Business is booming.

My First Million: Jonathan Petrides, plant-based food pioneer


Jonathan Petrides, 38, became a plant-based food entrepreneur by accident, after cooking to impress his vegetarian wife, and realising the impact of animal agriculture on climate. In 2017 he and his brother Alex launched allplants, an online business offering 100 plant-based flash-frozen dishes from risottos and lasagnes to teriyaki tofu and smoothies.

Petrides, a vegan, aims his products at the two-thirds of Britons who are not vegan or vegetarian, but actively reducing their meat, fish and dairy intake.

Turnover in 2017 was £400,000, jumping to £11mn by 2021. The 200-strong company has a head office in Islington, London, while its 100 chefs prepare every dish by hand in a kitchen in Walthamstow, running on 100 per cent renewable energy.

CV

Born: Enfield, north London, May 22, 1984

Education: 1994-2002: Haberdashers’ Boys’ School, Elstree, Hertfordshire

2003-2006: University of Nottingham, BA History 

Career: 2007-09: business analyst at McKinsey for telecoms, banking and grocery clients

2009-13: set up M-Shwari in Kenya, Africa’s first mobile phone-based bank for the unbanked

2012-17: co-founded Penda Health, building a chain of low-cost mini hospitals in Nairobi

2016: Moved from running local supper clubs to launching allplants nationwide, in 2017 

2020: cooked and delivered 1 millionth meal:

January 2022: Reached 4mn meals cooked and delivered

Lives: Stoke Newington, north-east London, with his wife Delphi

Did you think you would get to where you are today?
Not really. It never occurred to me that I could be an entrepreneur because it just was not an obvious path. I did not have a clear vision until I was 25 and left McKinsey to launch a bank. I was frustrated with just creating tidy Excel models and shiny PowerPoint presentations. As a consultant you present your work to the board and leave it on the table, but you never get to know what happens next.

My father, an accountant, encouraged me to think about a sensible career. I spent two summers at his company doing handwritten bookkeeping in a huge ledger, which was mind numbing. The next two summers I worked for the Bank of Cyprus, counting cheques and rearranging files in the back office — a job that had little appeal.

At 18 I spent eight months as a paralegal in Bishopsgate. The work was slow, boring and hierarchical. I knew it wasn’t right for me.

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business?
In the early days we stopped marketing because we could not keep up with demand. We had only opened our new kitchen in Walthamstow a month or two before. Suddenly we moved from needing to cook 15,000 meals a week to 30,000.

We had to bring in PPE, adapt to social distancing throughout our kitchen and make sure everyone felt safe. Even the nearby Tube station, Blackhorse Road, was closed for three months, when London Transport reduced its services.

In the first two months we hired another 40 chefs who had lost their jobs in London restaurants that were forced to close. We did not need to take advantage of the furlough scheme, though three of our employees spent months shielding.

It was a very intense time, but the team spirit was great. Being in lockdown and only seeing each other every day, we were like a large family, because so many of our colleagues from Europe were unable to go home.

Did you have to diversify to survive?
The impact of the lockdown and people working from home created a bigger demand for quick and healthy lunches. We got together with our customer Tasting Club — our keenest 100 customers — and created a dozen one-bowl high protein meals, such as buddha bowls, miso and tamari, smoky corn and Spanish rice, and lentil and chutney chana. These lunches are now almost 20 per cent of our sales.

Have you found it difficult to recruit staff in recent months?
We are doing a lot of hiring. It is not a particular problem for us, but we are putting in a huge amount of time, trying to recruit the right people. They need to mirror our own energy and hunger to grow fast. The difficulty is the sheer number of roles from chefs to software developers, marketers and analysts that we want to fill. It takes a lot of our focus. By late 2022 we will be around 250 people.

Was your first £1mn a major milestone?
We had made our first £1mn-plus profit by late 2020, of just over £2mn. I barely gave it any thought because we were reinvesting everything into growth. But, in the first six months of 2021, this profit allowed us to seek three new major investors to propel us on our scale-up journey. We were able to raise £38mn.

What was the most challenging period of your career?
It is when I had to shut down my first banking venture in Nairobi after two years, because the government would not give approval to launch our service nationwide. The regulations for creating a bank are stringent. We ran out of time and money. I had to let go of 20 people and felt responsible. I remember writing a script on the Sunday night before telling everyone on the Monday.

Six months later we convinced the Commercial Bank of Africa to become our partner. I was able to get back half of the team and offer our mobile banking service M-Shwari nationwide. Within a month we had 1mn customers, and in month three we had 6mn. I am no longer involved, but today M-Shwari is a household name in east Africa.

What did you have to sacrifice to start the business?
I put every pound I had saved into [allplants] — just under £50,000 — and I took no salary for three years. I am lucky that I could depend on my wife as the main breadwinner. Delphi is an established brand strategist.

What is the secret of your success?
I would say we have always been obsessed with the perfect taste. That’s how everything started. A good website, advanced technology and snazzy Instagram posts really don’t matter unless customers know how delicious our food is. We do listen to what our customers hate, love and desire. I am constantly experimenting in the kitchen myself, creating new recipes.

What was your best preparation for business?
The one thing I could not have learned from a textbook is from my mum. She is the most fearless, righteous person I know. It is her unwillingness to take no for an answer that has been a huge influence.

I wanted to study history at Nottingham University, but there were thousands of applicants for 300 places. They just gave me an outright “no”, but I felt that it did not make any sense. It was a place I really wanted to go to. The first time I got a rejection I decided to take a year off.

The second time I had to do something about it. I was phoning and emailing the history department and admissions office for two months, only to be fobbed off. Then, one weekend, I was at Nottingham University visiting friends.

They encouraged me to find the history tutor’s office and knock on the door, which is exactly what I did. I said I was just passing by, but the tutor was embarrassed and told me to leave. This happened on a Friday. On the Monday I was astonished to receive an email with an unconditional offer. If you really want something, you must be prepared to fight for it.

What is your basic business philosophy?
A business can be a vehicle for doing good, but the 20th century model of a shareholder-driven business does not work. It is precisely why the planet is in a bit of a state right now. I try to keep the humanity in business and find ways to do the right thing for the environment, which is not always easy.

Do you want to carry on till you drop?
I am only 38. For me we are in the early foothills of our allplants mission, with decades ahead of us to inspire “plant-curious” people. Over the next 12 months we have big plans, including bringing our dishes into convenience stores across London and the UK.

Have you made any pension provision?
When I started at McKinsey every employee had a pension but I was only there for a couple of years. I then had a decade-long hiatus from a pension. In the early days of allplants it was a requirement to provide a pension for all employees, including myself. I have had that for five years. I don’t really think much about it. I am more focused on the here and now, running the company. My father keeps telling me to put in more than I do, but I am happy with the statutory minimum.

Do you believe in giving something back to the community?
Being a B-Corp [a certification of high social and environmental performance], everything we do is about positive impact for the environment and society. We have now served 4mn meals. By replacing meat and dairy-based meals with this many plant-based ones, we have saved 15,000 tonnes of CO₂, 10bn litres of water and 18,000 acres of land, equivalent to 10,000 football pitches.

In the past 12 months we have given more than 90,000 meals to City Harvest and the Felix Project, the London charities that deliver surplus food to people at risk of hunger and malnutrition. We have donated £36,000 to Choose Love, a cause supporting refugees and displaced people. We have also planted 12,000 trees in Zambia. Our small reforestation has created over 5mn pounds of oxygen on the equator, where it’s needed most.



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