Focus: Raising the bar for healthier snack production
Started by two childhood friends, Eat Natural has become a multimillion business recently acquired by Ferrero, as Neill Barston discovers, speaking to company co-founder Praveen Vijh
As the founders of Eat Natural, Praveen and Preet explain, their journey as friends started way back in the 1970s, as kids out cycling and having fun playing Dungeons and Dragons board games. After the pair set out on a classic road trip adventure in Australia together in the 90s, they cooked up an idea of creating a series of healthy products that would stand out from the crowd. Inspired by their travels, their fledgeling bars devised from dates and walnuts were a simple, yet wholesome combination that quickly caught on.
They’ve been continuing to enjoy playing their part in the drive for more natural product ranges ever since. Today, the business employs over 300 people at its Halstead site, exporting to over two dozen countries, recording turnover of around £35 million in 2019. The company is ever-keen to expand its offerings to a growing army of converts to the brand, across its fruit-enhanced cereal bars, which include dark chocolate, vegan and protein-enriched options catering for a broad range of tastes and dietary requirements.
As Praveen Vijh reflects, its recent history has proved immensely memorable indeed, with TV cameras rolling into their UK-based production facilities in Essex last summer for Gregg Wallace’s Inside the Factory (see our exclusive video interview here). This was swiftly followed by the company being acquired by none other than Ferrero, marking a major milestone in its growth. While he admits the pandemic remains an ongoing headache in terms of logistics and direct impact on the company’s operations, it is especially mindful of delivering employee welfare and support.
Though he acknowledges the past 18 months has been a tough spell for the ‘out-of-home’ consumption market impacted amid successive lockdowns, he says they’re continually adapting practices in response to evolving conditions within the market. “We’ve managed to get a balance. While turnover in our bars reduced a little bit in the past year with people not being out so much, our breakfast cereals business increased.
So, while there had been some decline, we’ve seen that there’s quite a significant uplift again as we seem to be coming through the worst of the pandemic,” notes Praveen, who enthuses that he’s optimistic that consumer perception of its brand as offering a healthier choice of snack will work in its favour amid a wider boom in wellbeing food offerings.
New business chapter
Reflecting on the company’s development, he says despite the challenging backdrop it’s facing, there have been some notable achievements over quarter of a century. As Essex-based Praveen describes, there’s a buzz within the business surrounding Ferrero’s acquisition of the venture, which the company’s founder firmly believes will herald a positive future. “Becoming part of Ferrero is the most important thing we could have done for the business. It’s been run independently for 25 years, so it was important for the longevity of the company with the new rules that are coming in place for HFSS (high fat salt and sugar) foods, as well as significantly increased competition that we’re now facing, and amount investment needed in its manufacturing and its future.
“So as founders, we had taken it to a place as far as we could, and needed someone with that additional reach, the belief in the business as well as honesty and integrity to run the company in the way that it had always been run, but on a bigger scale, and Ferrero is doing a fantastic job,” he says of the company’s new management, which now makes it part of a major corporate business with a global annual turnover of more than €12 billion in 2020. Casting his mind back on their early venture, he says there were few products around catering to more health-minded consumers in the late 90s, which enabled the company to gain its foothold.
But through a close dedication to its founding healthy recipes and a strong spirit of positivity, doing business in an ethical and responsible manner is something they’re striving to maintain.
Among its key sustainability gains is a 30% reduction in volume of plastic in its wrappers over the past five years, as well as a further move to explore plant-based alternatives to honey for its vegan series. As Praveen observes, there’s no such thing as a typical day, which lends him a sense of excitement not knowing quite what will greet each new dawn with the firm.
“Conditions continue to be challenging, but we have stringent controls on the manufacturing floor. We have a lot of people who are dedicated to ensuring that the protocols that have been set are fulfilled, and looking after the welfare of all of our staff. “Things are still difficult in that we have a lot of employees who are getting ‘pinged’ and forced to isolate, whether they are suffering with coronavirus or not,” remarks the entrepreneur reflectively.
On the flipside, he says that one of the strongest advantages of joining with a large business such as Ferrero is in terms of its recruitment and resources, which offer a key template for providing employees with an environment that motivates them and offers a key sense of structure and personal development. “It’s been a very good journey so far – our entire team has created a product that we feel resonates with what’s happening now, as everyone buys into the concept, the dream of what Eat Natural is and could be, and what we are trying to do in the market in creating a healthier eating product that is actually very affordable now,” adds the company co-founder, who says he’s looking forward to much more settled times ahead for the business