Changing the world one beer at a time: an interview with Rob Wilson from ToastAle

By Louise Graham

We interviewed Rob, the CEO, or “Chief Toaster”, at ToastAle about their innovative product, social enterprise and marketing strategy. When we chatted to Toast they were talking about the work they were doing to launch their Crowdfunding campaign. Since then, they have launched their campaign and within just two weeks hit their Crowdfunding target! The campaign is still active for another ten days so make sure to check it out and show your support.

Tell us about ToastAle and why it’s “the best thing since sliced bread”

In a nutshell, we’re brewing an awesome beer from surplus fresh bread that would otherwise go to waste.

There are 4 main reasons why it’s “the best thing since…..!”

First, it’s a great beer regardless!

Second, we’re tackling bread waste directly. There is the equivalent of a slice of bread in every single bottle of Toast. We’re hoping to tackle bread waste by the tonne, to brew at least 100 tonnes of bread in our first three years.

Third, 44% of the bread in the UK is never consumed. We’re trying to raise awareness of food waste, to promote conversation among beer drinkers who might not ordinarily talk about the issue.

And lastly, all of our profits go to an amazing food waste charity — Feedback

Can you tell us a bit more about the company, the founders of Toast Ale, and how you work together?

Our founder is Tristram Stuart. He is the initial force behind Toast and also the founder of Feedback. Tristram is an author and global food waste campaigner, and actually pioneered the whole concept of fighting food waste. He’s trying to tackle food waste at a systemic level with supermarkets, government, and retail in general towards consumer behavior change.

He and I were chatting about 18 months ago and I loved the concept so got involved straight away as an advisor and recently as full time Chief Toaster. We’ve been operating now for about a year and I work alongside two other amazing Toasters, Julie and Louisa, who have been with Toast since the beginning and lead on sales, operations, marketing and finance. We’re also lucky to receive support from some of the Feedback team and several volunteers over the first year. It’s taken an incredible team effort to get us to where we are today.

We’ve brewed and sold 70,000 bottles so far and have had some amazing press coverage. We’ve also won some awards for our beer (International Beer Challenge — Most Innovative Concept 2016).

We also have a small team (Madi and Devin) in New York helping us to launch Toast USA in the near future — watch this space!

When did the light bulb moment come?

Brewing with bread has been happening for millennia. A lot of the origins of beer have come from fermenting bread.

But this particular idea came from Tristram. He was having a beer with the Brussels Beer Project where they had surplus bread as part of the ingredients of their Babylone beer.

Tristram had a light bulb moment that we could build a global beer brand using surplus fresh bread, and could tackle food waste, raise awareness about food waste and make money for the awesome food waste charity Feedback all at the same time.

How did you begin creating the brand?

The name came about through some creative brainstorming with the team at Feedback. We’ve also had fantastic supporters. A few agencies have helped us on a pro-bono basis to get PR and do branding design. We’ve been really fortunate to have support.

Do you think the social focus of the brand helped when it came to asking for support?

I think the idea has captured people’s imagination, and they’ve wanted us to help build a brand and a business.

Now we are at the exciting crossroads of scaling up the brand. We plan to have three beers in our range, including the Pale Ale (already in distribution), and a new Craft Lager and Session IPA.

We are also growing internationally through both franchising and setting up our own operations.

So we are at a really exciting juncture. These developments present whole new opportunities and challenges.

We’ll not just be a UK brand but a global beer brand. We want to be taken very seriously as a reputable beer company.

In terms of marketing: what’s worked and what hasn’t?

We’ve had some great press and PR to date. We have featured on most national TV channels, many Radio stations and nearly all major newspapers. We have also focused on social media. Twitter has been our main focus to date and we have quickly built a following of thousands. Next we want to focus more on Facebook and Instagram.

Facebook seems a really good route to market. We have an engaged community on Facebook and want to expand it. We’re also partnering with a fridge company called Grundig to do some #coldtoast promos over the summer months.

Another key thing for us is our new Crowdfunding campaign (live now), which has Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in the video. The great thing about Crowdfunding though is that it’s not just about funds (we need to raise money for our two new beers), but it also brings a broader awareness and builds a fan base where the community is committed, engaged and onboard.

What’s your background Rob?

I’ve had an extensive background in social enterprises over the years.

I was working at Ashoka, a global organisation that identifies and invests in social entrepreneurs. I’ve also started education/tech organisations with a social enterprise focus. I also wrote a book about social entrepreneurs in Africa.

I met Tristram through Ashoka. I’d seen thousands of ideas with my Ashoka hat on over the past 5 years but nothing had captured my attention like this: a social enterprise with such a clear message and concept which is win-win-win.

Now I work at ToastAle full time as the CEO, or ‘Chief Toaster’.

Anything you’d like to add about why?

Food waste is by far and away one of the biggest issues of our age. One third of the food in the world is never consumed. If you look at the entire food supply chain it is the biggest contributor to climate change so any inefficiencies in the system will lead to a catastrophic impact.

It is something we can all relate to as we all eat and intuitively we don’t want to see food wasted.

ToastAle is a straightforward and clever solution that people can identify with. People love bread and people love beer and our solution really is win-win-win.

It’s a solution to such a fundamental problem of our time, and I think it’s important to tackle with some urgency.

You mentioned in your previous role you’d been working with a number of social enterprises and that ToastAle was the one that triggered you enough and excited you enough to say ok, this is the one I want to get involved with. What excited you most about the idea?

It was the potential. That’s what excites me the most… that we have the opportunity to truly build a brilliant business that will achieve so many positives. A business that has social and environmental values at its core is a wonderful opportunity.

What challenges did you face starting up? How did you go about getting foot in the door?

At the very outset, I was involved largely in an advisory capacity rather than dealing with the hands on day to day challenges that my colleagues Louisa and Julie were leading the way on. They had to overcome some major logistical and time-bound challenges to get Toast to market.

We worked through the 3–4 degrees of separation. We asked favours of friends in creative industries and sifted through our LinkedIn networks.

When you are running a beer company it’s amazing what people will do if you offer a few free beers!

We’ve had our challenges but we now feel we have proven our concept and had some incredible PR so we’re ready to grow the social enterprise further. Our limited capacity to date has been one major challenge I would say. We have had logistical challenges such as sourcing the surplus fresh bread and finding the best breweries to partner with. I’ve come on board to help lead on our longer term strategic ambition to grow Toast into an even more successful social business that produces great beer and helps to eliminate food waste, one beer at a time.

What are you most excited about?

It feels like our first year has been a Proof of Concept and Year 2 is about building on the success so far. Developing a range of beers (recipe development) for the UK market is exciting. Setting up in the US is also really exciting.

What has been your biggest hurdle?

I’d say trying to do so much at the same time. Our ambition is a hurdle.

It’s not just a business challenge as there is an urgent environmental challenge at stake. We feel an obligation to build this business as promptly as we can.

Expanding to new markets is also challenging. There are different regulations in each state in the US and multiple markets so it’s a steep learning curve. But we are nearly there and are ready to get brewing around spring.

You mentioned the word ambition. What is in your 3-year plan?

Number one is to establish ourselves in the UK: to grow the business here, and have the delicious beer as widely available to as many consumers as possible. At moment we are a little London and South East centric, however we are quickly building a national presence through the UK and hopefully partner with some larger retail brands very soon so that we are available to everyone.

Internationally we are hoping to franchise to a number of markets. We have brewed our first Toast beer in Iceland recently, through a partnership with a local food waste campaigner and organisation. They saw it as a great opportunity to support their social mission as well. We want to work through a global franchise model to set up Toast operations internationally and support many local food waste organisations all over the world. We want to start having impact wherever food waste is an issue, which unfortunately is everywhere.

About Louise Graham:

London-based (for now) Co-Founder of The Think Collective. A global network of problem solvers helping startups and positive impact brands solve their marketing problems in effective and imaginative ways.