There was a time not too long ago when Charlie Watson, co-founder of plant-based fast-food brand Oowee, was focused solely on the vegan market. Speaking to Restaurant back in 2022, Watson spoke of wanting to ‘push the boundaries of what vegan fast food can be’. “The more we looked at the potential of plant-based foods, the more we thought it would be future of what we wanted to do,” he said at the time.
Fast forward a couple of years and that ambition to position Oowee at the forefront of the plant-based QSR space remains undimmed. There is one key element of the business strategy, though, which is set to change.
“If you want to do big numbers then you have to offer the choice.
You’ve got to sell meat”
“If you want to do big numbers then you have to offer the choice,” says Watson, frankly. “You’ve got to sell meat.”
“In this market where it’s tough and everyone is fighting hard for sales, it’s difficult to be in a niche. For veganism to become mainstream, it needs to be a case of every restaurant offering both - serving great vegan food and great meat-based food, rather than making it singular.”
Fighting for sales
Moving Oowee away from being a vegan-only concept has been something on Watson’s mind for a while. The Bristol-based group has always had some carnivorous sensibilities having launched back in 2016 as an American-style diner selling generous portions of dirty fries and a stacked range of beef and fried chicken burgers.
The group still retains the original Oowee Diner and has subsequently launched a dark kitchen under the brand. However, having become enthused with the possibilities of the vegan fast-food space, all successive restaurant openings have been exclusively plant based. Oowee now operates four vegan restaurants alongside its Diner: two in Bristol, and one each in London and Brighton.
Watson is clear to note that there are no plans to add meat to the menus of the group’s current crop of vegan-only restaurants. However, going forwards, the idea would be for Oowee to grow its Diner brand, which now features a mix of both meat and plant-based dishes.
“Sales at the vegan restaurants are good, but they don’t compare to our Diner sites,” says Watson, explaining the decision.
“If you’re specifically 100% plant based then you’re going to struggle. Instead, we’ve been looking at increasing the vegan offering at the Diner sites, while maintaining a strong selection of meat dishes too. What we’ve seen is sales at those sites are really up and now performing the strongest.”
Struggles in the space
When Oowee committed to growing as a plant-based brand back in 2018 the vegan fast-food space was still nascent, but a lot changed in the following few years as several other key players emerged within the market. These included the Lewis Hamilton-backed Neat Burger, which in 2022 laid out plans to have a global estate of 1,000 sites by 2030; Milan-based chain Flower Burger, which arrived in London in 2021 with plans to open more than 40 sites in 'key UK cities' over the next decade; and The Vurger Co., which secured £1.4m in investment back in 2020 to aid its expansion.
“If you’re specifically 100% plant based then you’re going to struggle”
For a time, it looked as if the vegan brands were set to become a dominant force within the fast-food market, but in the past year it would appear that the bubble has burst. In November, Neat Burger announced it would be closing half of its eight-strong London estate amid large-scale financial pressures, the group having made a loss of £7.9m in 2022. A few months prior, Flower Burger retreated from the UK market entirely having only ever managed to open two sites; while The Vurger Co. fell into administration and had to be bought out of by its founders after failing to secure additional investment to support it as it recovered from the double-whammy of the pandemic and the subsequent cost-of-living crisis.
Then there’s Ready Burger, the vegan brand that had giants McDonald’s and Burger King in its sights with a competitively priced burger that takes its cues from the Big Mac.
With sites in London’s Crouch End and Finchley Road and plans to open in Camden and Wood Green, back in 2022 the brand was gearing up for growth, with talk of it potentially hitting 100 sites through joint ventures and franchise deals. However, today just one site is in operation, in Watford, although the brand continues to welcome new investors on its website.
Even national chain Honest Burgers tried unsuccessfully to get in on the vegan action. In early 2022, the group launched a dedicated vegan restaurant in London’s Covent Garden called V Honest, but within six months it relaunched the site under its core concept, with co-founder Tom Barton later telling The Times that there wasn’t enough demand to sustain the restaurant as a vegan-only operation.
Oowee also took a hit, and last year was forced to close its vegan site in Dalston after it became ‘financially unviable’. “There was a huge boost in the space a couple of years ago as everyone piled into it,” says Watson. “It was getting a lot of hype, and we were doing mental sales. And as a brand positioned at the forefront of the space, we wanted to roll it. But then last year we saw a decline.”
Watson attributes the downturn not just to the wider macroeconomic pressures facing the industry, but also the increased availability of plant-based food across the sector. “I don’t think the appetite for vegan has necessarily come down massively,” he continues. “When we first positioned Oowee as a vegan-only brand, we had this niche where if you wanted good plant-based food there was only a limited number of specialist places you could go. Now, though, people want more options. And because most places do a good vegan menu, friendship groups that contain both plant-based and meat eaters can easily find somewhere that caters for both.”
Repositioning Oowee as a ‘mixed concept’ that serves both meat and plant-based options may seem extreme to some, perhaps even alienating a core part of its target market in the process. Yet it’s also reflective of the wider challenges vegan operators in the QSR space and beyond are having to make to try and secure the long-term viability of their businesses.
Earlier this month, Manchester-based vegan restaurant Nomas Gastrobar announced it would be introducing ‘a thoughtfully curated selection of high-quality, responsibly sourced meat and dairy options’ to its menu in a bid to bring in more custom. Writing on Instagram, founder Adonis Norouznia said: “The challenges we've faced in recent times have been heartfelt and profound. The limitations of our vegan menu, at times, meant we welcomed only a small number of customers, making it increasingly difficult for our business to thrive financially. This has led us to a profound decision, one we've made with much contemplation and consideration.”
“People want more options, and because most places do a good vegan menu,
friendship groups that contain both plant-based and meat eaters
can easily find somewhere that caters for both”
It isn’t just a UK challenge either. In the US, well-known vegan restaurants are adding meat, dairy or both to their menus to appeal to a larger audience. These include Burgerlords in LA which, like Oowee, originally begun slinging both beef and meat-free patties before choosing to focus on the latter in 2020. Last year, the two-strong group put meat back on the menu, with owner Frederick Guerrero citing both financial concerns and the lack of interest in an all-vegan menu as reasons for the change.
“For the past three years as a vegan restaurant, it was exhausting trying to build that community,” said Guerrero, in a recent interview with SFGate. “We felt like we had to open the restaurant up to more people, but we also saw a lot of vegan restaurants throwing in the towel.”
Fine tuning for the future
Watson is enthusiastic about Oowee’s potential for growth but doesn’t envisage returning to the expansion trail until next year. “2023 was about focusing on what we’ve got,” he says. “It was a tough year for the industry and so a good opportunity to step back and examine how to make more money out of the assets we have rather than being obsessed with growth. That was our mentality after Covid, but then it shifted to slowing down.
“We managed to get out of the Dalston site, which has allowed us to rebuild our cash reserves. So, on the whole it was a good year for us. We remain cautious. My goal is to make money, not to open lots of new sites, so realistically it won’t be until next year before we start expanding again. We want to keep building those cash reserves and fine tuning the concept.”
That fine tuning applies both to the group’s meat-based and vegan menu, with the group still hoping to be recognised as an innovator within the plant-based dining space. To that end, Watson explains that the Oowee Diner menu will always be weighted more towards vegan. This is already the case at the group’s current sites where nearly all of the mayonnaises are plant-based, as are the brioche burger buns.
“We’re pushing to be vegan where we can and when the product is as good or better than non-vegan alternatives. Having beef and chicken burgers on the menu just means our customers have the freedom to choose between plant-based and meat.
“Sure, there will always be a demand from some vegans who want to eat somewhere where no meat is cooked on the premises, but there aren’t enough to fill that demand.”
With regards to innovation, Watson adds that in the coming years he expects to see a shift away from the plant-based ‘meats’ that have been popularised on vegan fast-food menus in recent years. “It used to be about fake meat, but now the appetite is gearing more towards vegetable-based dishes,” he says. To that end, Oowee recently introduced a cauliflower bites side to the menu at its vegan restaurants, which is now outselling the popcorn chick'n alternative.
“The fake meats are good if you want to transition to fully vegan, and there will always be a place for them. We’re fortunate to be working with great innovators in the space like Redefine Meat and Symplicity. But we’re also now thinking about developing more veggie-based options too.”
“A lot of the big chains have pulled back quite heavily having initially
put a lot of effort into the vegan space, and it still poses
a great opportunity for us”
Watson also notes that while the focus will be on expanding the Oowee Diner concept in the future, he hasn’t completely ruled out ever opening another vegan-only site. “We want Oowee to be an established brand in the fast-food space offering great plant-based and meat dishes. You purely act on what the market demand is, and if there is demand for a vegan site, we would certainly still look at those.
“We’re still pushing. A lot of the big chains have pulled back quite heavily having initially put a lot of effort into the vegan space, and it still poses a great opportunity for us. We want to always be established as a brand that’s at the forefront of offering great vegan food.”