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Interview with Rachel and Hugh from The Vurger Co

Luxury Hospitality Magazine talks to Rachel and Hugh about their exciting new venture.

Could you tell us about your background and how you entered this field?

We actually both come from very different backgrounds, Neil worked in a bank in Canary Wharf as a risk analyst and I worked as a Luxury fashion buyer in various department stores, start ups across London. So getting into this industry proved to be even more of a challenge having to prove our idea, our worth and our ability on a daily basis.

The whole reason for the business even existing came from a very personal journey. Working crazy hours in the city led to Neil suffering with ridiculously awful stomach issues that no doctor or test could help with. We were stuck trying to figure out the solution ourselves.

After doing a ton of research combined with a life changing trip to Los Angeles, we realised that eating well wasn’t all about salads, and being vegan wasn’t all about tofu. The humble vegetable can be so much more than the side dish, even life changing in Neil’s case.

How did the idea for The Vurger Co come about?

We are a 100% plant based burger restaurant! Everything on our menu has been made from 100% vegetables, seeds, nuts, grains and legumes. We take the humble vegetable, bring it to the forefront on our menu and ensure it tastes absolutely incredible!

Plant based or Vegan however you choose to name the movement, it was much a taboo subject until 2017. Living in London for 10 years, we actively sought out the latest restaurant or pop up and would always make the pilgrimage across London to check it out. However after making a huge change in our lifestyle and started following a Vegan diet owing to Neil’s health issues,  we suddenly felt the range of restaurants we could actually eat in diminish – and I mean significantly!

This was June 2016, we asked all our favourite chain restaurants whether they offered a Vegan option and we were met with a weird face, a look of disgrace and almost a boot out the door. How dare we ask for no cheese on our pizza? What do you mean is there Egg in the dessert? Does Vegan just mean no meat?

We actively did more and more research and found that the only places we could truly eat vegan food was in a few markets if you’re lucky to catch them. This was not good enough! Who would ever want to be vegan when the only way to access it was like this? Something had to change.

We quickly realised that there are thousands of people out there in the UK who have made this change, maybe as a result of health issues, maybe environmental, compassion for animals or maybe an all encompassing lifestyle change was needed. Whatever the reason, there needed to be an answer to the problem, because nobody was taking it seriously.

So in an attempt to answer this problem, and to be honest, keep ourselves sane, we set a goal! ‘’We need to open a restaurant, a super cool plant based restaurant that everyone wants to come to’’

The reason we chose burgers was quite simply because they were our favourite food when we ate meat. There was nothing like that experience of eating a delicious burger with fries and a drink on any night of the week with friends, colleagues, parents – it didn’t matter everyone always had a great time.

However making them vegan friendly was a whole goal in itself. Despite there being vegan options out there in London in July 2016, nothing was made with 100% vegetables taking the limelight. Every single patty had a form of fake meat substitute or strange ingredient that quite simply frightened us. So step one was to break to mould and actually create a vegan burger that had veggies taking centre stage without the dry and tasteless texture. The second step was to try and find a bakery in London that would have the amazing squishy bun experience that we all loved!

After a few months of establishing our brand, gaining exposure and multiplying our social following, we attempted to talk to landlords in London about our concept and our vision for the future. Quite frankly we were shocked by how little people understood this space back in January of 2017.

We found ourselves bringing facts to prove the market worth, highlighting the environmental impact and of course justifying ourselves to just about e v e r y b o d y. Vegan, in the eyes of landlords in London was considered niche, a risk, an option that only 10% of the country wants to eat, nobody saw the bigger picture.

We couldn’t understand why our viewpoint was so way off what was happening outside, in the real world. We realised that we were looking at the movement from within, all of our customers understood – naturally, the Instagram accounts we followed were pro vegan, of course and everything in the social vegan hemisphere was completely A-OK.

So we switched our whole way of thinking, as nobody will come to us because the outside view on veganism is still so negative.

We quickly and actively made the following huge changes:-

  1. We partnered with Chef Andrew Dargue from Vanilla Black to help us develop a restaurant worthy plant based menu.
  1. Each burger patty was built with a non-vegan mindset, ensuring every taste, texture and sauce was exactly what we would have craved before switching to plant based.
  1. We went 100% cashless as a company – we needed to pave the way not be a copy of an old formula that doesn’t work.
  1. We attended any mainstream events around to get people who wouldn’t normally eat this way to try our menu.
  1. We established relationships and collaborations with influencers and Instagram accounts that would further our message in a positive light – that being – it’s just great food give it a try.
What inspired your menu choices at The Vurger Co?

We really couldn’t believe that the word Vegan got caught up in so many different narratives. People questioning well is it just a health trend, or but what about this junk food trend. We wanted to smash all barriers and labels and just say hey …. this is great food made from understandable ingredients like vegetables, seeds, nuts, legumes and guess what they can be delicious, indulgent yet extremely nourishing too.

How did you decide on Shoreditch for the location of the restaurant?

Well this is a long story! To cut it down, when we first started in July 2016. We worked full time in our regular jobs to help pay for ingredients, equipment, pitch stands etc.

We quickly realised that our customers really want the full experience from us, sides, drinks, sit down, chill relax in our space.

So we set about looking using Appear Here for a space to use as a permanent pop up, and found a cute little place on Brick Lane in September 2016. However we thought if we are to jump into just opening a space, it didn’t make sense with our plan to get everybody trying our food. It’s very easy to think as a business you’re acting alone, but the market wasn’t ready, we needed to go to where our customers enjoy spending time and give them the option there, not expect them to come to a temporary pop up space.

So fast forward a year, a crowdfunding campaign, multiple festivals, events and roadshows later and now having the budget, customer base, following and understanding of what we do behind us, we set about looking for something back in the same area!

And boy what a nightmare it’s been! We got caught up in proving our worth to the marketplace, showing landlords that this way of eating is the future not a niche. We had landlords doing dodgy deals behind our back not to mention planning permission errors along the way. So it’s been a tough learning curve, and when the opportunity came up to take the Shoreditch site it all just seemed to click together. Our original pop ups we did for over a year adhoc were based just down the road from there, some festivals we’ve attended have been in the area and our customer base love being here. So we’ve come full circle, we’re back where we belong!

What are some of your favourite restaurants in London?

London has many many amazing restaurants and experiences. We love Vanilla Black in Chancery Lane, such a talented team who create amazing vegan tasting menus. But if we’re just out and about and fancy something quick, we love CookDaily in BoxPark, Club Mexicana at the SpreadEagle and adore Farmacy in Notting Hill. All completely different and encompass to us what it means to eat this way – you can have anything you want and still feel incredible!

How has the recent increase of veganism helped your business?

We believe the rise of veganism definitely has been a collective move. It’s of course great to see so many large chains adopting vegan options on their menu, independents on the rise with tons of new ideas and businesses adopting vegan practices.

All in all they each allow the market place to have access to more information, to access amazing food, and feel absolutely confident that they are not alone. This in turn has allowed us to get our message out there a hell of a lot easier than a couple of years ago where Veganism was portrayed in a very different way.

What was the inspiration behind your infamous Auburger?

Thanks so much for calling it infamous, that’s amazing! Well we actually created it with a collaboration we executed with Tabasco Brand  last May 2017. The brief was that we had to incorporate Aubergines and any Tabasco sauce we wanted.

Neil and I actually used to live in Dubai and were very much used to Middle Eastern flavours and textures, so we decided to take the essence of those flavours and give it The Vurger Co twist.

So we took braised Aubergines in Tabasco chipotle sauce, chickpeas and caramelised red onions, teamed it with cumin mayo and seriously delicious cabbage and it all came together so so well. At the time there was nothing in the market like it so it went down really well and actually made it onto our menu permanently as it became the most requested OFF menu special!

What is your most memorable food city in the world?

We are the biggest fans of America in general, especially New York / LA. We have special memories in both so I’ll share two! New York – mainly the street food scene there is ridiculously creative. We visited one in Brooklyn and literally ate everything in sight. Then we heard about Champs Diner, headed there and ate probably the nicest pancakes we have ever had hands down – vegan or not! It’s a must! Then in Los Angeles we visited a place called Gracias Madre in WEHO. We fell in love with the vibe, the delicious menu, the atmosphere everything about it was just mind- blowing. The tacos, cocktails and nachos – are a must.

What advice do you have for anyone wanting to launch their own restaurant?

Well when we started out, everyone asked us why the hell would you want to do that? The margins are tight, you work ridiculously long hours, you never stop, there are always a million and one problems to solve and you basically don’t get a life.

Whilst all of those things are true to an extent, we replied with, well we are passionate about what we bring to the London scene, there isn’t anything like us around, nobody is highlighting vegetables like we do, and nothing beats the feeling you get when people come to your space, eat your food that you created and leave feeling satisfied! We are contributing to the movement in our own little way and that’s something we’re extremely proud of!

So if your concept is unique enough to withstand the tough competition, you feel passionate about what you bring to the table and have the skills and ability to withstand the haters – go for it, just always seek the advice of the best in your industry as someone will always want to help you!

How do you respond to people who say a plant-based diet is restrictive or bland?

We say – you obviously haven’t tried our burgers 😉