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Julian Hearn: taking the hassle out of lunch

Julian Hearn developed Huel as a "functional" food to replace meals for the time-poor.

“The food industry is full of people trying to convince you their product tastes delicious, regardless of what your taste buds might say. Julian Hearn isn’t one of them,” says Alex Lawson in the Evening Standard. “Hueligans” extol the virtues of Hearn’s powdered food with evangelical zeal, even while mostly agreeing that it doesn’t taste that great. The product, Huel, is a “complete meal” designed on a spreadsheet to meet the body’s energy and nutritional needs to replace breakfast or lunch for the time-poor. 

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You might think that its flagship product – a powder mixed with water that contains flaxseed, oats, sunflower, coconut, peas, rice and a vitamin blend – risks taking the joy out of eating. But Hearn thinks there’s a big difference between “functional” food and “entertainment” food. The powder is “never going to compete with a Sunday roast or a Saturday night meal out”, he admits. “We have never said people should eat Huel for every meal, but when it comes to competing with cereal or toast at breakfast or a sandwich at lunchtime, we think it goes head to head.” Plenty of people agree with him, says Lawson: sales are growing at 50% each year, hitting £60m in 2019. Hearn expects to make a profit this year. 

The Bournemouth university graduate’s first entrepreneurial venture was an affiliate marketing company hosting vouchers online, Mash Up Media. He formed the group, including Promotionalcodes.co.uk, in 2008, and sold to America’s Internet Brands in 2011. He could have retired at that point, aged 40, he says, but he decided to make a foray into the health industry instead, with Bodyhack, a fitness specialist that offered bespoke diet plans. Consumers found that too complex, so he teamed up with nutrition specialist and Huel co-founder James Collier. 

Hearn has had informal approaches from large food brands and took a minority investment in 2018 from venture-capital firm Highland Europe, which valued Huel at £220m, but there are no plans to sell. Hearn remains majority shareholder. He has hired chief executive James McMaster to take over the running of the business so he can return to his genuine passion, marketing. 

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