It was a bold move from Paul Brown, the owner of BOL Foods, when he decided to ditch meat and fish from its successful range of pots, salad jars and super soups in 2017. It halved the revenue of the business overnight.
He stopped making any of the range that contained meat and fish, but he had no recipes to replace them. He knew he was putting everything at risk, but retailers like Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, and Ocado kept his vegetarian and vegan products on shelves and gave him nine months to develop new products.
“We had just won a new business of the year award, we were one of the fastest growing FCMG companies and out of £6 million in revenue, £3.2 million of that revenue came from meat and fish,” he tells Food Spark.
“Our Jamaican jerk chicken lunch pot and Keralan coconut chicken were bestsellers, but I frankly decided I didn’t want to be part of the problem anymore, and we did have amazing veggie and vegan products, so it wasn’t a complete leap into the unknown.”
When Brown, who is the former boss of Innocent Drinks, refers to “the problem,” he is talking about the environmental and health impacts of farming and eating animal products.
His decision to go meat- and seafood-free saw BOL foods take a hit, with sales slumping 23% to £4.8 million in 2017. But it has bounced back: sales in the first quarter of this year are already three times higher than the year before, putting the firm in line to boost revenues by 110% in 2018.
Brown has now taken BOL Foods fully plant-based, with the company ditching dairy from its products just a few weeks ago. He admits it was a difficult process, involving a lot of development time in and out of the kitchen.
The company launching more than 10 new items this year – including four brand-new salad jar recipes as well as seven new recipe veg pots, such as the Japanese rainbow slaw salad, Mediterranean roasted veg salad, Mexican bean, salsa and quinoa salad, and Moroccan beets and sweet potato.
According to BOL, ditching dairy means it will save the equivalent of 91,000 square metres of farmland, 7m litres of water and 194 tonnes of CO2 across just one year.
So how did Brown do it?
Meat eaters and protein
The first approach for Brown was making sure his plant-based products were appealing to meat eaters, as well as fully fledged vegans.
He says new recipes are much easier to develop, rather than trying to rework something that already exists in the range, while visually selling the products was key.
“It’s really important that we pack our products in beautiful fresh layers, so there’s lot of colours, and we are clear that anything that goes into BOL products are 100% natural, there are no additives or preservatives or nasty things. It’s carefully put together to ensure it delivers taste, texture and fills people up,” he says. “We structure our packaging to allow our ingredients to do most of the talking.”
One product Brown is most proud of redeveloping is the Mediterranean roasted veg salad, which he took from vegetarian to vegan by removing feta cheese. It was replaced with roasted tomatoes, spelt and butterbeans.
He is also proud of the high protein content in his super soups.
“People think when they are going plant-based they have to sacrifice protein. But of our soups in the fresh soup category, pretty much all have higher protein than any of the others in the category, and most of those have chicken and fish in them. So I’m particularly proud as they not only look and taste amazing, but they also help dismiss that misnomer people have about it,” he says.
Future flavours and textures
In terms of future development, Brown is keen to bring more Japanese flavours into the range, as well as inspirations from fresh salads over in Italy. BOL are also actively looking to put more seeds and nuts into the range as people are demanding more texture in their food, although the company has to be careful about nut allergies.
“Texture is so important, especially in plant-based. Derek Sarno [from Tesco] has been talking about it with his Wicked Kitchen range, and mushrooms are absolutely stars of the show when it comes to vegans looking for the texture they may have used to get from meat,” he says.
“Obviously, you get umami flavours from mushrooms, but you also get the chew as well, and it’s absolutely something that we always consider when developing recipes.”
Brown also wants to boost the ancient grains in the range with things like spelt and buckwheat, as well as sprouting grains. He is keen to move into other categories too, but this could be a few years away.
No meat substitutes, vegan broth or plastics
The plant-based movement is only at the beginning and will look very different in a few years, according to Brown.
“It’s definitely becoming more competitive, which is amazing. The amount of shelf space year-on-year-that is going to be given to plant-based foods is, in my opinion, going to keep growing and growing,” he says.
“There are definitely differences between us and some of the other brands. The meat substitute side of things is in huge growth, but that is never something we are going to do in BOL as there is a lot of processing involved in that, which is something we won’t do.”
He also predicts that vegan broths will be a growth area, along with plant-based proteins, as well as an increasing focus on convenience where consumers don’t have to compromise on quality, taste and nutrition when they grab and go.
Brown is also aware of the huge consumer interest in plastic. “Unfortunately, the plastic jars that we use are really good at retaining shelf life, so if we make the food today then it goes off in six days time. If we put it in box of cardboard, it would go off 30% quicker, so it would knock a couple of days of shelf life off,” he says.
But BOL Foods has a piece of innovation in the pipeline to use zero plastic at the start of next year, says Brown, while the containers are currently recyclable. He is also trialling a scheme where consumers can return jars to the company. BOL then puts them back into the production system.