Hospitality is facing an unprecedented battle. Merely months ago, coronavirus was a geographically distant crisis, and few predicted the tsunami it would bring to every corner of the world. Within a matter of weeks, life as we know it has come to a screeching halt, with all sense of normality put on a long and troubling hold.
Despite it all, some hope and British resilience remains, as business owners across the country have pulled together and adapted, hoping to weather the storm. One such business is The Ethical Butcher, a brand new startup that, despite its ostensibly terrible timing, has seen sales boom amid the nationwide lockdown.
Run by meat trader Farshad Kazemian and ex-vegetarian Glen Burrows, the dynamic duo first decided to set up the business in the hope of becoming an ethical standard in the meat industry. Their online orders connect customers around Britain to high-quality, ethically farmed and grass-fed meat. But having had their site go live only weeks before the lockdown, the duo never predicted the surge of success that was about to hit.
The burgeoning butcher
Burrow’s interest in the food industry and ethical farming began in his study of food and nutrition at university. It was here that he learned about a process happening in abattoirs, whereby waste was being turned back into animal feed, leading to a cross-mutation of diseases between species.
Burrows said: “I learned about this process – called ‘mechanically reclaimed protein’ – feeding the ground up remains of sheep, cows, pigs and chickens back to sheep, cows, pigs and chickens. I never objected to eating meat, but I just thought this process was utterly abhorrent, and it made me start to question what else is happening in the food industry.”
Further studies made Burrows increasingly disillusioned with the industry, and it was then that he became a vegetarian, and questioned what he wanted in his future. He eventually fell into photography as a career, and remained a vegetarian for 25 years. This all changed, however, when his wife was later diagnosed with adrenal fatigue.
Burrows started to investigate what could be done to help, and doctors eventually suggested that she give up vegetarianism and instead adapt a paleo-style diet.
“Her health literally transformed within weeks”, said Burrows. “She went from sleeping 14 hours a day and feeling dreadful, to suddenly having a spark back in her eyes, and everything started healing and recovering very, very quickly. This went against everything I had taught myself to believe. Being a vegetarian or vegan becomes part of who you are, and how people see you.”
He decided to ultimately make the move to meat, and “didn’t realise how unwell I actually was until I regained my health”. After reintroducing the food group to his diet, he said the change was transformative. “I had energy, my brain was functioning better, I was recovering well from exercise, I started gaining muscle. Everything changed for me: digestion, sleep, the whole lot.”
A market that needed to change
Burrows began to study the importance of paleo and ancestral diets. “And for that, one needs very high-quality meat that has been raised as naturally as possible”, he adds. This would later form the inspiration for the direction of The Ethical Butcher, which has put quality and ethics on a pedestal like no other butcher business before.
And for now, Burrows found there was no such market for high-quality meat mixed with high-quality service. He said: “I was really struggling to find the kind of meat that I wanted to eat. There were a couple of places online, but the quality and consistency was variable, and the packaging was terrible. It wasn’t a good customer experience.”
The meat market ultimately needed change, and after Burrows was introduced to Farshad, the duo decided to enter into business and create the change they themselves wished to see.
“Farshad had been working in the meat industry, but thought he should, or could, do something better. He wanted to be selling higher-quality meats to the public, and change up how he was doing everything”, says Burrows.
The two men had an “epiphany” and began looking into the benefits of grass-fed versus grain-fed animals. “At the same time, there was a lot of vegan propaganda starting, about how the best thing for the planet was to not eat meat, but that never seemed quite right to me. So we thought, let’s focus on the ethics, make the business as ethical as it can possibly be, and quality will follow from that”, he adds.
The business did not immediately come together, however, and the duo shredded their business plan twice within two years. “We found better ways of doing things, and tightened up our ethical stance on what we decided would be acceptable or not acceptable.”
But it seems the duo found a formula that finally works. Does Burrows believe that their ethical stance has played its part in their recent success? “Yes, I do”, he says. “Before we launched, I spent about a year managing our Facebook page. It was a very useful tool for judging the sentiment out there – what do people really care about?”
“And there were a lot of things that we set out to challenge. We were a bit braver before we launched, as we didn’t really have a business to upset. But I wanted us to challenge every notion of why people would decide not to eat meat, whether it was for health, ethics or environment. I wanted to look at all of those head-on and deal with every subject without flinching.”
This approach ultimately gave the business a “fantastic foundation”. “We were prepared to explore the grey areas, and look at where we’re doing things as well as we can, where we can do things better, and look at what people actually want. That was an incredible foundation and really helped to set us up. But I really tried to keep integrity as an absolute key component, which has been, I believe, a large part of our success.”
A surprising success
This success, it appears, has remarkably carried on through the current crisis. Over the past few weeks alone, the duo have been swamped with demands for orders, with sales rising an incredible 1,000% between February and March.
“We were completely side-swiped by coronavirus”, says a surprised Burrows. “Talk about timing – we launched about three weeks before the coronavirus lockdown. We’d had a couple of good bits of press, and we had a couple of what we thought were quite busy days as a result of that press. And then coronavirus happened. Combined with our recent press, the weeks leading up to Easter were just crazy.”
Nonetheless, Burrows says: “I don’t mind admitting that we were not ready for that volume. We didn’t have enough systems in place, and we ended up doing a year and a half’s worth of learning in two weeks. We really did.”
Despite a sudden surge in sales, the duo continued to encounter problems. “We knew what we needed to do, and we knew what systems we needed to use, but we couldn’t get people, we couldn’t get staff”, says Burrows.
“So Farshad and I were both working 20 hour days and our couriers were completely overloaded. There were a couple of points where we actually had to shut the website down so that we had a hope of catching up. We were turning away money, but it was more important to us to not let people down who had already placed an order.”
The website first shut operations only days before Easter, but the business made a vow to honour all deliveries in time for the holiday. There were 450 orders in the pipeline, and Burrows says that the complexity of the logistics and man hours at this point was “immense”.
The entire situation was “extraordinary” albeit very testing for the pair, but from poison comes medicine, and the duo “learned so much in that time”. Burrows added: “We learned what we are capable of, we learned how many staff we need to do certain things, we tightened up on a lot of procedures, we changed a lot of operations, we changed a lot of people’s roles…it just taught us so much. It was an extraordinary time.”
‘It came at us like a tidal wave’
Did The Ethical Butcher in any way predict the volume of success that coronavirus would conversely bring to the business? “Oh, it came at us like a tidal wave”, laughs Burrows. “But it was a perfect storm in many ways. We’d been speaking to an agency who specialised in paid digital, and when the virus broke, people started spending a lot more time online.”
The business had indeed put a considerable amount of money into social media campaigns and digital campaigns, which was ultimately “perfectly timed”. “We’d actually planned this before the lockdown”, said Burrows. “And it just coincided with lockdown, and then our orders just flew. We went from taking a few hundred pounds a day to taking nine grand a day within two days.”
We asked Burrows if he had to make any major changes to his business in light of this sudden surge in popularity. “Yes, things needed to change. The hard thing was just the plate-juggling aspects of it. Because we were doing such a small amount of business before the coronavirus went down, Farshad and I found we suddenly had a lot of different hats on.”
A learning curve
Coronavirus, therefore, has brought a unique set of challenges to this particular business. Nonetheless, the testing time has helped to form the resilience and future direction of The Ethical Butcher.
“Until we got super busy, I don’t think we realised how many different people’s jobs we were actually doing”, says Burrows. “Suddenly we both realised ‘Hang on, each of us is probably doing three people’s jobs, and it’s a bit confusing and a bit overlapping, and when we have breathing space, who do we need to hire to make our lives easier’?”
“So the big learning curve for us now”, he continues, “is working out how much time we spent doing different parts of the business, and who is the right person to hire to free up our time to do more important things going forward.”
Burrows has already begun the search for a new customer service and website manager, as well as a financial controller and bookkeeper, and the team has also hired an operations manager for business going forward. Burrows says that he will still remain a little cautious when it comes to expansion, because “post-lockdown, we don’t know what normal business will be when things calm down”.
Looking to the future
No-one knows what a post-lockdown life will bring, but Burrows still looks ahead to long-term plans for The Ethical Butcher. “We’re absolutely looking to expand after this”, he says. “The unit we’re in at the moment is not an ideal space, but it was a great space to get started. So we’re looking for our next space, which means we’ll be looking to finance another raise at the end of this year.”
Ultimately, Burrows hopes that the business will eventually become a content channel that sells meat. “There’s an awful lot more content I want to go out and make, there’s an awful lot more filming, and storytelling and writing that I think needs to back up what the business is, and tell people why we’re doing what we’re doing, and keep exploring what our business is about”, he says.
In such trying times for so many, does Burrows have any parting words of advice for fellow business owners? “Integrity and honesty are the most important things”, he concludes. “The public is very good at sniffing out greenwashing, and I don’t think it’s going to wash anymore. If you are setting out to be a successful business, don’t think you’re always going to be right. Be open to mistakes, and be honest with people. That is what is most important in times like this.”