One Planet Pizza’s Joe Hill: ‘Selling A Million Vegan Pizzas Took Me By Surprise’
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One Planet Pizza co-founder Joe Hill tells Green Queen about the company’s uphill battle in the face of Brexit, war and a pandemic; going on The Apprentice; his trouble with misinformation about veganism, and selling a million pizzas.
Friday night was always pizza night at the Hills’. Joe Hill and his sister made everything from scratch: the dough, the sauce, the works. Their dad Mike, however, was missing out on what is every kid’s favourite thing about pizza: the cheese. “He had always been a passionate and devoted vegan,” explains Joe, recalling how he himself was vegetarian, before Cowspiracy convinced him to make the switch to plant-based.
Soon after, though, Mike came to him with a “crazy idea”, as he puts it: he wanted to “set up a vegan pizza company together and try to save the world one slice at a time”. That was 2016, and since then, they have sold a slice or two – recently, Joe announced that One Planet Pizza has shipped a million frozen plant-based pizzas.
“It actually took me by surprise that we’d hit that number recently,” he tells me. “We’re still a small team, but we’ve always punched above our weight and aimed for the stars. Selling a million vegan pizzas has given us even more motivation to keep pushing forward and sell the next million.”
Eight years since launch, One Planet Pizza is available in over 1,000 locations across Europe – from Gibraltar, Sweden and Spain to Iceland, Malta and Cyprus. But in its home country, the UK – a country that eats over 5,000 pizza slices per capita in their adult life – it has made a huge splash through Asda and Getir.
“We’re also listed with three major wholesalers who distribute our pizzas out to smaller retail and food service customers,” notes Hill. “The big volume for pizza comes from the major retailers and so my focus this year is to win that second listing here in the UK.” (One Planet Pizza has been campaigning to get onto Sainsbury’s shelves.)
Turning the tide with passion and pizzas
You don’t see many father-son duos in business leadership – at least in the alternative protein space. Wonder what that’s like? “Great fun,” Hill says of his dad, who turned 60 last weekend. “We have plenty of disagreements and heated debates as we’ve grown the business together, but we’ve always remembered to have a laugh and enjoy ourselves along the way,” he explains. “I’d like to think we’re closer than ever, but you’d have to ask him for his take on that!”
As a food company – especially a vegan one – One Planet Pizza has had its fair share of challenges, especially in the last few years. The company was launched the same year the UK voted to leave the EU, though that wouldn’t actually happen until 2020, the year all CPG brands had to pivot to online as the world shut down. “But I think 2022 was our hardest year to date,” says Hill.
“With a war in Europe, soaring inflation, ingredient shortages, staff shortages, nervous investors, [and] retailers reluctant to take on new brands, we hit rock bottom,” he recalls. “Within a few months, our outgoings had rapidly overtaken our income, and it was only going to get worse. Fellow vegan brands were collapsing around us and, if I’m being honest, we were pretty damn scared.”
It was sink or swim for the business. “The only way we could keep the company alive was to close down our family kitchen and office, and move our production out to a contract manufacturer in the Netherlands,” says Hill. He likens it to a chicken-and-egg situation: “Manufacturers always required the volumes that came from a major listing, but to get those listings we often needed the support and backing of a manufacturer.”
After pushing its Norwich facility to its limits with the Asda listing, One Planet Pizza quickly made hay out of Brexit, moving production overseas and ensuring an overlap to avoid any stock issues. “This was by far the hardest project we’ve ever tackled,” suggests Hill. “But now, it’s been over a year and we’re starting to see the many benefits: freeing up our time as founders, reducing our overheads, protecting our margins, and hugely improving our capacity. Not to mention opening up new opportunities abroad through our manufacturer’s existing sales channels.”
The move also allowed the company to achieve accreditation from the British Retail Consortium, certifying it is a supplier with high food safety standards in place. Plus, shifting operations to the Netherlands likely made the frozen pizza producer’s partnership with local vegan cheesemaker Willicroft. “This B Corp is 100% plant-based and they work with local farmers to incorporate white beans into their delicious cheezes,” he explains. “They can make cheeze better than we ever could and it pairs perfectly with our range of pizzas. Healthier, sustainable, and melts perfectly – what’s not to love?”
It’s this pragmatism that has propelled One Planet Pizza to its current heights. “As long as we’ve got air in our lungs, passion in our hearts, and pizzas in the oven, Mike and I have always believed in each other and our mission,” notes Hill. “It’s this unwavering belief that’s kept us going through all these years and against all the odds.”
Misinformation is confusing consumers and hurting the vegan sector
The global vegan frozen pizza market was estimated at $854M last year, and is set to cross $1.9B by 2033. In the UK, even in 2021, 35% of consumers said they’d want to try vegan pizza toppings. Clearly, Brits want pizza, and as more of them eat plant-based – the number of vegans in the UK rose by 78% from 2022-23 – restaurants, companies and retailers have come up with an increasing number of plant-based options to satiate consumers’ wishes and appetites.
“We currently divide our competition into three groups,” explains Hill. “Supermarket own-label pizzas (cheap and not-so-cheerful), smaller brands (White Rabbit and Zizzi), [and] bigger brands (Chicago Town and Goodfellas). But we see our real competition as the big multinational corporations that fill the shelves with cheap and unhealthy meat and dairy pizzas that are harming our health and planet.”
Speaking of big multinational corporations, One Planet Pizza partnered with Unilever-owned ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s last month for an Asda-exclusive bundle offer. “We’re always keen to partner with bigger brands to reach as many people as possible. And Ben & Jerry’s have always been a fun, exciting, taste-first brand that we’ve been inspired by from day one,” says Hill.
“After a couple of emails and a lot of favours, I was absolutely chuffed to get a call with the right person on their team. They have a fantastic dairy-free range of ice creams and were keen to work with a challenger brand in this space to show customers just how delicious and indulgent vegan food is and can be,” he adds, before teasing that more such meal-deal partnerships are incoming.
Collaborations like these will certainly build exposure for the vegan pizza startup, and – forgive the pun – help it make some dough. Hill says was the first UK vegan company to crowdfund, back in 2016/17: “Since then, we’ve gone through several rounds of investment and added a few major private investors to our board.” This includes a £360,000 ($490,000) funding round in 2021.
One Planet Pizza is fundraising again currently to fuel its global expansion, supporting “a couple of new listings this year, one in the UK and another in the UAE”. Moreover, it will launch a new product to complement its four-strong pizza portfolio (which comprises Margherita, Peppernomi, Tex Mex and Hawaiian). Plus, Hill is appearing on BBC show The Apprentice this month (he has previously pitched the business on Dragons’ Den years ago, but the episode never aired).
“Expect more partnerships with big brands in frozen this year and plenty of embarrassing pizza costume stunts across social media,” he adds. Social media is a place where misinformation about alternative proteins is rampant. Hill has trouble with the narrative that the “plant-based bubble has burst”, which he believes confuses consumers and hurts the sector.
“Here in the UK right now, a government-backed campaign is targeting younger people and encouraging them to eat British meat and dairy for their own health,” he points out. “This goes against what many experts and scientists are saying and is leading to wide mistrust amongst consumers who are looking to make healthier and more sustainable food choices.”
Looking to the future, Hill hopes to see One Planet Pizza as a go-to vegan pizza brand available “in every freezer in the country”. “Mike may be retired and working on his animal sanctuary,” he predicts. “But I’ll probably still be handing out pizza samples to the masses and working on new products that will keep raising the bar for plant-based food.”