About Time You Met: Rachel Hugh, Co-Founder of The Vurger CoBy Alicia Grimshaw
We’ve watched The Vurger Co’s journey like a creepy lover; as it grew from a stall hitting various festivals in the capital and beyond, to their Christmas pop-up at Lululemon in Spitalfields. And now, the team are opening their first bricks and mortar site in Shoreditch this year. We’ve been rooting for them, knowing they were onto something great. If you haven’t managed to try their vegan burgers yet, make sure you head to their new opening as they’re ruddy marvellous. We sat down with co-founder Rachel Hugh to chat The Vurger Co’s journey, the new site and the vegan food scene in London:
What inspired you to set up The Vurger Co?
This story is close to our hearts. Neil (my co-founder) actually suffered with very serious stomach issues for around 10 years – he was sick most days and no doctor or test could provide any answers. So when we reached Neil’s 30th birthday, we took a huge Californian road trip to celebrate. It was here that our lives changed, suddenly we realised how well you can eat, with no judgements, no labels attached, just great plant-based food in a beautiful environment (huge credit to Gracias Madre – for this life changing moment).
Upon returning to London back in June 2016 – we researched food, where it comes from and the food system like crazy. We watched multiple documentaries and read tons of books, that was when we became vegan overnight. Seeing Neil’s stomach issues disappear in a matter of weeks, we actively sought the same experience and access to plant-based food as we had in California and unfortunately it just wasn’t there at all.
When we went to a chain restaurant and asked for a vegan option, we were met with a smirk. When we asked for a vegan burger, we were served a dry, bland mess. That’s when we knew; it was our mission to take veganism mainstream in London, by creating the most delicious and indulgent burgers the city has ever tasted. And that’s how The Vurger Co was born!
You’ve gone from pop-up to opening up a permanent site in East London very soon – how’s the journey been so far?
From day one we knew we wanted to open a restaurant, we even wrote that in our first ever blog post, however with London rents, rates and a tough market we knew we had to prove ourselves first!
We began as a market stall in North London, our first pitch was August 2016 so to us it’s been one hell of a long journey to where we are today. Over the course of the end of 2016 and the whole of 2017, our mission was to get our brand name out there, test our concept and get as many people to try our food as physically possible.
For the first 8 months we were both working full time in 12 hour a day careers to keep ourselves and The Vurger Co alive, so it was certainly not an easy time for us. We would work Monday – Friday, build the website in the evenings until midnight, update social media at lunchtimes, prep burgers on a Saturday and sell them on a Sunday– that was what we call the ‘how the hell did we do that phase’! We’d go back to work on a Monday morning facing the ‘how was your weekend?’ question like fight club members – each week with an extra burn on our arms and even darker circles under our eyes and a huge secret to keep, madness.
We had the opportunity to take a full time pop-up in Brick Lane in September 2016, however we realised the market wasn’t quite there yet, and we knew the only way to build this brand would be to put ourselves out there and travel to where we knew our customers loved to spend time. We suddenly realised that people were really getting behind us, really following our journey and we continuously had messages and emails from our biggest fans asking for the next event and permanent space.
That’s when we knew crowdfunding was the right thing for us to do, and so we filmed every pop-up and event to capture those perfect moments of people enjoying our food and we are so glad that we did. A film speaks a thousand words and we managed to raise double our target, smash a Crowdcube record and become the only plant-based restaurant to do that on their platform, all in 77 hours. It totally blew us away.
What were the main learnings you took away from selling your plant-based burgers at festivals and other locations up and down the country?
The toughest festival for us was Wilderness, being so far away from London, and therefore our regular suppliers for buns etc, we had to get smart with our logistics. We roped in so many people to help out and even Neil’s parents to drive our fresh daily bun delivery at 6am from East London to Oxford every single day – we owe them big time!
The main learnings are definitely:
1. Lists become your best friend, plan in advance, speak to suppliers to see how they can support you during this time and if they can’t, see how you can substitute with local suppliers for fresh fruits and veggies.
2. Wilderness is in the middle of a huge field and the internet connection is virtually nonexistent, which is a pain for a cash-less business like ours. So we didn’t have any cash or change for our customers for the first day. A little tip – you will need hundreds of £1 coins, or make everything £5 or £10 ? Ha!
3. Equipment hire is well worth it – it will make a massive difference to your logistics. For example, we hired fridges in Wilderness which turned out to be well worth it, hassle-free and not that expensive.
4. Finally, keep your team happy, they’re going to be working long, long, long hours for you and your business. We actually hired an Air BnB nearby, so everyone had a great night’s sleep, a fresh shower in the morning and brought 100% energy every day.
Why did you decide on burgers over other grab and go options?
It was quite simply the food that we loved to eat the most before our journey to creating The Vurger Co. Trying to get hold of a vegan burger, in any restaurant, that was both indulgent and delicious was impossible.
Most chef’s and chain restaurants back in June 2016 just did not tolerate anyone who walked in and mentioned the word ‘vegan’ – we were classed as an inconvenience to them. Likewise, most options at market stalls at the time contained fake ingredients or concoctions that literally made Neil’s stomach issues flare up really badly. We knew from there that all of our burgers had to celebrate vegetables. They had to take the part of the dish that everyone was putting on their menu as the ‘side’ option and make it the seriously awesome main choice. A menu that celebrates 100% vegetables based burgers that weren’t dry, tasteless or boring. Hell yes!
How was the menu process – did you ever have flavour combinations that didn’t work?
Initially we worked on creating every burger in our kitchen after work and on weekends just the two of us. We combined flavours and textures that we adored to eat in our spare time and tested with friends and family – my niece who’s 4 became our biggest fan.
Then we had to get serious, when we left our jobs in February 2017 to really build the business, we knew we had to work with a chef to help us take the burgers to the next level for a restaurant. After meeting a plant-based chef in New York called Amanda Cohen from Dirt Candy, she referred us to Andrew Dargue from the London-based restaurant, Vanilla Black. He helped us make 2 of our burgers which are still on our menu today – The Classic and the MLT.
With regards to the other burger – The Auburger – this was a collaboration with Tabasco Brand from May 2017. They asked us to create a unique burger using aubergines and Tabasco sauce and that was the brief. So Neil and I spent hours developing this from scratch and it actually has become the best selling item on our menu. We’ve been through so many versions of our menu, so many trials and errors and that’s why the year and a half of pop-ups, events and festivals were crucial – it helped us gain instrumental feedback from real key customers of ours.
What’s your thoughts on the vegan food scene in London?
Great question! We’ve seen such a huge shift in perceptions since starting out. When we began, no landlord wanted a vegan business to operate in their premises, no investor understood the marketplace calling us ‘too niche’ almost daily, and no-one else was doing what we were doing: an all vegetable centric vegan burger restaurant concept.
However, it really has been the tireless effort of every single amazing vegan food trader, every single passionate vegan business and everyone who has come to support each of us and eat our food that has highlighted this shift towards a more mainstream appeal.
Now, for example, we’re seeing chain restaurants offering vegan options which was unheard of before. We’re seeing a new street food plant-based concept opening almost daily. Also, we are definitely able to eat out with ease compared to the same food scene in 2016. It’s exciting; the market potential is huge, which is what we were saying to investors back in 2016, but we all still have a long way to go also.
Do you think you need to have experience in the food industry before opening your own food business?
Well it’s funny, we started in this business with no experience and just like always, people like to tell you that you won’t get anywhere unless you have experience in the field. It’s certainly an added bonus, no doubt, but there is so much more to running a business than meets the eye. If you flip it around, would a great chef have the ability to run the marketing/financial/tech side of their business and if not, should they be put off opening their own amazing place as a result, letting that talent go to waste?
What we always focused on were our strengths, then we had to learn everything else super quickly. We unfortunately teamed up with some seriously awful people over the 18 months who were there to tell us how we would never be anything, because we’ve never run a kitchen before. Well 18 months later, multiple pop-ups under our belt, tens of thousands of burgers sold and about to open a permanent restaurant – all I have to quote is something from my favourite film:
‘’Don’t ever let someone tell you that you can’t do something. You got a dream, you gotta protect it. When people can’t do something themselves, they’re going to tell you that you can’t do it. You want something, go get it. Period’’ – Will Smith.
What’s been the turning point for The Vurger Co – when did the brand start gaining momentum?
After multiple festivals in early 2017 alongside amazing collaborations, we started to really gain a strong social media presence. People started tagging, sharing, emailing, signing up to newsletters – suddenly we were being recognised for what we were doing.
We didn’t have a PR team, we didn’t pay for marketing ads – at the time we simply reached out to our super fans, and to those who were supporting us and kept our menu fresh with seriously delicious collaborations. As a result, we started to pick up a great number of followers across our social media channels that was totally organic.
The huge turning point for the business was our Crowdfunding campaign. Through our food and our story, we engaged with a mainstream audience that no-one else was talking to and we suddenly gained the attention of newspapers for being the record breaking crowdfunded startup that’s doing things a little differently. We learnt quite quickly, that you can’t create waves in an industry that doesn’t want you to be a part of it by doing what’s always been done.
We needed the support of an audience that wouldn’t regularly eat vegan burgers for people to say ‘hey let’s give that place a go tonight’. From there, we’ve gained some crazy awesome supporters and of course the funds to be able to create a seriously amazing restaurant space in Shoreditch!
What can people expect from the new site?
We’re so excited to show you all our new space, we really hope you love it as much as us. You can expect to see a full range of burgers including the infamous Auburger, our Classic vegan cheeseburger and the MLT, as well as sides including our very addictive truffle mac n’ cheese.
All of our burgers have vegetables at their core: highlighting how awesome the humble vegetable really can be. We make all of our burgers in-house in our East London kitchen and all of our shakes are made from scratch featuring banana caramel, berry and mocha. You must keep your eyes peeled for some special additions to the new menu which we’re trialing as we speak!
Why do you think there has been a surge in plant-based and veg-led cooking in recent times?
When we started out, vegetables were always the side dish, the thing you put on your plate next to the ‘main meat’ option, it was frustrating to say the least.
However today, owing a lot to social media, people are becoming more aware than ever before about what they’re eating, where their food comes from and how they can introduce easy to cook options into their diet.
Innovation never happens from top down, large corporations would take years to make the kind of decision of whether or not to include a vegan option/whole menu into their business as the cost of doing so would be so great if it were to bomb. So they sit back and wait to see what the marketplace is saying and demanding before making key decisions.
Therefore the shift really is down to the tireless work of plant-based street food traders/bloggers and ambassadors/pop-up restaurants/businesses and concepts that highlight the movement, create accessible recipes, provide amazing food options and quite simply challenge the status quo on a daily basis.
It’s through seeing the success that they are having, and seeing the huge popularity of their innovative dishes through social media that it has made people stand to attention. Social media has been a powerful tool throughout this shift, allowing veganism to seriously reach new heights.
What’s your favourite restaurant in London?
We recently visited Lyle’s – their fresh seasonal vegan menu is next level. They are a prime example of how a business hasn’t thought of their vegan customers as secondary. They certainly know how to highlight vegetables in seriously clever ways.
What’s your favourite place to grab a coffee in London?
Grind. I feel energised every time I visit one of their sites.
For more information on The Vurger Co, visit their website here.