For most small up and coming business owners, the chance to team up with a nationwide chain would be a dream come true. Sam Pearson is not one of these people. Pearson, owner of the independent business Vegan Sandwich Co, declined an offer to work with one of the biggest coffee shop chains in Ireland, Insomnia.

The coffee chain has 150 shops, and partnerships with Spar, Eurospar, Eason, Fresh, Meadows & Byrne, An Post, Heatons, Debenhams and Penneys. They also operate in the UK as well as Ireland. Yet, Pearson turned it all down.

A deal could have been transformative for his balance sheet and his business. So why did Pearson opt to say no?

“I’m always conscious of how I work and why I make certain decisions. That is how I reached this point with Insomnia,” says Pearson. 

Business Columnist for The Currency, Rena Maycock, wrote about the valuable skill of being able to sell. Yet, it is also important to know when not to sell. This is the situation Pearson found himself in. 

To understand why Pearson declined the offer tabled by Insomnia, it is important to look at how the proposed deal came about in the first place. 

The origins of the Vegan Sandwich Co.

Sam Pearson is an unlikely vegan. He grew up in north Tipperary. His father is the long-standing principal of Gurteen Agricultural College, based close to where his home is, and his sister is an organic sheep farmer.

Although he used to eat meat, he is now a vegan for three years. During his time as a meat-eater, he says that his childhood provided him with a connection with food and the knowledge of where it comes from. This led to him being conscious when buying or eating meat and he always tried to make sure it was locally sourced and the origins of the animal killed could be easily traced. Ultimately for Pearson, he realised the welfare of animals is paramount to him and became vegan.

Pearson said pursuing a career in something to do with food was not commonly spoken about in his secondary school. Instead, he chose to study multimedia at Dublin City University. After graduating, he worked in the communications sector. However, Pearson had a love for food and cooking and pursued it as a hobby. He even travelled around South East Asia by himself learning about food by taking various cooking classes.

Around the time he made the decision to have an animal product-free diet, he started a blog and began to experiment and create different vegan dishes. He also started an Instagram to showcase his dishes called (Referring to the Dr Seuss classic Green Eggs and Ham). Before long, he was creating vegan Christmas dinners for his friends and family.

In January 2019, Pearson committed to the new year resolution that he was going to open his own business and that it would be centred around food. He contacted the Local Enterprise Office (LEO) in Dublin and began a Start Your Own Business course in January 2019. He met with other aspiring entrepreneurs two evenings a week in Buswell’s Hotel. These sessions were led by business lecturer and founder of the management consulting firm Sherpha, Thomas Cullen.

After completing this course, Pearson was even more fired up to start a vegan food business, but realised he needed to focus on what that business would look like and what it would sell. As veganism and vegetarianism became growing trends, he knew he had to come up with something unique.

He looked to what he used to eat before going vegan such as chicken fillet rolls, ham and cheese sandwiches and McDonald’s McMuffins. He then began to think about the current vegan/vegetarian-friendly choice of sandwiches on offer. Falafel and chickpeas are usually the consumer’s only choices.

Pearson asked himself if he could build a business around vegan sandwiches? He was going to try.

Although it was a dark, wet and dreary day in June, Stoneybatter Festival proved to be a massive success for Pearson.

Shortly after Start Your Own Business ended, he began the Food Starter course. This is another initiative by LEO and was facilitated by Bord Bia. This was run by former Superquinn board member and former director of purchasing company Aontas, James Burke, and business adviser Yvonne Sweeney. While Pearson was experimenting and learning, he continued his day job working in communications.

He continued to pursue his ambition on the sidelines and created a second Instagram account called Vegan Sandwich Co. which became the main account for his business. Here, he posted pictures of his homemade sourdough batches, vegan bacon and sausage, muffins and his own vegan poached eggs.

Pearson also started making fried seitan (a food substance made from wheat gluten and water) which is often referred to as ‘wheat meat’ because of its similar texture to meat. It is increasingly becoming a popular vegan protein source. He used the seitan to create his fully homemade vegan chicken fillet roll, a re-imagining of one of Ireland’s favourite sandwiches.

He began to attract media attention and reports were published about him on and later on RTÉ. Now with some momentum behind him, Pearson realised he needed a bigger space to create larger amounts of food, within the standards of the Environmental Health Officer, for his business to succeed.

After sending several emails enquiring if there was any commercial kitchen he could use, Susan Richardson in Spade Enterprise Centre (a space designated to helping people set up their own businesses) replied and asked to see his business plan.

Pearson then got back in touch with LEO and they put him in contact with one of their mentors, James Barrett. He outlined that one of Pearson’s downfalls was his lack of knowledge around financing a business and gave him advice on how to do so. This helped shape the business plan Pearson would later pitch to Richardson.

Pearson secured a place in Spade and his kitchen was next to fellow vegan food creator Lauren Redmond, who is the woman behind the completely vegan-friendly bakery Buttercream Dream. The pair knew each other before this but working side by side was beneficial for Pearson as she already had built up vast knowledge on how to run a vegan food business.

Pearson now had a large space to create a large quantity of vegan food. Yet, he was still to actually sell his first sandwich. He set his sights on the Stoneybatter Festival as his first gig.

He decided to sell one sandwich at his first official event – his vegan chicken fillet roll, which he branded as a “vegan chick*n fillet roll”. Although it was a dark, wet and dreary day in June, Stoneybatter Festival proved to be a massive success for Pearson. Before it ended, he was completely sold out.

From then on, he wanted to sell his sandwiches on a regular basis. He spoke with Redmond and she mentioned the Honest2Goodness market in Glasnevin, where she sells her vegan baked goods.

Pearson went to scope out the market before making his pitch and saw that there was a complete lack of savoury vegan food on offer. He arranged to meet with Bríd Carter, the manager of Honest2Goodness, with a lunchbox filled with his own vegan sandwiches. Carter saw that there was a true gap in the market for his product and has offered him a spot to sell his sandwiches every Saturday since July 2019.

He later secured a space to sell sandwiches at Twilight Market at Honest2Goodness on Thursdays. Here, he sells his famous chick*n fillet rolls, and on Saturday he sells his breakfast muffins. From working at the market, Pearson met the bakers behind organic bakery Tartine and decided to source his sourdough bread from them to save time baking.

After a short while, he decided it was time to leave his communications job in Version 1 and go full time with Vegan Sandwich Co in September 2019. The business went from strength to strength. He had a stall at Electric Picnic in the eco-campsite and the vegan festival Vegfest. He also provided his vegan products to two different businesses – Small Changes café in Kilmainham and The Carrot’s Tail restaurant in Rathmines.

“I always wanted to be mindful of my brand and where it’s going, and not to kind of rush into anything too quickly. I could easily go down the wrong path.”

Sam Pearson

Small Changes and The Carrot’s Tail are both vegan and zero-waste establishments. This collaboration is important for Pearson’s business as although he’s “very much vegan for animals” he is also passionate about the environment.

“I provide my products in reusable boxes, I collect those boxes the next time I deliver,” says Pearson about his collaboration with these establishments.

Within just a few months of creating Vegan Sandwich Co, his small business was starting to get a lot of attention. He was a guest on Ireland AM and Dublin City FM’s show Sunday Edition.

However, it was last October when Pearson received the most recognition to date for his “vegan chick*n fillet roll”. Not because he had all of a sudden grown his business substantially but because he became entangled in a dispute with Insomnia over the branding of its own “vegan chick*n fillet roll”.

Pearson vs Insomnia in the battle of the asterisk

Late in October, Insomnia introduced a new product into their shop as part of the guest chef range. It was branded The Vegan Chick*n Fillet Roll. 

The product got a lot of social media traction but the majority of it was comments on the similarity between the branding of Insomnia’s sandwich and Pearson’s product.

There were write-ups about the so-called ‘copycat’ sandwich in The Irish Times, Business Post (formerly The Sunday Business Post), on the BBC and more.

A tweet from the Vegan Sandwich Co. after Insomnia launched their own version of the sandwich. Photo: Twitter.

After receiving some backlash towards the Insomnia vegan sandwich, the company got in contact with Pearson. Pearson said this was a positive conversation around creating a statement which would acknowledge Pearson’s business. Then, people from Insomnia suggested a meeting in person with Pearson and the idea of collaboration was tabled.

“I did push for an apology for quite a bit. It wasn’t looking like it was going to happen and then we got into discussions about potential collaborations, so I just kind of parked that,” says Pearson.

Pearson accepted this chance to collaborate as a good outcome from the situation. However, he had some conditions. He wanted Insomnia to change the name of its Vegan Chick*n Fillet roll, a public acknowledgement of him and his business from Insomnia, and some sort of agreement that they would work together in the future.

“I had seen how they dealt with it publicly and that’s what was frustrating for me. It didn’t seem like they even acknowledged that I existed. At the time that was the biggest thing for me,” says Pearson.

He adds that although Insomnia may have inadvertently labelled their product the exact same way as Pearson labelled his chicken fillet roll, the consequences did have the potential to harm his business.

“It would have just blown over if they just acknowledged me,” he says.

The in-person conversation happened on October 29, 2019 shortly after the release of the Insomnia product.

This discussion ended in a stalemate for both parties involved as Pearson had conditions he was not prepared to budge on, and Insomnia was not prepared to meet those terms.

Insomnia was contacted for comment but did not respond.

Declining the deal

The deal fell through for the reason most do – the cost of it. Pearson was not prepared to go below the price he offered for a collaboration and Insomnia was not prepared to meet it.

“I went in with a proposal that was bells and whistles and it was for a fee that I felt was appropriate,” says Pearson.

They were talking about creating a quantity of varied sandwiches as part of Insomnia’s guest chef range. Pearson said he wanted to create something he was proud of and something that he would be happy to put his name on. The fee he came to in the end was what he believed would make this possible.

Pearson did reduce the fee but the number that Insomnia was willing to agree on was not something that Pearson was interested in. Neither party could meet in the middle.

Regardless of the outcome, Pearson once believed the finance side of business was his weakest area. Through developing these skills, he became more confident and was able to haggle with one of the biggest chains in the country and get clarity on what he believes to be best for his business.

Pearson said that Insomnia would have been more of a promotional opportunity rather than a commercial opportunity. He added that from his view, he thought Insomnia was more interested in getting his name out to the public rather than developing his business. This didn’t make sense for Pearson.

“I appreciate the sentiment,” said Pearson who added that he does see the value in promotion, but his main focus is on expansion rather than exposure.

Pearson said that the best way to grow a small business is to get in front of customers and sell products at markets and events. Pearson says if he took the deal with Insomnia, he would have made the same kind of money he would have made at one of his events. Pearson was not willing to sacrifice face-to-face time with customers to work on something else for the same financial gain.

“I can’t prioritise that over doing another event. The best way for me to further my business is to get in front of people,” says Pearson.

Current sales

Pearson makes about the same amount of money at both the Thursday and Saturday Honest2Goodness markets. He sells approximately 150 sandwiches a week.

“My regular market is what pays the bills,” says Pearson.

He does say however that when he sells his products at events like VegFest he sells significantly more.

“I always wanted to be mindful of my brand and where it’s going and not to kind of rush into anything too quickly. I could easily go down the wrong path,” says Pearson about declining the deal.

Pearson’s vegan turkey which he sold ahead of Christmas. Photo: Twitter.

Pearson continues to sell his sandwiches at the two markets and is now selling some of his “wheat-meat” to customers.

Food Academy

Since starting his company a year ago and turning down Insomnia, Pearson has been looking to develop the business further by recently submitting his pitch for the SuperValu Food Academy with the aim of selling his products in their stores. This is another initiative by LEO. Pearson has also entered into various partnerships, which he remains quiet about for now.

He expects that his retail packs of bac*n and chick*n pieces will be on shop shelves by June of this year.