An entrepreneur for over 9 years, Steve Swindon spotted early on the growth potential for plant-based meat alternatives, and created his LoveSeitan brand with co-founder Nick Abear. They set out to revitalise a centuries-old process with modern flavours to bring about a range of meat alternative products including chorizo, pepperoni and sausages. We spoke to Steve to hear about the company’s journey so far, and the potential they see in seitan as the go-to meat alternative in the future.
Tell us a bit about yours and LoveSeitan’s love story. When was the first time you tried seitan, and what were your thoughts?
The first time I tried seitan was when Nick, LoveSeitan’s other Co-Founder, made it for me. Nick’s been vegan since he was a child and has been making seitan for years. I was lucky really, because my first experience of seitan was his, and it is nothing short of brilliant. Since then of course I’ve tried lots of other seitan varieties out there, and what I noticed is that actually it can be pretty rubbery and very bland if not prepared carefully. It was a surprise to me because I had only eaten our seitan which is the perfect balance of being chewy enough for a satisfying mouthfeel, without being overly chewy like rubber.
Did that lead to the inception of your business?
It took us a while to cotton onto the fact we should be making seitan for the masses. I became vegan about 6 years ago, and as most do, started going to activist events where I met Nick. Pretty early on we decided to start a business together and knew it had to be food. The initial idea was a takeaway franchise business based on seitan in the dishes, and we were doing the taste tests in his kitchen in July 2017 when the lightbulb moment happened. We thought, “why don’t we just sell the seitan?”, and LoveSeitan was born.
Why do you think seitan makes the ideal alternative to animal-based protein?
Sei-tan means “proper protein” in Japanese, and I think that it’s perfect for the product. Seitan has a very simple list of ingredients, 5 or 6 cupboard ingredients that are natural which really sets it apart from other meat alternatives. On the face of it, you’d think that creating the product is easy, but in fact it’s so sensitive to the quality of ingredients, the proportions, how long you mix them for, the temperature you add the water. There’s a whole slew of things that need to be carefully managed for a consistent texture and result, but when it’s mastered, it’s a delicious alternative to animal-based protein.
What led you to kickstart LoveSeitan with a focus on the foodservice sector?
For our first big event, Vegfest 2019, Nick was making products in his kitchen for the whole two weeks beforehand. We had boxes full of the stuff and completely sold out, it blew our mind. We knew that we were really onto something. We got investment in June 2018 and part of the deal was for our investor VBites to begin manufacturing our seitan in their facility. As soon as we signed the deal we quite literally got a boot-load of ingredients, drove up to the factory, knocked on the door and said “We’re here!”. The initial batch was a heart-stopping moment because you have to wait 24 hours to taste the final product, and the results were great!
At this point we had already started selling directly to restaurants, we were in negotiations with a large wholesaler but our volumes were still limited. We were also limited with the certifications that you can achieve in a small commercial kitchen set-up. The bigger wholesalers require you to produce in a certified environment, so the factory really enabled us to start hitting those big trade customers and start selling greater volumes.
That must have been significantly affected with UK lockdowns this year, what challenges did you face?
The foodservice sector virtually closed its doors in March 2020, so that was the majority of our business stopped. However, almost immediately, our website shop that sells direct to consumer trebled in size. It was an important part of our business before but relatively small up to that point. We hadn’t set the website up anticipating high volumes because the intention was to eventually outsource that. We had to scale up our website operation significantly, overnight. We were selling into retail by this point which held steady, but April, May and June were worrying times for us. The retail uptake was never going to compensate for the loss of business in the foodservice sector.
Was it easy to pivot your business during those months and adapt to increasing volumes on the website?
We’ve always had a trade and a retail range, and we were selling the full range of retail products through our website and through independent shops via wholesalers before the coronavirus crisis. Consumers prefer smaller quantities which we already had in production. We also sell through a few other online platforms as well, and this is something we’d like to do more of going forward.
What advice would you give food manufacturers who are being pushed to quickly develop their consumer facing brands?
Think about branding and packaging. Branding needs to be much stronger for the retail market, consumers really want your product to stand out on the shelf. The bar is much higher and it’s a huge part of appeal of the product. In the last two years the standard has really gone up.
How will the relaunch of B2B events going to support the direction your taking your business in?
Trade events have been core to our strategy this year, we had plans and budgets to do 6 events and we only managed to do one before coronavirus set in. We had no idea that within 2 weeks the whole country would be locked down. They are a massively important avenue for us to get to our trade buyers and demonstrate the product’s quality. As and when coronavirus allows us to, we’ll be relaunching our events schedule with the same enthusiasm we’ve always had, meeting people and showing them how delicious and versatile our seitan can be.
Plant Based World is unique that it is a 100% plant-based event, but at other shows we are only a small number of plant-based suppliers in a slew of other companies. One of the exciting things is showing the visitors what’s happening in this world and finding out from them where their businesses and sectors are in terms of their approach to plant-based catering. We cannot wait to get back to meeting our customers face to face.
What will visitors to Plant Based World Europe look forward to at your booth next April?
We’re going to be showing our key trade products and as much of our range that we can bring along! There will be ready to eat seitan and cooked product in all our flavour varieties. Visitors to Plant Based World will be able to see the true versatility of seitan which can be used as an ingredient in manufacturing, or even as the centre of a dish, like with our Seitan Roast. We’ll have our diced seitan at the show, too, which is primarily sold to manufacturers where it’s used in fillings and as toppings for dishes such as pizzas and pies.
What does the future hold for LoveSeitan?
A big growth area for us is supplying seitan to manufacturers that produce own label product for supermarkets. We currently have three products which feature LoveSeitan in their ingredients, and by the end of the year that will double. You’ll be seeing seitan more as an ingredient in products, and with that, we’re pushing for supermarkets to start using the term ‘seitan’ instead of ‘wheat protein’ to help communicate clearer to consumers. Our mission is to make seitan a household name, and LoveSeitan the leading brand for consumers and foodservice alike.