Childhood friends Preet Grewal and Praveen Vijh are in buoyant mood as they welcome me to Eat Natural’s factory – or ‘makery’ as they affectionately call it – in Halstead, Essex. News has spread that sales of their snack bars have grown by 48 per cent this year, compared to the market’s 14.2 per cent, making theirs the fastest-growing cereal bars in the UK.
It’s a particularly sweet success when you consider that neither Grewal nor Vijh knew a thing about food manufacturing or cooking before making the bold move to set up the company back in 1997.
‘I think I made pancakes once when I was 11,’ jokes Grewal. ‘That said, from an early age I knew I wanted to run my own business, as did Praveen, although we didn’t think it would be in the food industry, especially since we both studied engineering at University!’
Selling the family silver
‘We do have business people in our families though,’ says Vijh, ‘and we did grow up in an entrepreneurial environment. Preet’s Dad had a clothing factory and from the age of nine onwards we used to pop down there and, when no one was looking, we’d “borrow” industrial-sized cotton reels and scraps of material. Then we’d cheekily sell them on to people in our street at little fêtes we organised in the back garden! We got into trouble of course, but it kept us occupied and taught us a thing or two about being enterprising.’
It can often pay to be foolish
After earning degrees from Brunel and Nottingham respectively, Vijh and Grewal travelled around Australia in a beaten-up VW van enjoying the outdoors and getting used to a healthy lifestyle. On returning to the UK, they soon came to the conclusion that none of the supposedly healthy products in the convenience food market were any good. ‘Frankly, the cereal bars around in the late 90s were virtually sawdust!’ Grewal recalls.
‘So in a moment of madness, we decided to see if we could produce something better ourselves using the ingredients we had at home. That’s how Eat Natural was created – by two disgruntled consumers!
‘We were very ambitious and, looking back, maybe a little bit foolish – there we were, grown men, scrabbling around in a kitchen trying to make snack bars from scratch,’ he laughs, ‘but we were driven by a belief we could make something worth the effort.’
Fruits of hard labour
It was a gamble, but a measured one, and it certainly paid off. Grewal and Vijh distributed samples to local independent corner shops and health food stores, and they soon sold out. This gave the pair the impetus to set up their very first professional kitchen with just £30,000 of their own money. The retail orders kept rolling in and a major coup was securing an overseas contract with Dutch supermarket group Albert Heijn, resulting in Eat Natural quickly outgrowing its first facility – and four others since.
‘We launched at the right time,’ Grewal says, ‘just as a trend for premium-priced products had started. More and more consumers were wanting high-quality, premium foods and were willing to pay extra for them.’
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The company now produces between 70,000 and 100,000 bars every day as well as its own breakfast cereal, and supplies some of the biggest retail outlets in the UK. The likes of Tesco, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Holland & Barrett stock their wares, and they also distribute to 13 countries worldwide.
Home-made products, home-spun principles
Quality ingredients and home cooking are at the heart of Eat Natural’s operation. The company shies away from mass-production (even though total machine automation would be a cheaper alternative), preferring instead to be true to the company’s roots by making virtually handmade bars on a large scale. As I witnessed for myself on a tour of the production floor, many skilled employees and very few industrial machines are used to turn whole nuts, seeds, dried fruit and other raw ingredients into Eat Natural products.
‘In the very first bars we ever made, all the ingredients except for the glucose were from our kitchen cupboards or could easily be bought,’ says Vijh, ‘and we’ve stuck to that ethos ever since. Other products in the market use fillers, flavourings and preservatives, but as a matter of principle we don’t use any artificial stuff. And our ingredients are sourced from growers with whom we hope to build long-term relationships.’
Grewal adds, ‘An old friend of ours, Bill Porter, was running a dried fruit and nut importing business and, like us, he felt that the market was crying out for snack bars made with purely natural ingredients. He now co-owns Eat Natural and his 150-year-old firm is our sister company.’
Seeds of success
Food manufacturing seems a far cry from their training as engineers, but Vijh and Grewal say that science has played its part. ‘It’s been a steep learning curve because in food production there’s obviously a certain amount of trial and error,’ says Vijh. ‘For example, the hardest part was getting the combination of glucose and honey right because it’s so temperature dependent – it was a delicate science we had to perfect.
‘We also experimented with different combinations of ingredients, and there have been some recipes that worked and some that definitely didn’t! Once we hit on the ones we liked, it took even more work to tailor the recipes so they could be replicated and produced by hand on a large scale.’
Hearing Grewal and Vijh be so open and matter-of-fact about their achievements, it’s easy to forget how much of a risk they took launching into such a competitive market.
‘It’s never really felt like taking a risk because we’ve always followed our instincts,’ says Grewal. ‘Ultimately, if we didn’t believe in it wholeheartedly, we wouldn’t have done it.
‘It has been daunting,’ he admits, ‘to go head-to-head with Kelloggs, Jordans and the other big boys in the market, who have huge marketing budgets and loads of cash to spend on research and development and so on. But our company culture and approach to the sector differs from our competitors and that’s one of our greatest advantages, as we’re small enough to be flexible and responsive to what the market demands. In fact, there’s very little that we do that’s in the same vein as our competitors, and our sales figures now speak for themselves.
‘The thing we find most interesting about the success of our bars is that we’ve not needed aggressive marketing or expensive advertising campaigns to get where we are now,’ remarks Vijh. ‘And, in many ways, the product dictates decisions about what to do next, as each step just feels a logical progression. I really feel it has led the way in the company’s growth.’
Grewal adds, ‘One of our favourite sayings is that it’s horses that win races and jockeys that lose them. With Eat Natural, the product is definitely the horse winning the race, and it’s our responsibility to just ride along and try not to screw things up!’