Own Your Space…..The Mindful Chef
Written by Tracey Duke, Photography by Pip Andersen
As Westcountry exports go, the boys behind the UK’s No.1 recipe box company, The Mindful Chef, have to be three of our favourites. Humble and unassuming, yet focused, driven and passionate, these guys are leading the way in their field, turning over £7 million a year after just 3 years of business.
We headed to their fabulous, shiny, new London HQ, to meet up with co-founders Myles Hopper & Giles Humphries to delve deep into the world of startups.
Guys thank you so much for inviting us into your new HQ today; it looks amazing! So we’ll jump straight in with you Myles and talk a little about the background to the Mindful Chef. Obviously, you’re both from Devon; Sidmouth for Giles and Exeter for you Myles. Tell me how it started and how you found yourself here in London.
Myles – So we’re friends from school days and we all have an interest in health, wellness, and sport; we play rugby, hockey, football and we all surf as well. After school we all went off and did separate things; I was personal training and working as a nutritional coach. Giles went into marketing and our third co-founder Rob went into finance. Rob’s from Exeter as well, but he likes to be a little more behind the scenes.
We’re great friends and I think it was inevitable that at some point, we’d all come back together and do something along the health and wellness lines.
We’d watched the rise of recipe boxes and thought what an amazing idea it was; combating certain issues like food waste.
Having grown up in the West Country, we were lucky enough to have fabulous suppliers on our doorsteps; that has definitely influenced our path. Once we’d started thinking about the recipe boxes, it made sense to work towards bringing that little part of the world with its great suppliers, to the rest of the world.
But there was always the question of how can we do this better than everyone else? The answer was through health. We knew that if we created something that was healthy and good for people we’d be impacting someone’s life for the better, rather than just trying to sell them something that is great but doesn’t actually do that much for them.
I get that; you’re very obviously coming from a place of wanting to make a difference and change mindsets. Obviously, the bottom line is that you’re in business and you have to look at the commercial side of things, but you’re very clearly doing something that you’re passionate about too.
Myles – Yeah sure. Having done the training and nutritional side for the best part of ten years, I’d seen first hand the positive effects of healthy eating and how it can really change peoples lives. So for me, it was being able to take what I’d learned and transfer it to a larger scale to many more people.
Giles, obviously these things don’t just happen and sometimes we can spend years thinking about an idea before it gets anywhere. When was the lightbulb moment that gave you the push to jump in?
It was in the Summer of 2014. Rob knows some friends who own a fishing boat off Lympstone and we were helping them out that summer. Once the fish came in, a text would go out to 600 villagers to say this is what we’ve landed today and here are the prices. The villagers would come down and buy the catch as fresh as you like. It was great; very old school.
At the same time that we were working with the fishermen, Rob was in the States; he was back for a couple of weeks in the summer, but he was working in America. So we were watching the catch come in and thinking wouldn’t it be amazing if we could get that to peoples’ doors at the same speed that it’s happening here, in Lympstone; but on a broader scale, rather than it sitting in supermarket supply chains for a couple of weeks.
Rob then told us what was happening in the States with recipe boxes and how they were going gangbusters. If you go to New York, all the apartments have these blue boxes piled high outside; that’s how people do their grocery shopping. They don’t spend half an hour in the supermarket, they just have it sorted for them.
So that’s essentially how the idea was born; in the Summer of 2014. We put two and two together and decided that there must be a way to bring this amazing West Country produce to people further afield, around the UK.
We’d always talked about our various business ideas; all three of us have had little entrepreneurial flares, but nothing major, so we got together to explore it a bit further.
I guess that from then, it was just looking at how you get a business like this off the ground and also what the competition was like in the UK; there’s no point in starting up against some really well-funded competitors unless you have a great USP.
So we just started thinking about what the UK recipe box market was not offering which was, essentially, a healthy recipe box. Then after some pretty in-depth research, we just jumped in; left our jobs and committed to this.
Myles – So we were all doing different things and we brought a good mix of skills to the table; you have to have the different strengths in a team. There are so many people who start companies on their own and I think that unless they have a really good mentor or someone they can go to and speak to about business, then they’re going to struggle.
Giles – One of the things we always get asked, is how is it being co-founders rather than starting a business on your own? I always say that whilst we’re loving it now, in the first year to 18 months, it was really very tough and pushed us to the edge.
When we were tiny all our friends would look in from the outside, see us shipping 300 boxes a week and think we were doing amazingly. Actually, the reality was that it was really hard work; roll your sleeves up and get on with it.
I remember that it was about the 18-month stage when we finally outsourced our packing operations. Up until then, it was us, plus friends and family. The three of us would do Monday to Friday in the office, which was our flat at the time, doing the accounting, finance, marketing, social media, growth strategy, customer service, phones & inbox. Then on Saturday, we’d be thinking about the operations, getting things ready and answering phones to customers. Then Sunday it was literally 6 am to 6 pm in the warehouse packing the boxes. Then the couriers would come in, take the boxes at the end of the day and we’d start again on Monday morning; drained from the weeks & months before.
We got to packing about 700 boxes a week before we got some funding to allow us to start outsourcing; that’s when we were able to move on. But we were almost at breaking point.
Myles – The problem is that when you’ve outgrown things, everything just takes so long; it would take us 12 hours to pack. We’re now 7x the size as then, but the packing is all done in half a day.
Giles – Tim Ferriss always talks about outsourcing aspects of your business; we’ve definitely found it revolutionary for us. We found a huge, amazing food manufacturing site just outside of North London who took that entire process out of our hands. We now operate with two in-house, full-time operations staff, who manage the operations side of things and then underneath them they have about 30 or 40 staff at the warehouse; but they’re all employed by the third party.
We now process 150,000 ingredients a week into 476 different box combinations and it’s all essentially run by the two ops guys here, who feed down to the team there. But it’s exciting to know that we don’t need to hire hundreds of staff because these guys just scale with us.
So you’ve definitely seen some breakpoint times over the last couple of years, but you’ve pushed through. What was the lowest point for you?
Giles – It was when we were waiting for our first crowdfunding round to come through. We hadn’t paid ourselves for three months. We just about had enough money to pay the 3 staff we had then and I remember being sat in the pub with the guys, and reality hitting. It was that dawning that if the crowdfunding round didn’t come through, we were in serious trouble and that maybe we’d bitten off more than we could chew.
Did you have a backup plan?
Giles – To go begging to friends and family would have been the only other thing. But we wouldn’t have been able to grow really; we’d just have held on at around 500 boxes a week.
I remember being sat there, feeling sick, thinking this has to come off. We’d taken a punt by using the best videographer we could find to create an amazing Crowdfunding Bid, but there were never any guarantees. Long story short, the campaign launched the following week and it just went gangbusters; with some investors putting in up to £200,000. That’s the moment we knew all the hard work had been worth it.
So did it feel that all the problems came together at once?
Giles – Essentially it did. So with his business model, you have to get to scale and you have to take a loss of capital in the early days; we underestimated that massively. We never thought we’d have to go out and raise the millions that we did.
Myles – And then we had the added stress of not knowing if the money was coming but still having staff and suppliers to pay. It’s when you’ve just packed your 700th box of the day, you’ve still got a cold 20 minutes cycle ride home in the dark and you know that you’ve got to speak with upset customers who haven’t had their box delivered; not because of you but because of the delivery company, that it was really tough.
Giles – And then, around the same sort of time, it was Black Friday. The delivery company was overwhelmed; boxes weren’t being delivered, the phones were ringing off the hook at 11 pm at night with customers either looking for their boxes or angry at being woken at 11 pm at night by a late delivery. That was a huge low point.
Ok, so how did you get through it?
Giles – For me, I had to step back and look at what we had achieved, not what was weighing on me. Like you say, you don’t always step back and look in and it’s easy to forget the good things that have stemmed from the business when you’re up to your neck in hassles. Taking a step back will always help you to focus on solutions.
And so you’ve come through that and I know so many people who subscribe to you and love your product; you’ve filled a gap. But not only that, you’re coming at it from the right angle; you’re clearly passionate about the values behind the business.
Giles – The produce is a big deal to us so we responsibly source everything. So for instance, until a week ago, we never offered prawns. Because we source our fish from the UK, we’ll never fly them in air-freighted from Thailand, which is where the vast majority come from. But our ops guys found the first UK prawn farm in Lincolnshire and this week we’ve just shipped British tiger prawns to about a thousand of our customers.
We haven’t mentioned it too much here, but in the early days, it was just West Country produce. As we’ve grown we’ve had to find suppliers further afield as well, but we’ve always focused on responsibly sourcing our produce.
Myles – And then like you say, there’s the health angle as well. There is a big shift towards health and wellness now; people are more willing to spend their money on their health. It’s that whole backlash against working yourself into the ground constantly and taking better care of yourself. I think that people really don’t mind spending their money on something that’s going to make them feel better at the end of it.
Exactly. You only have to look around you and see that we’re all wearing our health trackers to know we’re conscious of our health. So with that in mind, let’s talk a little about you guys. What does your downtime look like? How do you think about your own health?
Giles – Mine’s rugby and playing on a Saturday for London Cornish; keeping it West Country. I train once a week on a Wednesday and that’s quite a nice escape. For those 80 mins on the pitch, I’m not thinking about anything else other than the score. So that’s one element and also we go to the gym; every lunchtime if we can. And we always tell the team to get out and go for a walk; get some fresh air & headspace, don’t be sat at your desk all day long because it’s not good mentally or physically for anyone.
Myles – Similar to Giles, I go to the gym virtually every day. I cycle or walk to work which is about half an hour and which I think is a really good thing; the importance of walking places and having that time to think and compartmentalise things is so important.
I’m lucky that my sister is a yoga teacher so I can get some yoga sessions in too.
Do you get your meditations sessions in too?
Not quite, but I did start writing in a journal once. It didn’t last, but I am reading a lot more. I haven’t got into the meditation side of things, but I do get the whole breathing thing and how taking a minute out to take some deep breaths & sort your head out, works.
But we’re into anything outdoorsy really; hikes, skiing, surfing.
It feels to me that what you’ve created here with Mindful Chef, is very much an experience that reflects just that. You’ve created a product that allows your customer to step out of their hectic worlds and take some time to relax a little and feel good about themselves.
Giles – There’s something about getting back into the kitchen and taking half an hour to make dinner and step away from the white noise of the world. You get in the zone, relax and switch off.
Myles – And I think if you take it a step further, it’s more than just the cooking. There’s the traceability of the food; it’s all British, apart from avocados and limes, that we can’t source in this country. People do want to know where their food is coming from and they want to buy locally.
Then there’s the cutting down on food wastage. You’re supporting British farmers and you’re giving back to the charity we support; One feeds Two. So for every meal our customer buys, a school meal gets donated to a child living in poverty in Malawi. All of these aspects combine to create an entire experience that yes, feels good.
So a quick look at the year ahead guys. What’s it looking like?
So we’ve just closed the latest crowdfunding round which was for £2 million. That money is invested and we’re poised for more growth and to expand the message. A lot of our work now is doing the talks, spreading the word, working with marketing agencies and pushing the digital heavy presence.
We’re working on more partnerships; we’ve just been chosen as the official nutrition partner to the EIS; (English Institute of Sport), to supply the food for our athletes in the lead up to Tokyo 2020, which is a fantastic endorsement.
We’ve also set a goal of providing a million meals in Malawi for the year. We’ve done 160,000 meals so far and we’re working hard towards that.
We’d also love to get out to Malawi in 2018 to meet the kids we’re helping and raise awareness of the charity.
Guys thank you so much for your time today. It has been an absolute pleasure to meet you both and I’m so looking forward to seeing how The Mindful Chef grows. I and all the team at Grow Exeter wish you every continued success.
Follow the guys @MindfulChefUK or find them online at mindfulchef.com The guys have also set up a special code for readers of Grow Exeter. Just enter code GROWEXETER at mindfulchef.com for £10 off your first box.