Despite the boom in restaurant takeaways and deliveries, plant-based brand and former restaurant The Brook has skipped the door-to-door hot-meal boom and turned its focus towards the growing ready-meal market, delivering freshly-frozen vegan ready meals to heat up at home.
Whipping up a vegan feast doesn’t come without a fair amount of researching, shopping around, and prepping. But British food company The Brook is smoothing the path to healthy, plant-based eating by delivering its prepared meals right to people’s doorsteps. Since 2018, The Brook has completed two successful rounds of crowdfunding to transition from a plant-based restaurant into a vegan food brand. In September 2019, its second round of funding reached its £200,000 target within 24 hours. The brand started in 2013 as a café/music venue/studio in London serving locally sourced food with great coffee and juices.
Over the span of six years, the café became a supper club, then a pop-up restaurant, all while migrating to an exclusively plant-based menu and building a loyal following. In 2018, the company decided to close the restaurant and move to an e-commerce platform, widening its appeal from plating up in Hackney to delivering door-to-door restaurant-standard meals. “The restaurant business is capital-intensive, and can’t grow very fast,” explains Thea Brook, the founder and CEO. “We wanted to look at alternatives – the core of our business is that we make great food and it helps change the way people eat. We asked, ‘How do we do that on a bigger scale?’, and that meant getting our food into people’s homes.”
Within a few short months of launching its frozen plant-based meals for one, it obtained listings in retailers including Dobbies food halls, Fenwick, The Vegan Kind Supermarket, and East of England Co-op. Priced from £4.80 a portion, comfort food favourites and premium flavours make up the range and includes two Great Taste Award winners. Dishes include traditional mac ‘n’ cheese and mushroom bolognese, plus exotic jackfruit rendang and Sri Lankan coconut curry. “We’ve gone particularly for dishes that we feel people with a traditional palette would lean towards,” says Brook. “We’re trying to give people who want to reduce meat and dairy something they’re already used to eating. They see it as flavours they know they enjoy, or as comfort food, as a treat, or as an alternative. Mentally, it’s a small step, as opposed to a huge jump into this weird new world of vegan [food].” The meals are boxed in home-compostable packaging, and kept cool with recycled denim insulation, a sustainability move Brook says her customers care about, and the company does too. “We are strict with ourselves about putting something out there that is as sustainable as it can be,” says Brook.
Around one in five UK adults claim they’re following a flexitarian diet or reducing the amount of meat they eat. Those most likely to have reduced their meat consumption are aged between 25 and 34, while 21% of meat-eaters say they would be interested in reducing their intake in the future. The chilled ready meal market is expected to grow by 43% by 2022, as consumers are spending less time preparing meals, as 24.7% of main meals eaten at home are pre-prepared, not homemade. And those keen to dabble in the plant-based approach may not need to learn how to cook: the UK was found to be the nation with the highest proportion of new vegan product launches in 2018. Sustainability counts more too, with Sainsbury’s and Waitrose ditching traditional black trays and plumping for recycling-friendly alternatives.
Brook says premium offerings come down to high quality products, homely portion ratios, and branding. “You have to be clear about how you’re different,” she says. “When we first started, we shuddered to use the term ‘ready meal’.” The stigma is gradually diminishing as more companies move into the market. Mindful Chef has recently expanded its offering of meal prep delivery kits into frozen meals for two, because they “know there are days when cooking is simply not an option.”Brook adds, “people don’t seem to feel these meals are in the same bracket as a ready meal; they see it as [just something that’s] been prepared by somebody else.”
An early adopter of the premium frozen meal is COOK, which launched in 1997. It started as a single shop in Farnham selling hand-prepared frozen meals, and has since grown to more than 90 COOK shops around the UK, as well as retailing in independent farm shops and offering e-commerce and home delivery. As with The Brook, COOK hand-prepares and packages its meals for that home-made taste and feel. COOK’s vegan meals for one person are priced between £4 and £4.50, with the option of adding on a portion of rice or potatoes for around £1.25. COOK caters for a diverse range of needs, from dinner parties to meals for one – fitting, since single-occupancy homes are the second most common household in the UK. Ready meals serve the single market well, with Aldi being the latest UK supermarket to launch an own-brand range of single-serve vegan ready meals, following closely on the heels of Waitrose, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, and Asda.
Insights and opportunities
Brook says those who are used to eating a plant-based diet tend to be more organised with their cooking. “Vegans have become used to the fact that if they want to eat good food they need to make it themselves.” But flexitarians aren’t committing to a new plant-based repertoire in their kitchens just yet. “Generally, restaurant meals are a treat but more people are relying on them for midweek sustenance,” adds Brook. 92% of vegan meals in the UK are consumed by non-vegans, while vegan takeaway orders increased in the UK by 388% between 2016 and 2018.
“We’re trying to remove a little bit of the reliance on takeaways, with healthier, quality restaurant-standard meals ready to go from the home freezer,” says Brook. As with restaurants and takeaways, ready meals can be high in fat, salt, and sugar, and lacking in the nutrients needed for a healthy diet. Yet with increased consumer awareness of healthy diets, we spent £4.7 billion on ready meals in 2017. While meat still dominates (77% of all own-brand supermarket meals contained meat), 2018 saw “strong innovation” in plant-based ready meals with more vegetarian and vegan options – an increase owed to consumers’ health, ethical and environmental concerns. But beware the health halo effect – vegan or vegetarian doesn’t always mean healthy. Nancy Towers, a nutritional therapist, says opportunity lies in less processed food and greater use of proteins: “I feel there needs to be more education and encouragement for people to learn how to cook from scratch using ingredients like vegan protein such as chickpeas, lentils, beans, nuts, and plenty of vegetables and fruit.”
Ready meals can suit the needs of many – the time-poor, the health-conscious, the flexitarian, the late-night worker, or the foodie who wants a night off from cooking. Brook adds that while almost everyone can benefit from a convenience meal (“most people fit into the time-poor category”), part-time dabblers are key. “The bigger opportunity is with people not looking to be fully vegan. Prepared meals remove thinking about what to buy, and avoid months of experimentation,” says Brook. Mintel research shows that consumers are also using ready meals as a sweet spot between the financial saving of cooking from scratch and the treat of ordering takeaways or eating at a restaurant. “That more than half of ready-meal eaters opt to cook from scratch more when money is tight leaves the sector vulnerable with mounting inflation, [which is] expected to put pressure on disposable household incomes,” says Mintel research analyst Alice Baker. “Premium products should benefit from people choosing these as a money-saving alternative to eating out, but innovation is needed to keep shoppers engaged.”