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051 - What we learnt at the Plant Based World Conference

David brings you his notes and thoughts from the Plant Based World Conference & Expo. What kind of products are buyers currently looking for? What happened when Tesco supermarket put their plant-based burgers in the meat aisle?  Why did Applewood Vegan Cheese REALLY sell-out across the UK at launch?

Now that the world is opening up again we were excited to attend Plant Based World’s first European conference in London. Visited by thousands of plant-based brands, professionals and retail buyers, this was the chance to catch up with those who are making the biggest impact in plant-based right now.  From Matthew Glover’s Vegan Fried Chicken brand VFC making a big impact on the expo floor, to Heather Mills’s advice for those starting a vegan business, David shares his thoughts and observations on where the plant-based sector is at the moment and, more importantly, where it’s heading.

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Episode transcript

Hello and welcome to episode fifty-one of The Vegan Business Tribe Podcast with myself David Pannell, co-founder of Vegan Business Tribe.  And if you have a vegan business, or are thinking of starting one, then Vegan Business Tribe is here to support and inspire you not just to build a vegan business, but to build a SUCCESSFUL vegan business.

And last week was our 50th Episode so we had a little bit of a one-year birthday party with three other vegan podcasting legends to celebrate – and if you have any interest in launching your own podcast then go back and listen to episode 50 for all our podcasting tips.  But this episode I’m back in our little studio and I have to admit it’s been a little bit manic this last few weeks at Vegan Business Tribe.  September brought a record month of new members to join our growing Tribe and we’re not sure if that’s just the kids going back to school so people are now having time to concentrate on their businesses, or if more people just wanting to get serious about growing their vegan business before Christmas, but our networking meet-ups have been packed-out and mine and Lisa’s schedule of 121s to meet new members has been manic!   On Wednesday, we had our first new member 121 of the day at 8.00am in the morning and went right through to 9.00pm at night!  And when we tell people this they say we must be shattered by the end, but I tell you what – our new member 121 day is our favourite day of the week because we get to meet so many amazing people just like you.  They are all wonderful, ethical people on the same mission and just being able to help them, or give them feedback on their plans or connect them with other Vegan Business Tribe members that will be able to help or support them, that just leaves us buzzing by the end of the day.  We also always take a selfie when we have a 121, and if you go to the Vegan Business Tribe website then in the about section is a link to our ‘selfie wall’ where we upload them all.

So if you have been sitting on the fence about joining us at Vegan Business Tribe, now is a really good time with all the new members and activity going on – just go to veganbusinesstribe.com , click on the big JOIN button on the homepage and maybe we can get you on the selfie wall also!

Another reason it’s been so busy is because I spent last week at the Plant Based World Conference in London, and it’s great to see this kind of event back on again in the real world.  I have to admit because of the pandemic and everything else that’s been going on in the world, I’ve not been to an actual in-person conference for probably two years – and I’m someone who used to spend a lot of time at events and conferences.  But it was great also to be back in a venue with everyone else from the plant-based industry and to be able to catch up with so many innovative change-makers.  Speaking at the conference was Heather Mills, vegan campaigner, athlete and founder of VBites; Derek Sarno, co-founder of Wiked and Head of Plant-based at Tesco supermarkets; Louisianna Waring, the Senior Insight and Policy Officer at The Vegan Society; and many many more people and brands leading the plant-based conversation.  But, I have to admit that the term ‘plant-based’ WAS the right name for the conference and something that became quickly apparent was that the majority of the companies and visitors at the Plant Based World Conference were not vegan.  When Heather Mills started her keynote speech, the first thing she asked for was a show of hands of who in the audience would describe themselves as vegan, and I was very much in the minority when I raised my hand.  I would guess that maybe 20% of the people in the audience identified as vegan, which surprised me at first but then didn’t once I thought about it for a few more moments.

Because you will have heard me say lots of time on this podcast that the biggest market for vegan products are the non-vegans.  More than 90% of vegan food is eaten by people who do not follow a vegan diet. The majority of cruelty-free cosmetics are bought by people who do not identify as vegan. And that was very obvious at this conference.  Now, this was an industry business conference, it was a place to bring the buyers from the supermarkets and the retailers face to face with the most exciting plant-based brands at the moment, but in the majority of those conversations – neither the buyer from the retailer or the person from the company making the plant-based product were vegan themselves.  And that one observation pretty much gives you a snapshot of where the vegan consumer market is at the moment and explains why, when only 3-5% of the population identify as vegan, big companies are falling over themselves to bring out new vegan products.  The potential number of customers for vegan products now is huge, because it’s the mainstream consumer.

There were some very notable exceptions though, and it was great to meet Matthew Glover, serial entrepreneur and the co-founder of Veganuary who has now joined forces with chef Adam Lyons to launch Vegan Fried Chicken brand VFC.  And VFC are tearing up the rulebook at the moment and had one of the most impressive presences at the show, launching a company that really embraces the animal activism message and are wholly and ‘unapologetically vegan’ in their marketing, even though they know their average consumer won’t be vegan.  And there were plenty of other amazing vegans there over the weekend, but a lot of them were running the smaller businesses.  They were the people looking to make their first deals or find people to help them scale up.  And this is why the work that people like Matthew Glover with his vegan investment company Veg Capital, and Claire Smith with the work she’s doing with Beyond Animal, it is so important. These are the people looking to change the marketplace for one primary reason: to end the suffering of animals, not just to make money from a consumer trend.

And I think this was highlighted the most when some of the big brands like Nestle took to the stage to talk about what they are doing in plant-based.  Now, regardless of your own opinions on these mega-brands, they are responsible for a huge proportion of the food that people eat.  And we know that if we’re going to change the system then we have to work within the system we’ve got.  But their presentation detailing their move into plant-based was very much based on an unsustainable food system, rather than any mention of animal welfare.  Their opening slides at the conference detailed the amount of land that was needed to feed a growing population through the agriculture of animals and how that space simply didn’t exist, meaning big companies like theirs needed to start looking at alternatives.  Now, as a vegan watching this presentation I had to sit on my hands and bite my tongue somewhat – I almost was tempted to put my hand up and ask: if there was a planet B where we could just farm and kill animals without running out of space, would you back that?  But that would have likely gotten me removed by security and definitely made us no friends as Nestle – because they ARE making a change, and a big one too, they ARE helping a huge part of the public to eat more plant-based meals. But for as long as that change is just being driven by a consumer trend and not an ethical decision, that change won’t be absolute.  In fact, the presenters from Nestle were very open about this.  In part of their talk they said their goal was NOT to eliminate meat, and that they believe that meat and dairy play a really important part in the food supply chain.  And this is where the ethics of veganism and the realities of how far we still have to go are highlighted – especially for what I call ‘professional’ vegans like myself.  It’s easy to think that because we can now order a plant-based burger from nearly all the high-street restaurant chains, because we can get oat or soy milk in our coffee at coffee shops and our local supermarket has a whole vegan chiller cabinet that we’ve won.  And it seems like we HAVE come such a long way in a relatively short time, but the landscape we’re seeing for vegan products at the moment has only come about because of the work that dedicated people, like the people at The Vegan Society and like Heather Mills, working behind the scenes.  And what this has done is create an environment where companies like Nestle can bring out a plant-based option and know they will find a market for it.  People no longer pull a disgusted face at the idea of a vegan burger or sausage roll.  But as long as these companies are being driven by a consumer trend and not the desire to end the breeding and killing of intelligent beings for food, then we’re always going to be restricted to that single chiller cabinet in the supermarket and that single vegan option at the burger joint.  Yes the vegan aisle might get bigger and we get more options in that chiller cabinet, but these mainstream companies are still making the majority of their money from animal products, meaning they will fight to protect that category.  That is why the work that people like Matthew Glover does with the companies in his Veg Capital portfolio is so important.  That is why the work that Heather Mills has done to create wholely vegan factories and manufacturing facilities is so needed, but we need hundreds, or even thousands more ethical vegan brands and entrepreneurs to step up behind them too.  And I’d like to think that we’ve got some of those people as members of Vegan Business Tribe and listening to this podcast today.

And this leads me to a reoccurring theme that kept coming up in the conference discussions: that plant-based would never truly become the normal until we see price parity – so until plant-based food is the same price as animal products.  ‘Vegan’ is still seen as expensive.  But it was actually Derek Sarno, who is the co-founder of the Wicked Health and Wicked Kitchen brands as well as now being the head of plant-based at Tesco who put it the most succinctly:  We shouldn’t be asking if plant-based food is too expensive, we should be asking if meat is too cheap. Meat and dairy production is massively subsidised by governments around the world, billions of dollars are paid to farms and meat producers to keep the cost of meat artificially low. So isn’t it time to put pressure on these governments to move where those subsidies go?  Well, that wasn’t a conversation for this conference – and I know because I did put my hand up and ask THAT question, but it wasn’t an idea that the non-vegan food manufacturers on the stage were keen to put their weight behind!

But, after all this IS the VEGAN Business Tribe Podcast, so you and me are always going to view some of the discussions at a conference through the vegan business lens – but as an event that brought together the people who were making big moves in plant-based, whatever side of the fence those companies and buyers are on at the moment, the show was a big success and a shout out to the events team, especially Abigail Stevens their head of marketing and the most wonderful, ethical vegan you could ever hope to meet.  In fact I could have done with it being a day longer because I spent most of my time in the conference hall listening to the speakers and didn’t have a lot of time to get out on the floor to talk to the exhibitors and other visitors.  But there was a lot of both knowledge and contacts to pick up, and it is genuinely great to see so many companies investing in so many really good vegan products.

So, what did I take away from the event – apart from meeting so many great people?  Well, I already mentioned that Heather Mills opened the conference with her keynote speech, and if you are a vegan entrepreneur you can learn so much from Heather and how she’s approached the marketplace.  In fact, she is openly targeting flexitarians more than vegans with all the products that her vegan factories produce. She talked about how vegans will find you even if you don’t lead with veganism, they will hunt your products down, but the people who you can make a real difference with is those who are not vegan yet.

That’s why Heather’s company VBites focuses on creating like-for-like products that make it easy for non-vegans to try plant-based.  In fact that’s what they did with Applewood vegan cheese.  What a lot of people don’t know is that Applewood Vegan Cheese is actually made and was developed not by Applewood, but by Heather Mill’s company.  Heather believed that her team could produce a vegan cheese that replicated Applewood’s core range, but without using dairy.  Once they had developed the recipe they then approached Applewood and offered to manufacturer a vegan version of their cheese.  Now, what they didn’t quite appreciate is how anti-vegan the decision-makers and stake-holders were at Applewood – after all they are a dairy company!  This lead Applewood to sit on the idea for a number of years and when Heather and VBites did eventually convince Applewood to place an order for a supermarket roll-out of the cheese, they only ordered a fraction of what Heather estimated they would sell, and we all know what that lead to:  Applewood Smoky Vegan cheese launching across the UK and almost immediately selling out!  There was a time when vegan Facebook groups were full of people telling each other which shops currently had Applewood in stock so that people could try this new amazing vegan cheese that actually melts.  Now this vegan version of their cheese makes up 20% of Applewood’s turnover.  And if you are a manufacturer or food scientist you can do the same.  Find a company that have a really good-selling animal-based product and offer to match it for them with a vegan product which you will make under private label.  Perhaps you have developed an amazing vegan pork pie, why not take it to a pork pie company and offer to produce it under their brand for them as their vegan option?

And that was heather’s big message.  If you want to convert people to vegan food, don’t talk about the animals, don’t talk about the environment, just feed them.  Find out what food people love and go out and match it with a plant-based version.  And this has worked for VBites who now manufacturer over 100 products across their ranges.  And even though at the conference Heather knew she was in a room mainly full of non-vegan buyers for non-vegan retailers, she still had a lot of advice for those looking to start a vegan business.  For example, if you have a vegan company making a vegan product, then go reach out to other vegan companies making similar products and see how you can help each other.  And I know, this sounds so counter-intuitive.  If you’re in competition with another company why would they want to work with you?  But if you work together and even just place joint orders for your ingredients, then you might be able to buy them at better prices.  Maybe you can share costs on facilities and production lines or even take on each other’s products under your own brand to extend your range and reach.  And as vegan companies, we’re open to ideas like this because we’re all on the same mission and we’re all stronger working together.

Another session where I really filled my notebook was a discussion on the future of plant-based on grocery shelves, hosted by Stephanie Jaczniakowska-McGirr, the Head of Food Industry & Retail at ProVeg International.  And Stephanie was joined on stage by Derek Sarno, Head of Plant-based at Tescos supermarket that I’ve already mentioned, and John Gill, Head of Marketing and Trading at Booths supermarket. Now what made this so interesting was here you have two buyers from two supermarkets, but Derek is vegan and John isn’t, which means we really got to see both sides of what buyers are looking for.  You might not have heard of Booths Supermarket, they have about 30 supermarkets across the north of England which are mainly popular with the higher end of the market.  A bit like a northern Waitrose.  And I know that comparison will mean nothing to you if you are listening to this outside of the UK!  But John said that, by far, plant-based was the most talked-about category in their supermarkets.  Every time they have a new product launch the emails start to come in asking if they have a vegan version.  And they take notice of this which is why they are looking out for so many new vegan products at the moment, they are wanting people to come and pitch to them.  But not with just the obvious burgers and snacks, they’ve already got those, they want these other like-for-like products that Heather Mills was talking about. They want a vegan pork pie and pastie – both absolutely staple foods here in the UK!  There is a demand for a vegan option for every animal-based product.  And from Booth’s latest customer research into this, they know that THEIR average customer is over 50 and female and they are not necessarily looking for plant-based products for themselves.  They live in mixed-diet households but this one person will be doing the family shopping for everyone.  Some will eat meat, some may be vegetarian and some may be vegan, so they are looking for the like-for-like products that they knew everyone will be happy to eat.  At the top of their own customer survey into the reasons their customers were buying plant-based was because of their own health. They knew there are huge health benefits, not just to them but for other people in their family, in cutting down the amount of meat and dairy they eat.

And, just to look at this through my business glasses for a moment, there are two big things you can take from this.  First, these customers don’t necessarily know what makes a product vegan and what doesn’t, so they are looking for really clear labelling telling them a product is suitable for vegans even though they are not vegan themselves, and even if you are not leading with a vegan message.

And second, is if you can make a product that is inclusive for everyone – so if you have a food product then if it’s vegan, Kosha, organic, halal and even gluten-free, then that single purchase can be made and given to everyone in that family group.

What was also interesting was Derek Sarno from Tescos explaining the supermarket’s strategy on where they are placing their vegan products in store.  Derek started this conversation within Tescos by asking if their average customer is vegan?  The answer was no.  So would that person walk down a vegan aisle?  Again, probably not.  So if you want to get someone to try this new product that you’re trying to sell more of, then why hide it in the place where most of your customers don’t go?  And it’s interesting that it took bringing in a very high-profile vegan as your head of plant-based to start a conversation about including vegan food in the meat chillers.  And it’s working, moving where they display their plant-based foods is driving more sales of these plant-based versions. 

And Derek has had his work cut out for him at Tescos, and that was one of the questions asked: how has Derek convinced people, including the decision-makers at the supermarket, to try vegan food.  And his answer was very simply to cook for them.  Derek is originally a chef after all, and he said no number of presentations and PowerPoints will match simply cooking up a product and serving it to people.  And one of the common responses he’s got when he’s been trying to pitch a new product to decision-makers is them saying: ‘Well, if I could eat like this all the time then I would go vegan’.  And that’s a big take-away for all of us that make any type of product:  simply get your product into people’s hands, get people to try it.  And I heard this from Tom of Miami Burger as well about how he got into the big supermarkets, they simply brought a chef with them to the initial meeting and had the chef cooking up the burgers while they talked.

What was also interesting was Derek and John’s responses to what they thought was currently missing from the shelves of supermarkets.  Derek was very confident that we would start to see cell-cultured meat on the shelf within five years, so animal meat that has been grown in a lab.  John said that cheese – and specifically speciality cheeses, like blue cheese – was a real area for growth they were looking into, as was plant-based alternatives to fish and seafood.  But looking further into the future, there was also the conversation about bringing the vegetable centre-plate.  So instead of trying to replicate an animal product, making something new with the vegetable as the main meal not the side.  And I think on this last point especially he’s right, and this is something we’re going to see more of in the future.  Because as someone moves along their plant-based journey they might not want to keep eating food that replicates meat, and someone who started off eating beyond burgers might move to more obviously plant-based brands like Gosh, or someone who is initially happy to pick up the plant-based burger from a fast-food chain when they first go vegan might not be happy to even put a foot in the door six months later.

And I think perhaps one of the highlights of the conference was Derek challenging John from Booths to take on the Veganuary challenge with him in a couple of months time, to a large round of applause and a promise from Derek that he’d cook something up for John if he did.  I actually Tweeted about John accepting the challenge and Booth’s Supermarket social media team said they would definitely hold him to it.

Another highlight was a panel discussion titled ‘Leading Plant-Based Solutions and Innovations’ hosted by Louisianna Waring from The Vegan Society, who was joined by the founders of a number of companies, including Hannah Carter, founder of Oggs and the Managing Directors of Meatless Farms and Love Seitan and the strategy officer of Finnebrogue Artisan, the company behind the Naked brand of meat replacement products. And again the conversation about where a product should be in the supermarket came up, with Steve Swindon from Love Seitan saying that one supermarket that uses their pepperoni on their own-label pizzas started doubling their order.  When he called them to find out what was causing the raise in demand it was simply because they had moved that pizza out of the plant-based chiller and put it in the main section with all the other pizzas, pretty much doubling its sales.  In fact, Michael Hunter from Meatless Farm said he was petitioning to get the meat aisle renamed to the ‘protein aisle’ to normalise getting protein from plants instead of animals.  And that’s an idea I am wholly behind!

As I said, I didn’t get anywhere near enough time on the expo floor to go around and talk to all the brands and companies that had stands there but it was great was to see so many companies doing really innovative stuff.  Things like Loma Linda Tuno which is a plant-based alternative to canned tuna and Hope & Sesame who are making sesame milk from the waste that is left over after companies make tahini.  And although it was mainly food companies who had taken the big stands at the expo, having all these companies active in the vegan marketplace has led to a whole range of support services growing around it.  And you will know if you’re a member at Vegan Business Tribe that we have everything from vegan website design companies through to vegan accountants these days but it was great to meet people like app developers wondering around the show, fitness coaches – even ethical recruitment firms like Citizen Kind – all stepping up to support the vegan and plant-based marketplace.  And unfortunately I just missed catching up with Vegan Busines Tribe member Mark Bowdin from the Vegan IT company, but I knew he’d been there as a couple of exhibitors were asking me about his vegan IT company having spoken with Mark earlier in the day!

So, all in all, it was both heartening to see all this activity around our sector, but at the same time frustrating to not see MORE vegan-founded and ethically-led companies taking the lead.  What Matthew Glover is doing with VFC and Heather Mills with VBites is truly amazing, and I would urge you to follow and watch their journeys.  Listen to their interviews, try their products, look at how they are marketing and positioning themselves and aim to follow in their footsteps.  Because if you can create just 10% of the impact that they have created then it won’t be long before vegan and plant-based truly start to replace animal-based products on the shelves, instead of us being restricted to a single section in the supermarket or being marketed as a trendy alternative.

And look out for future events like this yourself, especially if there’s a conference side to the event where you CAN listen to these people speak.  Even if you are not in the food and drink industries it’s important to know what’s happening in the vegan scene and to make connections with other people who are on the same mission.  You don’t need to become the next VBites or multi-million-pound company to make a difference (although you could do!) but just having the aspirations to double or triple the size of your current vegan business will really help make a difference in moving the vegan cause forwards, and that’s what we’re helping you do at Vegan Business Tribe. You will learn so much from studying how these companies scaled-up, how they brought their mission to the heart of what they do and where they know the industry is going next.  If you have your own company, you need to become a student of others who have succeeded in your sector. 

Or you could just leave it to me to go to these events and report back so that you don’t have to!  Either way, I was happy because I left with a bag full of samples and freebies to take back to Lisa and I have to admit that the Oggs cakes especially nearly didn’t make it all the way home.  But I’d already told Lisa I was bringing some Oggs back with me and I would have been in huge trouble if I’d have scoffed them on the train!

So, that’s pretty much it for this episode.  And as always it just leaves me to thank you for listening – and if you did find this round-up useful, and if you really love what we’re doing at Vegan Business Tribe then you can support us in lots of different ways.  You can simply share this podcast, so post it on your own social media or in your local vegan business Facebook group;  you can subscribe or leave a 5-star review if your podcast platform lets you, and the reviews especially really help us work our way up the charts, especially on platforms like iTunes.  Or if you want to go beyond this podcast and properly get involved with us, then we have the most amazing community of vegan businesses over on veganbusinesstribe.com which you can join for the equivalent of what you would spend if you bought a cup of coffee a week from your local coffee shop.  And that then gives you access to our community as well as our online courses and collections to help you get serious with your vegan business, and all our online events, business clinics and networking meet-ups.  And it’ll also get you a welcome 121 on Zoom with Lisa and myself so that we can see how we can help you or signpost you with your own vegan business. 

And finally, if you really want to help support our mission you can also join us as a patron, who are our members who pay a bit more every month which means we can keep putting out this podcast every week, keep helping all these amazing vegan businesses to grow and keep championing the vegan business scene worldwide.  Just head over to the Vegan Business Tribe website, click on the big ‘join’ button on the homepage and you’ll see everything you get as a member and all the ways you can support us.

So thank you for listening, Lisa and I really do appreciate you giving up your time to listen and learn with us, let’s go set the world alight with your business and I will see you on the next one!

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