It might seem a little strange that Jamie Keeble, co-founder of British gourmet sausage brand Heck, can see a future where the majority of the company’s products are vegan and vegetarian.
But this ambition – which he hopes to bring to fruition in the next five to 10 years – comes after Heck launched four vegetarian and vegan sausages into Asda (£3 per pack of six), with two from the range also set to hit Sainsbury’s in mid-October.
The new additions are all made from recognisable plant-based ingredients, which Keeble tells Food Spark was an important part of the development.
Among the new SKUs are Sweet Fusion, a combination of sweet potato, sticky rice and a Thai pesto sauce; The Beet Goes On, full of beetroot, carrot, chilli and horseradish; Super Greens, stuffed with spinach, kale, ginger and a bit of chilli, and the Bollywood Bangers: cauliflower bhaji-style sausages.
“The reason we chose these flavours, rather than your typical Quorn-based products, was we wanted to use real ingredients that people understood and could relate to,” explains Keeble. “It also gives us a bit of difference in that category as well, which is very much Quorn and Linda McCartney dominated, so that’s the reason we went down the plant protein route.
“It was also good for the range to have different flavours. I think with the Indian ones, onion bhaji is quite a popular flavour in vegetarian at the moment, so we thought why not make it a sausage as well? Sweet Fusion is probably the best tasting out of the lot. Then The Beet Goes On has the best texture – it’s very earthy.”
Over the past 12 months, Heck has also rolled out a range of vegan meatballs, but it’s a format the company is looking to move away from, according to Keeble.
“We had the balls in Waitrose and they were selling pretty well, but in a sausage format they will sell better. Now we are trying to swap all our vegetation balls into sausages, as it’s a more popular format and people buy more,” he says.
“People relate to sausages better – the balls are a little bit trickier to cook. Meatballs you have to keep on turning them and have to watch them carefully, whereas sausages are a bit more robust – you burn one side of them and they will still taste pretty good.”
Heck’s latest range of plant-based sausages have been in development for four years, due to a combination cooking and textural challenges.
“The real challenge was making a good sausage that you could literally chuck on the barbecue – that was the product test really. If it barbecues well then we have done the right thing here,” says Keeble. “Then creating that meaty texture, like a sausage, rather than something that was either too soft or too hard. It was getting that balance.”
On a roll
While the meaty texture was important for the sausages, Keeble doesn’t see Heck heading down the bleeding burger route – something Quorn is already developing – as it wants to stand out from its competitors.
However, burgers are a big target for the next round of Heck product development – both vegetarian and vegan, as well as meat.
An Italian-style burger with sundried tomatoes, garlic and basil is being investigated, along with other flavours, as Keeble says that the vegan and vegetarian burger category is “very orange” at the moment – and no, that’s not a reference to sweet potato.
“It’s very Quorn dominated at the moment. Don’t get me wrong, they are fantastic brand and have done really well for the category, but I think we can offer something a little bit different with a bit more flavour and brighten up the category as well. Our packaging is nearly every colour of the rainbow, so we really stand out on shelf and we represent something different with a bit more personality,” he says.
Chicken could also really invigorate the burger category, according to Keeble.
“We want to get our chicken burger business booming. Currently, we have one listing in Waitrose with two of our flavours, which is selling really well, but the challenge over the next 12 months is to get another big supermarket on board, either Tesco or Sainsbury’s, to really back them and bring new things into the category.
“If you go down the burger category in a supermarket, it’s very beef dominated, whereas a chicken burger would bring in new shoppers to category.”
From ready meals to meat eaters
Heck made its name with sausages, but Keeble isn’t afraid of broadening out the brand’s offering. A vegetarian and vegan ready meal range is also on the radar, as well as veggie-based products for fast-food chains. The company is even developing a bone broth to appeal to those dieting or detoxing.
While Heck is vigorously attempting to carve out a piece of the vegan pie, Keeble is adamant that the company won’t forget about its loyal carnivore customers.
“Chicken especially we have a huge following. We were one of first premium brands to launch a chicken-based sausage, so we are seeing lots of growth there with the high-protein and low-fat diets – that’s something here to stay as well,” he says. “You can’t forget your traditional pork sausage shoppers as well, who love a good ol’ bangers and mash. We are always trying to develop new flavours there as well.”