Wicked Kitchen talks expansion after funding round: ‘Plant-based food doesn’t have to taste like sh*t and it’s our job to make sure of it’

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Image source: Wicked Kitchen
Image source: Wicked Kitchen

Related tags: plant-based

Wicked Kitchen has closed a US$14m funding round that will support the company’s plans to expand internationally. We hear from co-founder Derek Sarno about what the cash means for the group – and the company’s culinary-led approach to plant-based that has made it an iconic force in the UK.

When chefs Derek and Chad Sarno created Wicked Kitchen in 2018 they put flavour-forward vegan products in the spotlight.

“Lead with flavour and taste experience will always be our number one at Wicked Kitchen, we’re chefs it’s in our blood.  Having been a meat eater and chef that has cooked lots of it in the past and what it took for me to make the switch I can say that plant-based food doesn’t have to taste like sh*t and it’s our job to make sure of it..  Flavour first, always!”​ Derek Sarno told us.

This approach has led the brand to rapid growth in its domestic market, where it has become the UK market leader in plant-based meals. It has also attracted the attention of investors and the group announced this week the closing of a US$14m series A funding round.

The capital raise was co-led by plant-based venture fund Unovis Asset Management and NRF Nove Foods.

“The fastest adoption of plant-based foods is always driven by great culinary experience,” ​said Chris Kerr, Founding Partner of Unovis. “Wicked Kitchen has an unparalleled range of exceptional products, a revered brand, and two founding chefs willing to stir the pot. Unovis is here to support this effort from every angle.”

What does the company intend to do with the cash?

International expansion is on the cards. “We’re very grateful for the funds, they’ll be used to help grow Wicked Kitchen’s international plan to provide amazing, tasty, free from animal foods where we are needed most.  It will certainly help give us access to more resources and personnel to speed up launching into new markets along with supporting here local, in the UK.  I’ll always be loyal to Tesco, where we kicked off this Wicked Kitchen and plant chef, plant-based craze,”​ Sarno revealed.

The company’s first target is the US, with ‘more announcements’ due in the ‘coming weeks’, the company said, pointing to the strong potential of the American plant-based sector. According to One Poll research, commissioned by Sprouts Farmers Market, plant-based is on the up-and-up stateside. Nearly one in every two Americans consume ‘more plant-based meals than meat’, with 545 of 24- to 39-year-olds identifying as flexitarian.

In the US, it seems Wicked Kitchen plans to follow a similar blueprint to success as it did in the UK, cultivating close partnerships with key retail customers. “The US is a big place with lots of ground to cover and we’re super excited to go deep with some of our partnerships in the US like we’ve done here with Tesco in the UK,”​ we were told.

‘One person can make a difference’

What are the biggest learnings the Sarno brothers have taken from their UK experience and Tesco tie-up? It would seem there are many.

“I am over the moon grateful for the collaboration and team we have built at Tesco.  I am lucky to work with some of the most talented and committed colleagues and leaders in the business. What started out with moving over here by myself has turned into an amazing, productive team of focused individuals all pushing plants, shifting minds and making outstanding products that lead the market in the UK.​ 

“I’ve learned that people want to do the right things and that good food truly does bring us together. A little inspiration goes a long way! I’ve learned where I was correct in thinking and where I need to compromise. It is correct in knowing that it’s time for a plant-based generation to bloom, no insight told me that, it was a risk worth taking. I’m still not convinced that any amount of insight that looks to the past to tell us the future, works. It doesn’t work that way when it comes to innovating. I’ve learned that ‘every little helps’ is a great and meaningful slogan and that everyone wants to do the right thing, everyone wants to save the planet, people don’t want to actually kill animals or cause suffering and that all it takes to support can be as easy as choosing plant-based.

“So we will continue making the best wicked plant-based alternative to choose over that animal product!  The number one thing I’m taking from my experience here, is that one person/chef can make a difference.”

Global aspirations

“Our mission is to provide tasty plant-based options for meat-eaters and vegans alike.  We all know factory farming animals is a horrendous act and eating animals isn’t good for the planet and it’s certainly not good for the animals!  We’re here to provide that free from animal option,”​ Sarno noted.

This purpose is one that he believes has global relevance – and when Wicked Kitchen is established in his US homeland the chef has set his sights on further expansion. Although what markets are next on the agenda remain, for the time being at least, a closely guarded secret.

“We’ll announce where to next after we’ve gotten the US established very soon. As far as criteria on determining where we go, that’s easy, wherever we can have the biggest impact and provide delicious plant-based alternatives to animal products is the best place for Wicked Kitchen.”

Nor is the company taking the foot off the gas in the UK, with further development plans in the offing.

“We still have lots more to do in shifting even more of the nation and leading by example. I’m honoured to continue working with Tesco in the UK to position us as leaders in plant-based offerings.  My objectives haven’t changed, make amazing food free from animals, continue to build our plant-teams and show people through food that we do not need to be eating animals, it’s 2021! 

“…Oh and I’m starting to work a lot more on the whole food, veg and mushroom innovation, but more on that later.” 

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