A business born in Halstead with its heart in the right place, Eat Natural has wowed for two decades. Co-founder Praveen Vijh take us on a delicious trip down memory lane
Back in the day when your careers advisor asked you what you wanted to do when you grew up, it’s fair to say if there was a “Director of Deliciousness” on offer, many would have nodded enthusiastically. That’s the rather envious role held by Harriet Gregory at Eat Natural, but clearly the input of the business’ co-founder, Praveen Vijh, isn’t far away “I do eat through my stomach, so if it doesn’t taste nice, then I am not interested,” he says. “Harriet is a fantastic source of ingredients and insight into flavour combinations that not only taste great, but also work on a large scale when you go into full production mode.”
It’s a snapshot of how the Halstead-based company has grown since its very modest beginnings back in 1999. “It was just me and Preet [Grewal, his co-founder] running the show,” Vijh looks back. “We knocked on a lot of doors, worked the trade fairs, sent lots of sample bars out, did a lot of negotiating – and it paid off. We got a lucky listing at Tesco, in the ‘free from’ aisle, and the rest is history.
“We were both well aware that confectionary is a huge category,” he says. “We love our snacks in the UK and we wanted to create something that tasted incredible, but was good for you too.” Their first creation? “The result was a simple Brazil & sultana bar, made with nuts and puffed wheat, and a little bit of honey to bind it – and it was naturally gluten free too.”
Some 22 years later and Eat Natural now offer a range of combinations in their bars – from dark chocolate and sea salt through to the Simply Vegan peanuts, coconut and chocolate – as well as a host of cereals too, all conjured up in their Makery in Halstead. “We have been based here since day one,” Vijh says proudly. “We have gone from one factory to now having 15 buildings across the whole estate. We employ around 200 people from Halstead and the surrounding towns and villages.
“We operate a 24-hour factory,” he continues, “and we make around two million bars a week, so there’s always lots going on. The marketing team are always running around sending products our or brainstorming ideas, and the technical team – often together with Harriet – are in and out of meetings talking about new product development, packaging changes and timelines. We all work really hard, but it is truly a lovely place to work with a gorgeous big kitchen where I insist everyone stops and eats their lunch at a table that isn’t their desk.”
A hive of activity, then, with a further buzz around their beekeeper initiative. “We launched Pollenation a few years ago and in that time we have now recruited around 200 beekeepers, equipping each one with the hive, bees and training needed to become a proper beekeeper,” Vijh explains. “The community is so lovely, a real mix of people and ages all coming from completely different backgrounds. I hope we have shown how diverse and rewarding looking after bees can be. We definitely have a few challenges ahead with the threat of climate change as well as the changing shape of our landscapes, so there’s lots to be vocal about.”
From a business born out of friendship, it’s heart-warming to see how far Eat Natural has come – and now they are all set for the next big step. “Last year, we took the plunge and sold our business to everyone’s favourite chocolate, Ferrero,” Vijh explains. “They are absolutely wonderful people and we have managed to keep everyone’s jobs, as well as our own identity and internal culture of honesty, openness and fun. They don’t want to change us in any way, they just want us to do better and better, which is so exciting for us. It took guts to sell, because we always wanted to wait until we found the right partners – and I’m so glad we did wait.” It all sounds rather delicious.