The height of a nationwide lockdown, amidst an ongoing pandemic, may seem like a strange time to start a new delivery-only restaurant concept. But that’s just what British YouTuber Mikey Pearce and his business partner Abe Garman decided to do when they launched their new plant-based venture in June.
In fact, it was the very restrictions brought about by lockdown that inspired them to move ahead with their endeavor, recognizing the need for foodservice businesses to adapt themselves to the new marketplace.
“When we were in complete lockdown, it was during that one-hour walk a day that we spent a lot of time throwing around different ideas,” explains Pearce. “We decided to work on a concept together that would work for people at home and developed The Clean Kitchen Club.”
Clean, healthy options
Based in Brighton, UK, the Clean Kitchen Club specializes in plant-based burgers, catering to the growing vegan community.
“I’d been doing research on the vegan diet,” explains Pearce, who recently cut down on his meat and alcohol intake, resulting in him losing over 20kgs in just a few months. “We wanted to create a healthy, guilt-free burger that would not only taste delicious but also be good for the environment.”
The pair don’t expect anyone to give up eating meat entirely, but say it’s about making people more aware and encouraging small steps towards significant change. “If we can help people reduce their meat consumption by enjoying our takeaways, then we feel good for doing it,” adds Pearce.
The menu at Clean Kitchen Club was created by head chef Andrew Peters and UK MasterChef finalist Stacie Stewart. Peters himself is vegan and helped Pearce and Garman bring their vision to life.
“It’s a massive market in Brighton,” says Garman, who grew up heavily involved in the foodservice industry, in and out of his Dad’s brasserie bistro in the Lanes area of Brighton, and is involved in several other restaurant projects.
Once seen by many as a foodie fad, vegan restaurants and recipes have taken off in the UK over the last few of years, and vegan meals are the fastest growing take-away choice. Tapping into this market and the community that goes with it was a natural choice.
Developing a social following
Creating a sense of community is something Pearce is particularly keen to develop within the brand. “We called it Clean Kitchen Club for a reason,” he says, recognizing the value in engaging with the market and being part of something bigger.
“Most marketing strategies now include huge social media campaigns. I was lucky enough to do YouTube for three years full time and when you’re working with brands you learn how to interact with your audience and convey the right message,” he explains. “It’s not just a burger; it’s a plant-based burger. It’s all about feeling good, living a clean lifestyle and if we communicate it well people will react well to that message and engage with the product more.”
Of course, the more people try it and tag it online, the more reach the brand has. As well as building a community, social media presents countless opportunities for free marketing, if food and service are done well. “I spent three years developing an audience. You have to learn what people like, how to relate to your audience, how to curate your image and I think all of that has given me the confidence to launch a food product,” says Pearce.
“That audience has been very supportive and now it’s a question of how do we get the vegan community and the foodie industry on board. I don’t have that audience yet so I’m looking at different ways to do that.” One of the ways Clean Kitchen Club intends to do that is through actively engaging with its customers online specifically via Instagram. “We’re going to be using Instagram to interact with people and get their feedback. They can direct message us any time and we’ll reply – we want to have conversations with people,” Pearce explains.
“It’s the perfect platform for us, because you can really gauge how people are reacting to your product, whether their posting about it and what they’re saying.”
“That’s what you learn from YouTube – you’d be nowhere without your audience. And it’s equally important with the people who buy from you; they are going out of their way to support your brand, so anything you can do to say thank you and interact, that helps build the community.”
The benefits of dark kitchens
Clean Kitchen Club’s first venue runs out of a kitchen in Brighton’s Lanes. But in keeping with its lockdown roots, the menu is strictly delivery and take-away. “We decided to move away from that traditional sit-down restaurant and really focus on delivery. I love restaurants and I think there is a great experience to be had in going out, but with this business, we’re in a completely modern age,” says Pearce.
“With the emergence of third-party delivery services, you can embark on marketing strategies to hit those platforms and it keeps your costs down, it keeps your rent down and you can really focus on the food and making a great product.” This approach also plays into consumer behavior at present. While restaurants in the UK were allowed to open up for dine-in customers on 4 July, capacity is limited and many are still wary of venturing out.
“No one knows when things are going to be back to normal so it seemed like the perfect time to jump on this opportunity,” says Garman. “With lots of people not being able to go out to eat because of the restrictions in place in restaurants even as they reopen, dark kitchens and delivery are the future.”
Of particular importance to Clean Kitchen Club was being able to create a product that not only tastes good but looks good and travels well. “I don’t know about you, but the amount of times I’ve been excited to order delivery and then opened it up to find it looks like it’s been round a tumble dryer!” says Pearce. “It’s something I’ve been quite vocal about, I want everything to package well and travel well. It’s obviously trial and error, but we did a few test runs and everything seemed to come out alright at the launch – good height – so we were happy.”
Head chef Andrew Peters is equally passionate about the quality of menu the team has put together. “Everyone at Clean Kitchen Club believes that a plant-based diet is the future,” he says. “It’s amazing to work as part of a team that are so passionate about doing plant-based food properly.”
Achieving success during a pandemic
Of course, getting a new concept up and running in the middle of lockdown presented its fair share of challenges. Clean Kitchen Club rents the kitchen space it works out of, so was fortunate to already have use of most of the equipment needed to construct its plant-based burgers and sides, including a Rational combi-oven.
Sourcing the additional items it needed, such as an extra fridge and fryer, was relatively straight forward, says Garman, but negotiating with suppliers was a bit more tricky. “Some staff are furloughed and working restricted hours, so trying to sort out things with suppliers when you can’t get through straight away and they don’t deliver seven days a week, mean it’s taken a bit longer than expected, but luckily we’ve got over that,” he says.
Once the food was sorted, it was on to packaging and marketing materials: “We wanted to do some branded bags, but because of Covid-19 the majority of the suppliers required orders of 50,000 to make it worthwhile,” explains Pearce.
“But eventually I stumbled across this company who could do 1,000 branded bags to arrive by the end of the week. All companies are stretched at the moment and it’s such an uncertain time, not knowing if there’ll be another spike or another lockdown, so you just have to be patient and try and make a positive situation out of it.”
Despite having only been open for a few weeks, the two have big plans for the business. “People will always want to go out to eat, but the restrictions could be there until next year so if we can create this brand now it could be amazing going forward,” says Garman. “We want to strike while the iron is hot. We need to get the system and operations in place here and then we want to roll out as many as we can, whether that’s London, Manchester or Birmingham.”
The beauty of dark kitchens, Pearce adds, is with little outlay you can quickly move the concept throughout the whole of the UK, while maintaining standards and brand integrity. “And with social distancing measures what they are, we’re not going to be going out as frequently as we were before, so takeaways have become a bigger part of our life – what better time to start a business.