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EXCLUSIVE Q&A with... Zack Bishti, CEO of Lewis Hamilton-backed Neat Burger

Foodservice News Editor, Becky Martin asks Zack Bishti, CEO and co-founder of Neat Burger, the major business questions of the moment, and then gets a little more personal.

THE BIG QUESTIONS

1. How did you and your brother Ryan come up with the idea for Neat Burger back in 2019 and had you both been vegan long? How did Stasi and Tommaso come into it?

The co-founders were all at different stages in life, we knew each other socially and each had our own motivations to eat less meat.

We decided that the plant-based burger products on offer were not up to scratch for mainstream consumers and were inspired to create a brand focused on providing the best tasting sustainable food – something that was new and fresh and exciting. We all recognised that we had complimentary skills and had good self-belief. We made a clear decision from the beginning to go big and go fast.

Whilst most of the Neat team are vegan, a big chunk, much like our customers, are flexitarians - and that represents where things are going as more and more people are phasing out meat.

2. How and when did Lewis Hamilton become involved in backing the business? How hands-on is he when it comes to decision making?
One of our co-founders Tommaso Chiabra moves in the same social circles as Lewis and they got talking and it was clear that Lewis shared our vision and the rest is history.

We essentially count Lewis as one of the founders as he has been involved from the start. He is very driven by our mission to create a more sustainable future by providing plant-based food that is better for the planet whilst still delivering on taste. He is a hands-on investor in the way that he takes a close interest in our strategic ambitions, but he's not involved on a day-to-day basis.

3. How much do you think the growth in the popularity of Veganuary has boosted footfall and delivery orders at Neat Burger? Do you think more Brits will move toward flexitarism as concepts like No Meat Mondays is embraced by those concerned about the sustainability of meat production?
We have certainly benefitted from heightened awareness in the media and therefore within consumers at large around events like Veganuary and ideas such as No Meat Mondays. These certainly shine a spotlight on the benefits of eating less meat and act as a hook to get people to make that first leap.

It is clear that real momentum is building among consumers for a flexitarian lifestyle as the environment and health concerns have squarely moved into the mainstream. Having products that deliver a taste and texture sensation no different to the “real thing” has been critical to our success – the quality and consistency of our products keeps traction with consumers who come back time and again.

4. What are the main challenges currently facing your company this year? Ensuring continued sustainability, supply, costs, employment retention etc? How are you planning to mitigate these?
Like the majority of QSR operators we are facing hikes in energy costs, wage costs, rent and rates and we have had pinch points around finding the right talent to work in our stores. That said, on the labour front we have not however been as affected as some operators due to our clearly differentiated proposition which has meant we are attractive to those that share our vision and values – we stand out from the crowd.

5. What made you partner with vegan food manufacturers, such as Jack & Bry, for certain products rather than creating in-house? Was it mainly down to time and money?
The majority of alternative proteins we use are our own, developed by our amazing food tech team, but we also lean on third party suppliers where we have gaps in our menu offering. Having said that, we have lots of exciting NPD under way and are on track to provide 100% of the alternative protein items on our menu within the next 12 months.

6. What plans do you have for Neat Burger in the coming year and beyond? Launching abroad, more sites in London or other parts of the UK, new product launches etc?
We are focused on our three core pillars: developing our proprietary alternative-protein product range and securing listings in multiple grocer retail outlets, operating our corporately owned stores and expanding internationally initially in the US and then elsewhere.

We have just opened the first Neat Burger pop-up in midtown New York with a flagship restaurant scheduled to open in Manhattan this autumn. We are looking to launch our first couple of franchises later this year partnering with amazing operators. We are aware that we have bold ambitions and growth plans and that doing lots is never easy, but we have an experienced leadership team and believe we can deliver on our goals.


THE GET-TO-KNOW-YOU QUESTIONS

1. What do you like to do to wind down after a busy day?

I hang out with my dog, family and friends.

2. What is your favourite on-the-go snack, lunch, and beverage in the week?
Unfortunately, I’m a fiend for fries!

3. What’s your most loved restaurant or café and pub or bar (not Neat Burger!)?
Nothing beats Mum’s cooking.

4. Beyond your laptop and phone, what items are you never without during the week?
My AirPods for both music and the constant work telephone calls.

5. What book or/and TV/Netflix etc programme currently has you gripped?
I’m reading Empire of the Summer Moon by SC Gwynne, and watching Better Call Saul.

6. What have you learnt most about yourself and what do you see as your greatest achievements in the last year?
Since setting up Neat I’ve realised that it’s best to wait for no one and instead just get on with things and carve your own road. That’s core to our DNA at Neat - we push ahead and are constantly striving to do more.

Greatest achievement? Through the pandemic not only did we not fire anyone we actually hired more people. Anyone in hospitality who survived the events of last two years should really pat themselves on the back as we saw so many operators go under through no fault of their own.

Thank you, Zack - your enthusiasm and positve energy are catching. Good luck with Neat's expansion, not that you need it!