Making it work: Young Vegans

Our Making It Work series looks at a number of different startup sectors and asks what it takes and what it costs, to turn a side hustle into a main hustle. First up we have street food and the 100% vegan pie shop start up, Young Vegans. Husband and wife team Marco and Carla are proving that street food can be healthy, ethical and good for a marriage.

Conceived in 2015, Young Vegans celebrate their first bricks and mortar Birthday this October, but just five years earlier Marco was pouring coffee for 19-year-old backpackers in a youth hostel. As I arrive I find him taking pictures of the shopfront, pointing out the flower baskets that have appeared right where his new shop sign is about to hang.

So what happens when you take a 9-5 to avoid responsibility? You find a hell of a lot more.

As we sit down with an oat milk tea, Marco tells me how his journey started.  “I was 10 years older than everyone else, serving coffee for less than a grand a month. I was actually really happy with that at the time, it meant no responsibility.” Marco’s previous job had been the opposite and the impetus to find something somewhat more stress-free. “There was something really liberating about it. I was only just covering my rent, eating old sandwiches, living like a pauper, cycling everywhere. I was the fittest I’ve ever been! Just enjoying life.”

Over time, the repetitive nature of coffee pouring and listening to young back-packers discuss drunken antics birthed a side hustle, The Camden Pub Crawl. Being a Camden Town local, Marco combined a pub crawl with an area tour, offering tickets to hostel guests. The captive audience couldn’t have been a more perfect fit. As he began spending more time selling tickets than pouring coffee his bosses caught on. Unimpressed yet intrigued, they allowed him to continue providing they got a cut. 

No overheads and £1,000 a week.

“Everything fell in to place. You can call it luck but I think it’s actually a lot more about being adaptable and understanding your situation. I had no money at that point but it didn’t stop me thinking on my feet.”

With no overheads, The Camden Pub Crawl needed no upfront investment. At £10+ per ticket, before a year was out Marco’s pay packet went from a grand a month to a grand a night. The busiest year saw over 100,000 people join the tours, unfamiliar with London and keen to find ‘cool’ spots. What started as a side hustle for extra change shifted to a full-time business.

When it’s time to move on, it’s time to move on.

With success comes copycats and as Marco points out,  it’s very hard to copyright a tour. “We were spending 6 months developing something unique only for someone else to rip it off within a week.

By this point, Marco had met his wife, Carla, built up a good amount of savings and was ready for something new.

“My wife and I had been vegan for a few years at that point, as a life choice it’s important to us so doing something together in that space made perfect sense. Back then there were only shitty options out there for vegans. We thought, let’s apply ourselves and our ethics. Let’s make something that’s very cool, very rock and roll, very youthful, and have fun with it.”

“You can call it luck but I think it’s actually a lot more about being adaptable and understanding your situation.” – Marco

 

Young Vegans was born, with a plan to create British comfort food starting with the humble pie. They got cooking in their home kitchen and started to sell at markets. The Fat Gay Vegan Market in Hackney Downs was a massive turning point for the brand. “Around 2,000 people ate Young Vegan pies that day.” Marco tells me.

£30,000 of capital.

Concept very much proved, bigger plans were needed. Marco tells me although he didn’t have anything in the way of a food business start up plan, he did know what he wanted to achieve.

“From day one my plan was to not be in the shop at all. The whole point was scaling up. I want to build something now that we can sell in 5 years. I don’t want a Mum and Dad style business where we’re always in the shop, cooking, stressing about when we can go on holiday – it’s tiring.”

The start up capital to get things going was a hard-earned, and saved £30,000 from The Camden Pub Crawls. When I ask about the budget he tells me they didn’t have one.

“We just bought what we needed as we needed it. We didn’t have a business plan so I’m not going to pretend we did. Working in food it’s a never-ending cycle of costs. If it’s not replacing something that’s broken it’s buying something that’s better. As we grow we have to invest more, and it’s really expensive. A pie machine, for example, is 15k so at a certain point, it becomes trickier to grow.”

He tells me his accountant and book-keeper have been a Godsend and very much recommends anyone starting out to have both.  These days an average month of overheads for Young Vegans total 10-15K. It’s no small outfit, with stock, staff, rent and more in the mix but Marco and Carla are ready to up the stakes. Although their biggest cost, the shop in Camden has hockey sticked Young Vegan’s income. They plan to repeat this success with a new unit in London Feilds selling 100% vegan pizza.

“It’s very heavy metal vibes, we’re having fun with that. We’re making our own vegan mozzarella, pepperoni and all our dough from scratch.”

Cash injections and scale ups

When I ask what else is next there’s no end to the plans.

“I would love to build on the success of our pie shop and create the Young Vegan’s Neighbourhood Bake Shop. We would open up 4 sites across London.  Like a vegan Gails but way cooler. The focus for us is trying to establish ourselves in places where real people live rather than become a high street destination.”

“We’re also looking at retail. Sutton and Sons ( a fish and chip shop chain) have started stocking our pies. We’re also chatting to Planet Organic and a major pub chain at the moment. We’ve been working on our branding and packaging – we’re getting that right now. We’re on the way.”

The only thing holding up this shift to wholesale for Young Vegans right now is a second stage cash injection, the product is ready. Though Marco is still mindful that he wants to get things just right before stepping up their wholesale game.

“It’s a catch 22. We need to invest in new equipment to meet the demand for wholesale orders. That scale-up would cost us at least £15k. I started talking to Planet Organic last year, but in hindsight, there’s no way we could have supplied them a year ago. We were nowhere near ready, not just from the branding, packaging and money perspective but also the product we have now is 5 times better than what we started with.” 

Start up costs? £45 at you local market

A big piece of food startup advice that Marco is keen to impart is don’t run before you can walk. He’s all for falling over though.

“I think that’s one problem I have with the influence of tech start-ups today, this idea of accelerated growth. Everyone is so busy trying to create a massive business in 6 months. You can’t do that in food. You need a couple of years to develop your product. I think that’s the strongest possible way to grow a business, it’s organic and authentic which is really important.  People like us because we didn’t start with loads of money in our pockets, we’ve never had a kick-ass PR agent or a huge social media following. We’ve made it work the best we could with what we had.

“On the other hand, one of my favourite influences of this whole ‘start up revolution’ is the idea of failing faster. Don’t be afraid to fail, you can’t control everything from the start. I would say, think about your wildest ideas and if you can realistically, practically do it, just do it. As long as you’re not harming people or selling your house for it I think it’s ok.”

“Look around where you live and see what there is. Use any opportunities to really develop your brand, work out the mechanics and the financials of it whilst paying nothing.” – Marco

 

But the warning is there, don’t start too big too soon…Marco has plenty of suggestions for starting a food truck or street food startup on the cheap.

“Look around where you live and see what there is. Use any opportunities to really develop your brand, work out the mechanics and the financials of it whilst paying nothing. You can do a market in Tottenham for £45 that includes power. There are no business rates, if you don’t want to turn up next week you don’t have to. Use your own kitchen. You’ve got to keep it simple – be humble. That’s my take on it. And be ready to fail.”

From shirking responsibility to piling it on, he tells me it’s a whole different ball game these days.

“I love the responsibility now, I love being able to run a business with my wife because you get to share that satisfaction of creating and growing something. I think the problem I always had before wasn’t necessarily a challenge with responsibility, it was more where I was placing that responsibility. I was always growing someone else’s project. It didn’t matter how hard I worked, I may have been given an extra grand or two but it wasn’t ‘my thing’. I Don’t know why that’s so important to me, it just is”.

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