By his own admission, Neil Potts was the last person anyone would have expected to launch a vegan restaurant. Describing himself as “literally the world’s biggest meat eater” he admits he would scoff at the mere mention of vegans.
“I would challenge anyone to say they ate more meat than me – it was phenomenal”. But the committed carnivore says was also suffering “monstrous” stomach issues, which after 10 years eventually led him wonder whether his diet was the issue.
“I spent months trying different things, and eventually came to the conclusion dairy and red meat were causing me big issues, which is actually pretty common”, he says.
Partner and Vurger co-founder Rachel Hugh was already vegetarian, and the revelation coincided with a 30th birthday trip to California, where the conceptualization for Vurger took place. “The stars aligned. We were struck by how easy it was, how normal it was to eat plant-based food. At the time in London it was quite niche, and viewed a bit negatively.”
“We had this mission to revolutionise the landscape,” adds Hugh. “No one was paying attention to vegan food at all. After we came back from California, everything was artificial, tasteless.”
“No one was paying attention to vegan
food at all. After we came back from California,
everything was artificial, tasteless.”
While the couple were enthusiastic about filling a gap in the market for a vegan food, they had no experience in the industry, and still had full time day jobs to juggle. They also has to convince sceptical investors that vegan cuisine was a segment of the market.
“We were seeing this was a growing trend in 2016, but imagine trying to sell this to investors – we were constantly being told it’s never going to happen, we were too small,” adds Hugh. "People would say every day, ‘you will never get anywhere’. That really fired us up.”
With what limited equipment and time they had, the couple would spend Saturdays making vegan burgers, and Sundays selling them at the likes of Tottenham Green Market - an experience that allowed them to test and refine the food, with real-time feedback from customers.
They also made sure they had a good website and social media presence in place from day one, which they saw all part of building a customer base. They soon graduated to weekend-long pop-ups, where they had more control over the environment, and the chance to build more followers.
Opening a restaurant
The next question was how to open a debut restaurant. Investors were still wary about backing a vegan concept, so they turned to the people who were most enthusiastic about the idea – their customers.
“Customers speak with their feet – so that’s where crowdfunding came into our heads”, says Hugh. “People were asking us every day when are you going to open a restaurant.We wanted to prove to everyone there is market validation here or there’s not. Luckily it went really well.”
The Vurger Co set a target of £150,000 for its Crowdcube campaign, and within three days of launching had doubled it.
Potts handled the investment process, with around 280 investing over all – the majority small investments of as little as £10. Though time-consuming, he says good lines of communication with would-be investors were crucial to nurturing confidence in the campaign.
“Investors do ask a million questions. It takes hours of your time. It’s good, it’s important, you’re engaging – but if you don’t get there quickly with accurate answers it slows down the momentum. When people see you’re on top of the numbers and if you answer the questions as honestly as you can, they buy into that.”
It took a good six months to find the right location for the debut site in Cygnet Street, Shoreditch, which they secured in January this year.
Expanding the business
The founders have already returned to fundraising, securing a further £600,000 through existing and new investors, which will go towards further sites, including a recently announced follow-up at Wharf Kitchen, Canary Wharf.
The Vurger Co has also secured investment from the founder and CEO of KBW Ventures, Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal, a member of the Saudi Arabian royal family, and a vocal animal rights and vegan proponent and investor.
The pair were introduced to Prince Khaled and had the opportunity to pitch their business to him directly, which “sets us in such an exciting position to start our global expansion plans”, Hugh says. “He is incredibly passionate about the cause, totally understands the market in which we’re operating and fully believes in the future of the business so we couldn’t really ask for more at this stage of our business!
“Knowing that allows us to plan really strategically for the future moves. We now have investors from all corners of the globe, which is pretty incredible.”
Rachel Hugh and Neil Potts were speaking at Restaurant magazine and MCA’s Generation Next initiative, a newly-formed club for the rising stars in the hospitality sector. For more information on how to join Generation Next and attend future events, email email@example.com