we weren’t impressed with the quality, the likeness to meat or the branding of the market-leaders. We felt like we could deliver meat-lovers a better option, which didn’t look like Fisher Price food and which tasted identical to what they were used to.”
The duo initially put in £100,000 from their sale takings, which they spent on R&D – mostly consultancy work with scientists and visiting research institutes around Europe. “We also spent a lot of time on Google Scholar, understanding what the state-of-the-art tech was at the time. Pete and I then produced prototypes.” Then came the VC meet-ups, and that dramatic vomit. The THIS duo raised £1 million from VCs including Seed Camp and business angels contacted via LinkedIn, which was enough to start production on its first products, plant-based bacon rashers and chicken pieces.
Early customers included Holland & Barrett and Patty + Bun restaurants, who sold (and still do) THIS ‘bacon’. “We had many high-fives after those first wins,” says Shovel, who is 34. “But once the brand was out in the wild, we started to win more customers pretty quickly.” THIS hit the shelves of Waitrose in 2020, swiftly followed by Tesco; then Asda, Morrisons, Sainsburys and Ocado signed them up too. They’re now also cooked in Caffe Nero, Prezzo, Cote, Ask, and Honest Burger. Turnover hit £5.5 million in THIS’s first year of trading, and doubled to £11.8 million last year.
The duo have since raised over £20 million, with more VC backers giving the business a valuation of £150 million. The entrepreneurs have also today kicked off a Seedrs crowdfunding campaign – “it’s great for engaging a community and appetite for owning a slice of THIS was high – we’d been asked hundreds of times from people when they could invest.” Shovel has taken out three patents for some of THIS’s innovations, including a steel gadget inside its chicken-making machine, which agitates the flow of products to create more fibres and make it more ‘chickeny’.
Being VC-backed, “it’s implicit that we’ll have an exit one day – either sell to a large food operator or float on public markets, probably within the next five years,” Shovel adds. Before then, THIS is launching into Germany and another European country. More deals are on the horizon: THIS is launching with one of the world’s biggest restaurant chains in the coming months, and building a £3 million ‘innovation centre’ laboratory in Chiswick, themed as an ‘animal retirement home’ (“it’s what we want to do for the world’s livestock,” to work on new products. “Making peas and soy beans taste like chicken and sausages is really difficult,” Shovel adds. But he’s pretty good at making it sound easy.
Founded: July 2019.
Turnover: £20 million this year