Interview: All aboard the Vegetarian Express

Soaring demand for vegan and vegetarian foods has been a gift to the foodservice distributor. Now, MD David Webster wants to show customers how they are benefiting the planet by choosing plant-based. Nick Hughes reports.

David Webster could be forgiven for exuding a sense of anxiety. It’s 13 March when we speak and the spread of coronavirus throughout the UK is beginning to dominate both the news and food agendas.

Yet over the course of an hour’s conversation, Webster is as open and engaging an interviewee as you could wish to find, combining the analytical capability of someone with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology with the acumen acquired during his 15 years in the foodservice sector, much of which has been spent with leading distributor Brakes.

Now managing director of Vegetarian Express, a position he has held since January 2018, Webster finds himself in the vanguard of the industry’s defining food trend of recent years. Plant-based eating has exploded into the mainstream in a way few could have foreseen in 2017 when Webster first joined a business that at the time, as he says jokingly, was servicing the needs of “the awkward squad” as a distributor of vegetarian and vegan foods to the foodservice sector.

Since then, headcount has almost doubled and sales have grown by around a quarter in each of the past two years, much of which has come from existing customers. Notwithstanding the current situation with Covid-19, the business is poised to develop further with Webster targeting future growth outside of the M25 and in sectors such as hotels and universities.

The media narrative around plant-based eating has largely focused on the growth of veganism. This year’s Veganuary smashed all previous records with 400,000 people pledging to eat plant-based food for a month. Just as significant was the business response, with more than 650 vegan retail products launched during the month of January and chain restaurants adding over 550 new vegan menu options.

Of more interest to Webster, however, is the category of consumers that are self-identifying as flexitarians or meat-reducers, a group that has shifted the fundamentals of the Vegetarian Express business. “A conservative number is around a third of the population identify in some shape or form as a meat-reducer,” he says. “It’s a seismic shift for operators that has happened at real pace.”

Unlike categories such as ‘free-from’ that meet a specific functional need, Webster says the new wave of consumers is not driven by the fact the product is vegan. “First and foremost it has to be really compelling food that just happens to be plant-based. Those 20m people don’t want to eat lower-quality or less interesting food, but they do want it to have a smaller impact on health and the environment.”

This has created a challenge for the foodservice sector around the skills and education needed to produce appealing plant-based cuisine. “You’re fundamentally changing what operators have to deal with because you’re introducing products that chefs and other people don’t understand,” says Webster. “Most of the chefs in the industry are middle-aged men who were trained at catering college to cook meat proteins: you’d have a lamb course, a chicken course, and a fish course. Now we’re talking about products like tofu, tempeh, seitan and banana blossom, and half the time they don’t know what they are so they’re saying what can I do with it? What flavours will it take? Will it shrink when it’s cooked?”

As “the only plant-based specialist in the UK and possibly even the world”, Webster believes Vegetarian Express is uniquely positioned to help meet both the skills challenge and demand for nutritious food with a low environmental impact. Around the time he moved from commercial director to managing director, the business launched Seed Bank, an online repository of plant-based recipes that are assessed for their nutritional profile and environmental impact.

Webster says the objective of Seed Bank was to demystify plant-based cooking and try to help with chefs’ understanding of Vegetarian Express’s products. More recently, the distributor has stepped up the environmental element by providing its customers with a quarterly report detailing the greenhouse gas emission savings they can make by putting more plant-based recipes on their menus.

This cleverly reflects a changing dynamic in the foodservice market. Customers, including major contract caterers, are increasingly looking to increase the range and quality of plant-based dishes on their menus, not just because it’s what their customers want but because their clients – and blue-chip corporates in particular – want to be able to show the positive impact their food choices are having as part of their own environmental reporting.

“We’re a strong believer in what gets measured gets done,” says Webster. “If you can help people say these are the sorts of differences you can make then that’s really important.”

Webster says Vegetarian Express has been working with independent experts to analyse the latest peer-reviewed data on the emissions of different ingredients and use it to generate values for its plant-based dishes versus meat-based equivalents. At the end of each quarter, customers will receive a statement detailing the emissions savings their menu choices have made over the period by choosing the plant-based option.

It’s early days still, but Webster is smart enough to know that, as it scales up and becomes more established in the marketplace, scrutiny will be given to the methodology Vegetarian Express is using and some of the limitations of the approach.

Life cycle analysis (LCA) is not a perfect science. LCAs are often based on global average data rather than analysis of specific supply chains (which would be a hugely laborious, expensive and continuous task). This provides ammunition for critics who claim values don’t represent the impact of specific production systems. Although producing an average kilo of beef is emissions-intensive, some farmers will argue that in certain production systems and geographies – and this particularly applies to the UK – rearing cows for meat can have a much lower impact.

In response, Webster makes the valid point that “while you might be able to find an extreme example of beef being more beneficial than importing a vegetable product, that won’t be scalable through mass production”.

Variations also exist in the parameters set by LCAs. Most stop at the farm or factory gate – before which the majority of emissions occur – but in ignoring how products are consumed and disposed of they risk missing an important part of the overall sustainability story.

Webster concedes it is difficult to reflect all of these nuances in Vegetarian Express’s own database. “It’s not perfect and it’s never going to be, but what we’re doing is making sure we’re being very conservative in the claims we are making so that we are not trying to overstate anything.”

Currently, the methodology Vegetarian Express is using is not in the public domain, something that NGOs are particularly keen to see happen for businesses making environmental claims. Webster says the methodology is wrapped up as part of Vegetarian Express’s intellectual property for Seed Bank, but notes that it’s “very early days” and “we’ve nothing to hide”.

The broader point is that by putting environmental impact front and centre of its service to clients, Vegetarian Express is drawing attention to the effect people’s food choices have on the world around them. Webster hopes its move will put the onus on other suppliers to follow suit. “From our perspective we’re pedalling on our own at the moment and while that’s great, the more the market takes this on the more we can drive change.”

Webster points out that Vegetarian Express has “a 30-year advantage” in providing specialist, plant-based meal solutions having been founded by David Jonas in 1987 from the bedroom of his terraced house in Ilford, London. But if the trend is here to stay, as seems inevitable, it surely won’t be pedalling alone for too much longer.

For the moment, innovations like its impact statements ensure Vegetarian Express remains a bike length ahead of the chasing pack.

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