Paul Brown of BOL foods explains his journey from a director at Innocent to launching a fully plant-based food organization.
Who are you and what is your business all about?
I am Paul Brown, 42, founder and CEO of BOL foods. At BOL, we make it easy and delicious for everyone to eat more plants and do their bit for the planet. We make 100% plant-based meals and snacks that are completely natural, high in plant protein and contain up to 3 of your 5-a-day, as well as always being delicious and nutritious. BOL foods now has six product ranges: veg pots, power pots, posh noodles, power soups, dinner boxes, centrepieces & sharing bites and salad jars which are available nationwide.
What’s the story behind the business?
My story starts in the mountains. I tried and failed to become a professional athlete. I ended up in California where food and healthy food in particular overtook sport as my number one passion and became a career focus. I wrote my first business plan which was to start a healthy food business.
In 2001 I joined innocent. After humble beginnings in the grassy van where I started to learn about running a business with deep rooted values, beliefs and big vision, I ended up as director of their food division.
In 2015, following the acquisition by Coke in 2015, it soon became apparent that innocent would be refocusing its efforts on drinks. With some big ideas, I knew it was time for a change. With both Innocent and Coke’s blessing, I landed backing from Innocent founders (Jam Jar investments) and launched BOL on 26th April 2015.
The first couple of years were tough, as I think they are for most founders, although we celebrated a lot of successes – Winning new business of the year at the National Business Awards in 2016, showed that both consumers and businesses saw the value in what BOL was doing. Then it all changed…
As I got closer to the industrialisation of the food system, I saw what negative impacts the meat, fish and dairy industries were having on the environment and our health, and so in 2017 we turned the business entirely plant-based, effectively halving the size of our business overnight. It was a huge risk, but we were absolutely committed to doing the right thing by the planet.
By 2018, we became the first FMCG brand globally to strategically pivot and go 100% plant-based for ethical reasons, better for you and kinder to the planet.
This is our seventh year of trading. The pandemic was tough for us as an on-the-go food brand, but we chose to focus on future innovation and this summer were able to launch our a huge new range of meal and snacks to help us on our journey to becoming the UK’s number one plant-powered brand.
What is your point of difference?
At BOL, everything we make is 100% natural and ultimately made by Mother Nature. This point differentiates us from many of the vegan food and drink products available around the UK now who often use highly processed ingredients.
We know there are 20,000 edible plants on the planet, but around 70% of what we eat comes from three: corn, wheat, and rice. As a brand we’re on a mission to discover many more exciting plant-based ingredients and make it easy for people to enjoy eating a variety of delicious plant-based foods.
How do you spread the word about your business?
We make sure we get people hearing about BOL wherever they consume their media. This summer we launched our biggest ever new range into Tesco and Sainsbury’s and have accompanied that with a nationwide media campaign: “Because all protein comes from plants” which aims to debunk the myth that you can’t get enough protein from plants. We’ll be running this on poster sites across the country, through social media (organic and paid), and through press, and consumer word of mouth. We also have tens of thousands of BOLievers that support us, and we talk to them regularly in lots of different ways whether that’s on our social media channels, on our blog, or at BOL events.
How has business been during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Covid-19 has had a damaging effect on many businesses not just ours. Covid-19 effectively halved the size of our business overnight, Q1 2020 was our biggest quarter ever and by mid-March our out of home business was almost entirely wiped out and our grocery channel hit by significantly reduced footfall.
We partnered with some excellent charities to ensure that our out-of-life products would go to good use and delivered more than 22,000 meals to critical workers and those in need (NHS, Age UK, London Ambulance Service).
While most companies were cutting innovation, we developed lots of new recipes, and we are really proud that despite the challenging circumstances, we have started the summer in more UK fridges than ever before and our Q1 2021 was the largest to date, enabling us to feed the UK 3m healthy plant-powered meals in the quarter.
What’s the hardest thing about running a business?
Starting up on your own is never easy. There’s nothing glamorous about it; it quickly becomes all-encompassing compared to a normal job. It becomes your life, not just your 9-5 job – and you’ve got to realise that most people working for you won’t feel the same pressure and passion that you do.
I quickly realised how I had to find the ‘yes’ in the ‘no’. When I came up against retailers, suppliers, or manufacturers saying something wasn’t possible, I wasn’t prepared to compromise on what I knew would be best for BOL, and so I had to find alternative ways that would convince them to take a chance on me (and luckily they’ve all paid off!) and I’m still working with many of the same suppliers who trusted me at the beginning.
What’s the best decision you’ve made so far?
Switching to 100% plant-based was a tough time for the brand and the team. We halved our business and I told the team to get their CV’s ready, just in case. After we dropped meat and dairy completely, much of our 2018 was spent in the kitchen developing new recipes and coming up with new ideas. At the end of the day, taste is the most important thing in what we do. All that said, as tricky a time as it was, obstacles are much easier to overcome when you know you’re doing right by the planet with the business decisions you’re making. As it was, we bounced back with triple digit growth in the same year. Going fully plant based is easily still the best decision we ever made.
What is one thing that would make running your business a lot easier?
The industrialisation of the food system, particularly in the Western world is having a hugely negative impact on both the planet and the health of many populations. If people were more educated on where their food comes from and the negative impacts of many highly processed options, then I believe society as a whole would benefit. In short therefore, increase the respect for good quality food and the impact our food choices have on people and planet everyday.
What’s next for your business?
We’ve just embarked on our biggest ever launch, introducing 14 new recipes into Tesco and Sainsbury’s nationwide, but we have so much more we want to do for the brand, and for the planet. We want to develop more recipes and more range options, as well as continuing to plant our BOL Forest – so far, we have planted 36,000 trees-a mix of oak, birch, sycamore, cherry, alder, and willow (currently at sapling stage!) and our goal is to deliver 100m+ portions of veg by the end of 2023.
In the next two years we plan to launch internationally and triple the amount of top talent working on the business.