It’s safe to say that there wasn’t much of a trend for healthy cereal bars back in 1997. A Mars Bar cost 30p, Sunny D was about to hit UK shelves - and let’s not talk about how cheap a Freddo was.
It doesn't sound like the perfect environment to launch a brand of premium fruit and nut bars - but that’s just what Eat Natural’s Praveen Vijn and Preet Grewal did. Armed with a ‘reconditioned cement mixer and an old oven’ they started producing handmade bars from their ‘makery’ in Halstead, Essex and used an industrial bandsaw to cut them.
Fast forward 21 years and Eat Natural is still based in Halstead, but has grown to have a ‘brand value’ of £80m, has posted an average year-on-year growth of 10-15% and employs 350 staff, producing 100 million bars a year.
Has it all been a piece of cake - or should we say yoghurt-coated coconut and apricot bar? MT spoke to co-founder Vijn to find out what it‘s like to grow a health food brand.
So why cereal bars?
We had a business that effectively acted as a laundrette for other people that were importing nuts, rice and pulses into the country. Other people brought their nuts in, we cleaned it for them and returned it in a sort of upgraded state.
I thought that it didn't make any sense - we were doing it for other people but there must be a way of adding value to it. So we thought let's just stick it all together. So we got some honey and sugar and put them all together to make a bar.
We didn't have any money to advertise, so we thought the simplest thing to do would be to keep the packaging clear so that people could see what they were eating and let the product do all the talking.
It all sounds rather easy. Has it been?
When we started, we thought that it was going to be easy, that we would launch it and Holland & Barrett would take it straight away. But, of course, none of that happened and we struggled for quite a long time.
We started going round to all of the independent shops, cafes and news agents. Again we thought we would sell our bars to them very easily, but it was hard to convince them. We would just leave our bars with them and hopefully they would sell. Thankfully when we came back a week later they had sold so we started to gather some small momentum.
In 1998 we went to an exhibition in Germany. We had very few visitors for four days, then finally on the very last day this big Dutch guy walked in. It turned out that he was from a Dutch health food company called De Tuinen (who at the time were owned by Albert Heijn one of the biggest retailers in Holland).
He gave us our first order which was about two palettes, which was a massive order for us. The total number of bars was around 7,000 bars. To start off with 80% of our business was exported and it was not until 2001 that Sainsbury's stocked our bars in the UK. Holland & Barrett came on board in 2003.
The business has grown since that time, but even now 25% of our bars are exported and that is growing pretty significantly.
Why did you struggle initially?
There was no competition at all. At that time there was no appetite for cereal bars, they were seen as something which was bird food, something that tasted like cardboard and no one had any appetite for something that 'tasted horrible'.
So we had to break a lot of preconceived ideas.
Did you anticipate that the healthy food market might take off?
To be honest we've never thought like this. We've never set five year objectives and we've never made a plan of what we've wanted to do. We've never had any ambitions to change the world or change people's perceptions of things, all I wanted to do was to provide an alternative that does work for consumers.
But I do feel that - along with some other brands at that time - we helped to shape what health means today. Now the health food market is so big across the UK and across Europe. I'm not saying that we started it, but I think we paved the way to show that health doesn't mean that there has to be a compromise.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
I think the biggest challenge we've faced is the challenge we are facing right now - we've never seen the level of competition that we're seeing.
We have a number of other brands that are coming into the category. We are one of the only independently owned businesses within the sector, so within that we are dealing with the likes of big multinationals who have a lot of money to throw at the business and a lot of resource.
So trying to keep your voice heard is increasingly difficult, but it keeps you alive at the same time. That really keeps you on your toes.
If you could go back to the beginning, what advice would you give your younger self?
I don't think there is anything that I would have done differently. I wouldn't have been able to do this all again now because it needed such a lot of energy and I don't think we'd be able to summon up that amount again.
So as a young person I actually wouldn't want to know what the future held. You want to keep the enthusiasm up all the time. Whatever you do you have to have a passion for it and you just have to be able to keep on driving yourself all the time.
I think you have to go through whatever you go through and you're going to make mistakes, we've been on a journey and we are where we are because of the mistakes that we've made along the way. You don't want to eliminate those mistakes because they are important mistakes to make.
A thing that I feel happy about is actually the fact that we are still here after 21 years. I think that is a really difficult thing to say in this environment now. We've been going for such a long time and that is something that I feel proud of.