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Around 18 months ago Suzie Walker was looking for a healthy snack for her daughter. Fast forward to the launch of her paleo snack bar company last year when she sold 20,000 bars on pre-order alone and to today when her bars are stocked around Europe and in South Africa and she is working with major supermarkets and stores.
It’s all been fairly turbo-charged after a gradual build-up, but Suzie is hoping to have some breathing space this year so she can plot her way ahead more strategically.
Until she had her daughter nearly three years ago, Suzie was a marketing manager in the food industry, but while she was working she trained as a nutritionist and was seeing clients at the weekends and in the evening.
When she went on maternity leave from her employer, Little Dish, she decided that it made “no financial or mental sense” to keep working full time and commuting when she could run her nutrition business around looking after her daughter Grace. “The finances would have worked out more or less the same if I reduced my hours and factored in childcare and commuting costs,” she says.
When Grace was weaning in 2013 Suzie was looking around for a finger snack for her that would be healthy and fit with the paleo/primal approach she was taking with many of her clients and which she says they responded well to. The Paleolithic diet, also known as the caveman diet, was becoming quite a trend at the time. It aims to emulate the diet of wild plants and animals eaten by humans during the Paleolithic era and avoids all processed ingredients, refined sugars and dairy products.
There was little around at the time that was aimed at children so Suzie started making little balls of nuts, dates and oils in the blender and shared them with her clients. A few of them asked if they could buy them. She decided to investigate further. By October 2013 she had reshaped the balls into bars, mapped out a business plan and had a few recipes and a brand name, Primal Kitchen, since changed to Primal Pantry. She initially targeted dedicated paleo diet followers and since it was the first such bar on the market – the nearest similar product was Naked – she was able to develop a keen interest, including among vegans.
Suzie had to be very careful with her ingredients and ensure they were authentically paleo, for instance, it was hard to get dried blueberries which did not have vegetable oil and sugar in them. “I wanted to be true to my values,” she says. Every single ingredient used is listed on the packaging. Lots of similar bars use rice, oats and fillers to bulk them out and many of the manufacturers she approached after doing a Google search on snack bar manufacturers were concerned that doing it her way would make it very costly. Eventually, she found a manufacturer who would take her recipe as it was.
Over Christmas 2013 she fine-tuned the recipes and outsourced the packaging design to someone she used to work with who only asked to be paid back once she started selling the bars. She did a small product run in January 2014 before biting the bullet and going for a full production run in February. “The consumer research was tiny, which was quite a risk and quite scary. Only a handful of people tried them, including clients and some people I knew from the food industry, but there was nothing like it on the market at the time,” she says. She feels she was very lucky with the brand design which she says is crucial in a competitive market. “Anyone can try to copy the bar itself, but they can’t copy the branding,” she says. “I highly recommend that people invest heavily in branding.”
She says the first production run was her biggest initial outlay with the launch costing £15K, funded by family money and her business partner. “The biggest risk was that I would have 10,000 bars in my living room for ages. I was pretty sure I could get my initial investment back,” she says. Normally manufacturers don’t like to do a trial run with the finished packaging in case ingredients change, but Suzie was keen for people to see the whole brand.
She set up a website with a shop on it, but she didn’t even get to make it live because the bars sold out to paleo diet followers on social media on pre-order. “People were ordering them without ever having tried them,” says Suzie. She sold 20,000 bars before the launch. She had envisaged boxing the bars up herself in her house, but by three days in that had become unmanageable. She couldn’t cope so she had to contact distributors and wholesalers. A big healthfood store contacted her on LinkedIn, but the terms – giving them free stock to get people interested – did not make sense to Suzie because she couldn’t make enough of the bars as they were selling so fast.
Since then she’s got a distributor who distributes to independent cafes, yoba clubs and gyms. Superdrug is selling the bars in its health and wellbeing section. She’s also been approached by Tesco and Waitrose – the bars will be sold by Tesco’s Nutri Centre and Ocado and the week that Workingmums.co.uk interviewed her she had been approached by the Daily Mail.
Suzie has big plans for the future. A contact has set up her own business in South Africa selling the bars and Suzie has distributors in Denmark, Portugal, Belgium and Slovakia. She counsels to choose a distributor carefully as many want exclusive rights in their country and that could hamper future sales.
Suzie has also had to contend with trademark issues. Someone in the US took out the European trademark on Primal Kitchen so she has had to change the company name to Primal Pantry. “It wasn’t really noticeable,” she says. However, she had to tell everyone on social media, deal with SEO issues and contact everyone who had written about the bars.
The speed with which the business has taken off has had its drawbacks. Suzie struggles with cash flow as she has to pay for bigger production lines every time due to increasing demand. “I can’t take any money out at the moment,” she says. That has meant she had to keep seeing her nutrition clients on the side until December. She has childcare for four days a week [a childminder and pre-school], but is working seven days a week and has to keep checking emails, but she hopes things will calm down a bit this year. She is taking on someone in February and wants to focus on marketing more, including creating brand ambassadors or, as she calls them, primal warriors.
On the positive side, she turned over half a million pounds last year and aims for £1.5m this year so she can pay off all her credit cards. She has five different flavours on the market at the moment, including a nut-free seeds and berries bar, and has ideas for other ranges but needs extra funds to test them. She has had interest from people in the industry and from clients who want to invest and is looking at proposals.
Things are certainly moving fast and the learning curve has been steep, but Suzie has grasped the opportunity to do her own thing and, when she has more time to come up for air it seems that she will have a thriving business on her hands. From little seeds [nuts, fruit and berries], big things can grow.