We catch up with the forward-thinker, innovator and founder of some of the UK’s most respected brands
One of my brands, Whole Earth, started as Harmony, the retail offshoot from our restaurant. Our first price list included things like Japanese seaweed, brown rice, aduki beans, sesame seeds, tahini and miso and patchouli essential oils, which gives some idea as to who our target customer was! As our business expanded internationally, we renamed Harmony to Whole Earth. These days the brand is famous for peanut butter, which was first launched in 1993 under the Harmony brand. By the late 80s we were the second best-seller in the UK, behind SunPat.
Our big break was when we were on BBC Newsnight for about three minutes; it was the first Mind & Body exhibition at Earls Court, and we’d moved our entire peanut butter plant down there – it was very popular, not least because in a sea of essential oils and crystals, our rather archaic machinery really drew attention. We were putting the peanut butter directly into jars and selling it, and within a month were in Safeway and Waitrose and have never not been since. In 1989 Nestle took over SunPat and came out with a product called Whole Nut, in which they used palm oil instead of hydrogenated fat, and spent £5 million to blow us out of the market. That’s when we realised the power of our brand, because their product went nowhere despite all of the money they’d spend on television advertising and the like. They quietly withdrew the product four years later.
The other items we sold were gradually being commoditised, so we had handed them over by 1982. If you bought brown rice in Britain anywhere in Britain in 1975, it had come through our warehouse, but by 1980 there were loads of wholefood companies selling similar products. It was hard to get anywhere with these items and when we approached Tesco with our brown rice, they went to their white rice supplier, Whitworths, to produce brown rice too. We moved on and decided to focus on peanut butter, and Green & Blacks came about as a result of this: the situation with Nestlé scared the pants off us and we were desperately scouring the world for supplies of organic peanuts. We found some organic farmers in Togo in West Africa who produced really tasty peanuts, but they were suffering from aflatoxin (a mould residue) so we rejected them, but the french agronomist who was working with them told me that they grew cocoa beans too. We had a sample of 70% chocolate made up from those beans, and our minds were set. Whole Earth had always had a no-sugar focus so we had to create a new brand for this, and my girlfriend, Josephine Fairley – who soon became my wife – came up with the name Green & Blacks. We launched just that one product, 70% dark chocolate, and went from that to the range you see today.
Read the full interview in the latest issue of Speciality Food, free to download here.