Starling Portrait Series – The Vurger Co: Creating (vegan) waves

More often than not, business is about looking at how things have been done before and having the courage and imagination to reinvent the rules. That’s what Anne Boden did when she created Starling Bank, a digital bank for personal and business current accounts. Starling was born out of her determination to give customers control over their money, and provide a real alternative to the banks of the past. Starling strives to be fast, friendly and supportive – just like a murmuration of starling birds.

In this series, we’ll be shining a light on other Great British entrepreneurs who, just like Anne, are pioneers of change.

Our next entrepreneur is Starling business customer Rachel Hugh, CEO and co-founder of The Vurger Co.

Walking the streets of the UK’s big cities in 2021, it’s far from strange to see a vegan restaurant, a vegan cafe or a vegan takeaway. Rewind to 2016, and it was a very different story – even in progressive London. 

That’s when Rachel Hugh and her partner, Neil Potts, decided to shake things up and make a change. 

They’re the founders of The Vurger Co, a 100% vegan fast-food restaurant creating waves in the fast food industry. 

From fashion to food

Rachel never had any intention of becoming an entrepreneur. And like many entrepreneurs, didn’t start her career in the industry in which she would go on to successfully launch a business.

Studying French and Welsh at Cardiff University, Rachel had the opportunity to spend a year in Limoges, a city in central France, where she solidified a love of cooking and fashion. Upon returning to London, she secured a place at the prestigious Fashion Retail Academy which led to a 10 year career as a fashion buyer.

“I went all in, I totally immersed myself and fought for that career,” Rachel starts. 

“However, falling in love with cooking in France, I fell in love with nurturing people. I got to a point in my career where I realised that I need to follow that passion to nurture the people around me every day and feed their soul.”

Like so many entrepreneurs, it was an unfortunate life event that sparked a change in direction for Rachel. Her mum passed away two days after her 60th birthday after suffering with breast cancer.

“It made me realise that I desperately needed to get started on creating something for myself,” she explains. “My mum always told me that I was born to run my own business. I just never felt confident enough to do it.”

Feeling better than ever

It would still be some time before Rachel embarked on the challenge of launching her own business. But the inspiration would come from her partner, Neil. He’d suffered with a debilitating stomach illness for 10 years. 

Rachel says: “He had so many tests, so many different medications and it got to the point where he was being advised to have exploratory surgery.

“No one seemed to have any idea what was wrong with him, so we decided to do our own research and take matters into our own hands.”

Coinciding with a trip to California to celebrate their 30th birthdays, Rachel and Neil turned to a vegan lifestyle. 

“We couldn’t believe how well you can eat, eating plant-based foods,” she recalls. “There weren’t any labels or stigma attached. The flavours and textures were amazing, and people were using vegetables in such innovative ways.

“More importantly, though, we felt better than ever. We adopted a vegan lifestyle at home and Neil started to feel better than ever. He dramatically changed his diet, becoming completely immersed in ensuring everything he ate would be free of any animal derived ingredient. It was after making this decision and returning back to London, that we had to find a way to adopt this way of living seamlessly into our hectic lives.”

The lightbulb moment

Both Rachel and Neil had busy jobs and wanted a vegan-friendly place to meet-up after work in a nice environment. But they couldn’t find what they were looking for. 

“There were a lot of vegetarian options, but we got sick of asking for the cheese to be removed, or the egg-based mayo, or the patty with egg,” Rachel says. 

“Nobody in London understood what vegan was. We felt ostracised for eating this way, and in such a progressive city, we couldn’t understand why vegan Londoners couldn’t find the type of place we were looking for.”

She adds: “That was the lightbulb moment!”

Fast food with a conscience

They created The Vurger Co in 2016 with the mission to “revolutionise fast food through the power of plants”. Rachel and Neil spent the first two years operating at food markets, pop up stalls, events, and anything and everything in between to get more people comfortable and familiar with the concept of vegan food. 

“When we started out, nobody else in the city was taking vegan burgers seriously, or thinking of it as a mainstream way of eating,” Rachel says.

It is well documented that vegans embark on that lifestyle for various reasons – some, like Rachel and Neil, started for health reasons, some believe animals shouldn’t be used for human consumption, and others do it largely because of environmental reasons. 

While the environment wasn’t the reason Rachel and Neil found veganism and launched a vegan restaurant, they are definitely passionate about it. 

“Vegan fast food can have a huge positive impact on the world around us, reversing climate change with every positive action taken,” Rachel explains. “Unfortunately, any restaurant that did provide vegan options thought of it as providing food for vegans, without thinking of the wider impact.”

Creating waves

It would be March 2018 before The Vurger Co opened its first physical store in Shoreditch. They crowdfunded to raise the money to open the first restaurant, doubling its target by raising £300,000 in 72 hours and becoming the fastest and most successful restaurant raise on Crowdcube at the time. Over the next three years, the pair opened two more sites – in Canary Wharf and Brighton, and have plans to open two more venues outside of London in July and September this year. 

Rachel recalls: “We realised quite quickly that, to create waves in this industry and help people to understand how eating this way can truly have a positive impact on the community and climate around you, our food had to be seriously delicious with innovations that weren’t being seen elsewhere.

“We made sure that our focus was making food with understandable ingredients – 100% vegetables and legumes – which no one else was doing when we started, and using them in new and innovative ways.”

“We created a menu that celebrates vegetable-based burgers that weren’t dry, tasteless or boring. We put innovation at the heart of everything we create.”

Rachel and Neil certainly aren’t resting on their laurels when it comes to the success they’ve had so far. 

The pair have gone on to raise a further £2.2 million to fund their expansion, which includes a full-service production site where all of its burger patties, sides, sauces and salsas are made. And The Vurger Co has also established its own retail business, selling a range of vegan mayos and Cheezy Sauce in the likes of Selfridges, Planet Organic, and Whole Foods Market – and is now shipping the retail products internationally to customers in the US.

Pivoting the pandemic

Naturally, operating in the hospitality sector, The Vurger Co is among the thousands of restaurants, pubs, bars, and cafes to have been dramatically impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and the accompanying lockdown restrictions. 

We asked Rachel about the impact of lockdown and where the business is going in the future.

How have you and the business fared since the start of the pandemic?

It has certainly been an extremely difficult year and a half. We are finally able to let customers dine inside again and it’s a huge moment for hospitality in the UK. We are lucky that we made some pivotal moves quite early on, the two most important for us were transitioning to Meal Kits and shipping them across the UK, also working on our retail side of our business way before the pandemic hit really helped us navigate the stressful period. 

These two decisions allowed us to still be able to communicate with our customers and provide a little bit of The Vurger Co in their homes across the UK. We were able to grow and develop our range of sauces and put an enormous amount of time into innovation and development. This has allowed us to grow in many ways that we wouldn’t necessarily have focussed on if the restaurants were fully operational. So in many respects that has been a fortunate result of this awful time for everyone. 

What has been the biggest factor in your success?

Working with amazing people. I would not be able to do what I do today without every single last person who works with us and for us. Many people forget with our restaurants and products that we have so many people in the supply chain, from our ingredients right through to manufacturing. Our team is what makes The Vurger Co what it is today and I am excited about the future of the business based on the culture we have created and continue to develop. I cannot stress enough how lucky we are to work with so many talented people.

What are your immediate and long-term plans for the business?

In the short-term, we are just working so hard at the moment on getting our restaurants back on their feet. We really want to see our teams getting back on their feet and our stores thriving again. They have some amazing digital upgrades such as ordering at table capabilities and seamless digital screen integrations making for a smooth behind the scenes process also, which we are very excited about. 

We hope to open our next site in the coming months also which is a huge development for us! Then for our retail business, we have just launched our products in the US, a big and important market for us and one we are not taking lightly. 

So we truly are putting a lot of time and effort into ensuring this goes smoothly and our customers in the US can get to know The Vurger Co a little bit more and include us in their homes also. 

Passion and innovation

Like so many entrepreneurs, Rachel and Neil spotted a gap in the market that solved a problem that was personal to their lives. In the relatively short space of time since they launched The Vurger Co, the landscape has drastically changed for vegans in the UK and around the world. 

There are now real options for vegans right across the country, and The Vurger Co has played a tremendous role in driving that change. They have arguably achieved the goal of normalising veganism – now, they can focus on growing the business, driven by their passion for what they do and the innovation that has set them apart from others. 

Find out more about Starling Bank here.