Founders: Katie McDermott and Jane Yates
Company: Not Dogs
Description: Vegetarian fast food brand specialising in meat-free topped hot dogs
Until now, fast food has always been associated with meaty snacks: think greasy beef burgers, fried chicken and neon pink hot dogs. But where does that leave those among us who fancy a hearty, speedy meal but happen to be vegetarian, vegan, or even just not big fans of meat?
Enter Not Dogs, the vegetarian fast food brand that’s challenging our assumptions about the industry, and has been crowned winner of the November Start-Up Series competition.
Founded by friends Katie McDermott and Jane Yates, Birmingham-based Not Dogs – like many innovative businesses – was born out of frustration. “I was starting to distrust meat,” McDermott says, while vegetarian Yates “was looking for really innovative, more tasty vegetarian options.”
“We were talking about the festival scene, and how there’s not really anything that both of us could eat that we would actually really enjoy.” Looking to provide a better choice for themselves, the duo picked a product that McDermott says she “would struggle to eat, but would actually love to eat” – the hot dog.
With Yates inspired by the meat-free fast food she’d seen come into prominence in Australia, the duo set about experimenting with unique toppings on Quorn bratwursts. Within three months, they had a food truck with which to test their product on the public.
It was while serving thousands of customers at high-profile festivals and Christmas markets that the enterprising duo saw their brand’s potential: “We couldn’t stop because the customers loved it. […] People would scream at the truck when they saw it, saying “Oh my god, it’s vegetarian!””
Donning their trademark hot dog costumes, McDermott and Yates drew plenty of crowds and have fostered a powerful social media following; not least due to their ongoing #SausageSelfie competition. The duo, who met six years ago at a PR agency, say their backgrounds in heading up national PR and social media campaigns gave them the know-how to engage their customers online.
Having realised that Not Dogs could be “more than a food truck”, in January 2016 the fast food entrepreneurs closed a successful crowdfunding round which helped them “kick off the hunt for a permanent restaurant”.
However, the duo struggled to secure further finance: “There’s a lot of investment out there, but a lot of it is very business-to-business, so we struggled with knowing where to go.” The pair even pitched on the BBC’s Dragons’ Den, but didn’t get the investment they were looking for – though they were happy with the Dragons’ “great reaction” to their food.
Keen to “take Not Dogs to the next level”, it wasn’t until they came across The Start-Up Series competition, run by Startups.co.uk in partnership with Worth Capital, that they saw a way to realise these ambitions:
“This opportunity came up, and we thought it was perfect for Not Dogs – so we entered the competition.”
First, the entrepreneurs submitted a detailed business plan and video, a process they describe as “really fun”: “Making the video for the team was really exciting – we obviously enjoyed being in front of the camera!” They then qualified for the next stage – a telephone interview with Worth Capital.
Next came an in-depth, face-to-face ‘deep dive’ which found McDermott and Yates in their element: “It was really nice to meet people who got Not Dogs straight away. […] It was nerve-wracking meeting them, but very quickly we became more comfortable around them and had a great chat about the future of Not Dogs and our vision.”
“It wasn’t a hard sell […] it was quite different to Dragons’ Den,” they add.
On winning the competition, and gaining access to £150,000 funding as well as invaluable business guidance from Worth Capital, the duo say: “We can’t quite believe it! […] We’re completely overwhelmed and really excited.”
The entrepreneurs assert that the uniqueness of their product coupled with their own “commitment and passion” for the business earned them the victory: “We have spent 18 hours in our food truck, just the two of us, serving thousands of customers in the rain – we are committed, and we don’t just talk; when we say we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it.”
Now with a four-month-old restaurant in Birmingham’s Bullring, the pair say that with Worth Capital’s investment they are “spoilt for choice” on what to do next; though their immediate plans are to introduce “exciting improvements” to their restaurant’s in-store design, as well as open a second location.
And their ultimate goal for the business? “To get Not Dogs to as many people up and down the country as possible […] and then internationally – why not?” McDermott and Yates hope to see everyone – meat-eaters, vegetarians and vegans alike – enjoying their menu: “It’s just delicious food, at the end of the day.”
Reflecting on their experience with the Start-Up Series, the duo say the application process was “really simple and not too daunting – it was a fun process more than anything.” Excited for what the future will bring, they assert: “Not only the financial help, but the expertise offered by Worth Capital is just invaluable to us.”
“[It] will absolutely help to guide us in the right direction.”
As for whether they will be returning to the festival scene in their purple-striped truck, the enterprising duo say: “We have a lot of things up our sleeve,” adding, “we still have the Not Dogs costumes!”