Our latest Food Founders guest, Thea Brook, spoke to us about her two award-winning businesses: plant-based restaurant The Brook which has evolved into Brook Vegan Foods. Find out about turning a restaurant menu into a food business.
Turning successful restaurant dishes into food products that can sell nationally – via retail and, more recently, direct-to-consumer – is an entrepreneur’s dream. Yet, as both businesses are hugely demanding, it can be an immense challenge to launch, grow and then maintain momentum. Thankfully, Thea Brook has done just that.
Falling for food
First, a little background. Thea started in hospitality at the tender age of 14 and learned the basics of working in a professional kitchen where she fell in love with the world of food. After training in finance and holding a number of director-level positions, Thea and her husband Andy opened a small café in Wallington, south London. In 2014, after Thea developed an intolerance to dairy, the couple set up a weekly vegan supper club which became so popular that they expanded to become a fully-fledged restaurant.
The move from meat to plant-based
The Brooks decided to make the transition to a plant-based menu two years in following research into the effects of an animal-based diet and its effect on the environment. However, they refused to compromise on quality.
“We made the change on the basis that we could only swap out products if we couldn’t really tell, or if it was as good as or better than the original product. We’ve always kept going with that mentality.”
The venture paid off. Apparently, when Thea introduced vegan dishes, her meat-and-dairy customer base didn’t change. “They were very interested to come on the journey with us.” The Brook subsequently won a Time Out award in 2018.
Taking the restaurant on the road
The restaurant’s success led Thea to a crossroads, should she expand the business with more restaurants or try something new?
“We wanted to be able to position the food in a wider market so that more people could get access to it and we could really just show people what’s possible with plant-based ingredients.”
Thea started with meals as the first line of product to go into development, which she confessed was “the hardest thing we could have gone for!” Their recipes went through a rigorous process of testing and tweaking to ensure their well-loved meals survived the process of upscaling, including trialling 24 variants. Finally, they launched Brook Vegan Foods, their meal box delivery service, in 2019.
Funding for retail listings and D2C
Since then Thea has raised nearly £1m in funding to take the range into retail and develop the D2C platform, winning three coveted Great Taste Awards along the way. Today Brook Vegan Foods offers 10 meals in the range, including vegan fish cakes – a bestseller in the restaurant – and of which Thea is particularly proud, as well as desserts and drinks. What’s more, the brand has successfully launched into Co-Op, Planet Organic, Wholefoods and many independent retailers.
Yet, the focus for Thea has always been the customers: “The feedback I love and the main feedback we aim for is that people can’t tell it’s vegan. So when we’re product developing that’s the thing that’s really important to us.”
Want to know more?
In the full interview, Thea talks about the impact of the pandemic on her businesses, how she set about building a D2C operation, raising your profile what she’s learned about social media ads, SEO, awards and more.