It was thirty years ago today that I sold my baby, the VegeBurger, on 8/8/88. Though just six years from launch date, the word “vegeburger” had by then begun to enter the language, a few million would-be vegetarians had leapt out of the closet, the grocery trade recognized vegetarians as a definable market, and restaurants needed something more than cheese salad as an alternative on the menu. Several supermarket telephonists directed me to the meat buyer, when I wanted to sell VegeBurger.
The name? I made a list with about eight names on it, including, earthburger, plantburger, vegeburger, sesame burger, greenburger. It was not obvious, but after carrying it around for a week I went for, you guessed it! You cannot trade mark a descriptive product name (lamb burger or potato cake) and “VegeBurger” did not seem descriptive at the time. Vege (however the sound is spelled) had never been used to abbreviate vegetarian or vegetable. People into the 1980’s ate meat and 2 veg as a staple meal, not meat and vege. But it became increasingly difficult to protect the trademark and I’ll never forget the mid 80’s Glastonbury Festival when I made four of the ethical caterers change their menu listing from vegeburger to something else that did not read or sound the same. I remember getting kind of harsh with one of them who resisted. This is just not what you go to Glastonbury to do.
The fifteen years prior to VegeBurger had seen my brother Craig and I introducing natural and organic foods to the British and European diet. In 1967, aged 18, I was dishing out bowls of brown rice and vegetables to hungry hippies in front of London’s first head shop, just off the Portobello Road. Restaurant, retail shop and magazine followed in the next two years. Fifteen years later I was running Harmony/Whole Earth foods, in an airplane hanger sized warehouse complete with a trade cash & carry, a stone flour mill, dedicated peanut butter grinding, sugar-free jam making plant, and various other packing and processing operations, staffed by a team of 45 shifting hundreds of tons weekly. It could be a head-banger at times!
VegeBurger was a whole new experience, run from my spare bedroom with one part-time helper and all the work being done by outside contractors. They call it a virtual company today. Everything was run on one big interlinked spreadsheet (the original VisiCalc). I had a great time responding to fan mail that often accompanied requests for our VegeBurger mix recipe leaflet. There was the 16-yr old girl in Oban who went veggie six months earlier and had eaten nothing but pizzas since. And the mother of two who was going crazy coping after her two children and then her husband went vegetarian. After discovering VegeBurger she finally gave up and joined them.
Nobody had ever collected the numbers on vegetarians in Britain, so I commissioned Gallup to survey the public on their attitudes to meat eating. The results were news, and for a change it was news that actually was new. I put press releases out full of graphs and facts and figures, with clever covers that got them read. Each year the numbers grew and the highest numbers were for women aged 16-24. Each year VegeBurger got mentioned in the press reporting the news and more people went into their shops to buy them. The only paid advertising done was on pirate radio, with this cool rap commercial created by Danny Antrobus. (click here and go to page bottom for VegeBurger Rap)
The original VegeBurger came as a mix that cost 49p and made four 2oz burgers. Even in 1982 that was inexpensive which is how is should be since all the ingredients are lower down the food chain than meat. The ingredients were sesame seeds, wheat gluten, oats, and soya protein with dried vegetables and seasonings, all natural, all vegetable. It could be made with or without an egg.
The frozen VegeBurger came out under license within two years, produced by Maynards Bakery in Taunton. A few other VB based products such as lasagna and shepherd’s pie accompanied it. For this, we put £5000 into production of a TV commercial, which was cheap as chips in those pre tech days. My whizz-kiddo friend Bonnie Molnar took it on. We had to remove a reference to “cow-burger” which was thought offensive, and remove the phrase “think about it” since the advertising Standards did not allow ads to be “thought provoking.” The advert was a huge success, and had Iceland’s phones ringing off the hook by customers wanting to know if they stocked it.
After five years it reached the point where I was no longer running this from my spare bedroom on an Apple IIe. I had those fixed overheads again, including three expensive staff in a serviced office, and was tiring of the food industry – spending so much time with suits that I was in danger of becoming one myself. Then there is the “Peter Principle,” which was telling me it was time to move on. Look it up if you’re interested.
Long discussions with Guinness came to an end when their far-sighted ceo, Ernest Saunders, had to resign over letting the company buy its own shares (not allowed). He had been putting together a stable of natural products companies. Next in line was Haldane Foods the subsidiary of a subsidiary or a giant American corporations that few have heard of, called ADM. All solid meat eaters, they sold some disgusting mixes of TVP, hydrogenated fat, MSG, and other stuff in brown bags, labeled ‘Burga-mix’ and ‘Sos-mix.” VegeBurger had the market, they had the money, and they ended up buying it in a deal that would have held me in for ten years.
Other stories ensued. One includes a photo of Gorbachev holding a VegeBurger at ADM’s stall at a food expo in Moscow, where a fight broke out between people wanting free samples after tasting. They had me help launch a new product called quinoa. Another story is of my court case against them and a trip to Chicago (great architecture) to settle the matter.
Eighteen years later the Haldane Group was bought by American company Hain Celestial, who simply killed off VegeBurger and most of the other brands they had bought. No idea why.
Sad story, their loss, but VegeBurger’s work is done. It would be cool to run that Gallup survey again today and compare the results to those that made startling news in the 1980’s.
And me – I went on to open a shop called Strange Attractions dedicated to the new science dubbed ‘chaos theory’ and to write a couple of gently mind-bending books.