How a cement mixer churned out £24m

With all the media attention given to the issue, it's hard to remember that just 10 years ago healthy eating was of little interest to the UK public and it was hard to find a wholesome alternative to chocolate bars. Here's how Eat Natural co-founder Praveen Vijh exploited that gap in the market, with a little help from a cement mixer.

These days one can barely turn on the TV without seeing the likes of Jamie Oliver or Dr Gillian McKeith exhorting us to change our diets so it's hard to remember that healthy eating was once of little interest to the UK public. But as Eat Natural co-founder Praveen Vijh points out, just ten years ago there was "a real lack of things that were an alternative to chocolate bars". Spotting a gap in the market, Vijh, along with friends Preet Grewal and Bill Porter, believed they could "find something that was really good for you and just as indulgent as a chocolate bar".

Eat Natural: starting out

They started out in 1995, mixing dried fruit, nuts and honey in the mechanical engineers' tiny two-bed flat in Epping. Although the first product didn't look "anything like the bars today, the concept was right", Vijh says. So they quit their jobs, put £35,000 of their savings into the business, and spent the next year and a half buying the premises and machinery they would need. A makery' no bigger than Vijh's kitchen and a converted cement mixer turned out the first bars. But with no money for marketing, they pleaded with shopowners to stock the bars on their shelves, with the aim of creating a groundswell of interest. "They actually sold out, we were completely shocked by it. So were the shopkeepers they wouldn't buy it from us to sell on."

Despite this initial success, by late 1997, a year into the product's life, they were "close to giving up because we really weren't making the money to survive". It seemed they'd reached their nadir when, at a trade exhibition for chocolate makers in Germany, they found themselves in "possibly the cheapest stand situated opposite the gents toilets".

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Eat Natural: a lucky break

However, on the last day, "literally two hours before the exhibition was closed, this Dutch man walked up to the stand", explains Vijh, and asked, "how much are your bars"? Then he asked them to deliver ten pallets by the following week. "We said, Are you completely bonkers? Ten pallets? That's like two years of stock for us!'"

They finally agreed on two pallets and, within three weeks, Eat Natural bars were being sold through 70 outlets of Holland's largest health food chain, De Tuinen. Parent firm Albert Heijn, one of the world's largest retail chains, also took the product on and soon Holland accounted for more than 80% of Eat Natural's market. Small shops in the UK began to take the group more seriously and in 2000 they had their biggest break of all when Sainsbury's began stocking Eat Natural. Supermarkets across the UK followed suit, and Eat Natural now sells more than three million bars a month, generating a turnover of £24m.

Eat Natural: the secret of their success

Vijh attributes much of the company's success to its refusal to compromise on quality. Despite an enormous increase in production, Eat Natural bars are still made by hand in the firm's kitchens. "We design equipment around the process, as opposed to designing a product around the machinery."

And although it might mean a lot more work for the three founders and their staff of over 100, according to Vijh, it's still "the best fun we've ever had".

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.