Life Stories: “I believe meat will no longer have a place in our diets”
Andy Shovel tells BALANCE about his journey from clubbing photographer to running his own sustainable plant-based product range (THIS) with business partner Pete Sharman – and masterminding some very witty marketing stunts along the way
I’ve always regarded myself as relatively unemployable, but my entrepreneurial skills have proved pretty useful in life.
I grew up in London and went to Nottingham University Business School where I learned nothing about how to run a start-up business, but lots about how to have fun. Perhaps that’s a fundamental problem with our education system, right there.
Throughout uni, I worked as one of those tedious clubbing photographers who would thrust a card into your hand after taking your photo, so you could go online and pay £3 for an overexposed photo.
The Start-up Life
I then transitioned into working for a friend’s start-up in the drinks business before eventually starting my first company in 2009, when I was 21. It was a graduate recruitment business called Recruitment Squared. I landed on that idea following the sophisticated thought process of ‘I have £500 to start a business and avoid getting a job. What sort of business can you start with £500?!’
The company did moderately well but was still small when I eventually sold it at 24 and bought a used Porsche.
My first business
My first business I resolved that I wouldn’t start my next business alone because the low moments are really quite low when you don’t have a pal to commiserate with. So after sniffing around my extended network, I found Pete Sharman. He was clearly good at the stuff that I was rubbish at, and we approached lateral thinking in the same way. He’s also just a brilliant, honest and understated human.
We founded our first food company Chosen Bun in 2013, having noticed a gap in the market for (well) delivered burgers, that didn’t arrive as a soggy mess. This was pre-Deliveroo! The business flew and we managed to sell it successfully in 2016 to a large fast-food operator.
After taking a strangely romantic holiday together to decompress, Pete and I vowed to focus on sustainability for our next company together. While we figured out what angle we’d take there, we founded a climbing centre business, Social Climbing, which is successfully running at the moment in Leicester.
A lot of meandering conversations later, we decided that a world obsessed with replacing animal-based products with tasty alternatives needed a new plant-based brand of food that was – one with a witty tone of voice that could persuade any sceptic.
THIS was born in 2019. We’d spent two years working with world-leading scientists and flavourists to ensure our products delivered on taste, texture and appearance. I wouldn’t wish version one of our 1500+ experiments in food on my worst enemy. The products we sell today really, really, REALLY did take a huge amount of perseverance to create.
Thankfully though, our chicken and bacon alternatives are hyper-realistic to meat and have been well-received by the market. They’re made from peas and soybeans, and we focussed on creating the texture, mouth-feel and taste that you find in meat products.
We have always been fixated by the idea of becoming the plant-based brand for non-vegans and sceptics. If we can’t fool a customer into thinking our plant-based product is real as part of a meal then we won’t launch it.
Last month, we pranked 15 carnivore influencers into promoting THIS Isn’t Chicken as real meat. We set up a fake recipe box service called ‘Surprise’ and asked them to cook a gourmet chicken stir fry with ingredients that were actually from Iceland supermarket and our plant-based chicken labelled as real meat. We knew we were playing with fire, but the influencers all took it on the chin after we revealed to them that it was a big fat hoax.
Last year, we also fooled 7,000 Londoners into thinking Ed Sheeran was giving out free chicken nuggets, but it was a very convincing lookalike and the nuggs were plant-based.
As a brand, we feel that by using humour and pranks, we can disarm peoples’ scepticism around plant-based replacements.
I personally gave up animal products two years ago, but we don’t believe in making people feel guilty or preaching to them about their other dietary choices.
We’ve so far managed to raise £10m for THIS, and we’re investing in a Willy Wonka-esque state-of the-art plant-based innovation centre, to help us solve the technical plant-based challenges of tomorrow, and serve up countless new plant-based alternatives in the years to come. I really believe that meat will no longer have a place in our diets in the long term.
Since launching in June 2019, THIS is now available in over 3,000 restaurants and stores, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, ASDA, Waitrose and Ocado.