The plant-based food business started with founder Paul Brown as the sole staff member, then grew to be stocked in supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury’s.
Image: BOL Foods)
A former founding employee of Innocent Drinks and professional sportsman went on to set up a healthy ready-meals business worth Â£ 52million.
Paul Brown, 42, is the managing director of plant-based food company BOL Foods, which sells salads, drinks and instant meals that can be reheated.
The British have gone mad about BOL, which is now sold in supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury’s.
But it all started with Brown’s love for the sport.
Raised in Manchester, Brown tried for Manchester City, then played rugby union at Brunel University and the Sale Sharks academy.
He then went on to become a snowboarding teacher in California, before breaking his right wrist at age 21 and requiring months of treatment.
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During his recovery, he was impressed with the healthy herbal lifestyle of many Californians.
Brown said: “Inspired and full of healthy Californian goodness, I came back to the UK and joined Innocent Drinks, when we were just a handful.”
He joined in 2001 as a van driver selling fruit drinks, and ended up staying for 14 years, becoming director of his food division.
But Brown left when it became clear that Coca-Cola, which started buying Innocent in 2009 and ended in 2013, was more interested in drinks than food.
In April 2015, Brown took all of his food and drink know-how from Innocent and launched BOL.
He had Â£ 500,000 in capital to start the business, which included his own savings and money from Innocent’s backers, Jam Jar Investments.
He also received money from friends, as well as from Lia Griffin, general manager of the Addison Lee taxi company.
He said: âSport has taught me to eat well and eat well, working in food has taught me to eat good foods and do the right thing for the planet and for our bodies.
“With BOL, I wanted to bring all of these ideas together into a delicious, planet-friendly offering by making foods that not only taste amazing, but feel good at the same time.”
He says the first two years were tough.
âGoing out on your own is never easy,â he said. “There is nothing glamorous about it: it quickly becomes global compared to normal work.”
BOL became his life, and he said he quickly learned to find ways to persuade suppliers and manufacturers to try their luck with the young food company.
One of the highlights of BOL’s early years was winning the New Business of the Year award at the 2016 National Business Awards.
In 2017, Brown took BOL completely vegan.
He said this “halves the size of our business overnight”.
But he said it had to be done.
âAs I moved closer to industrializing the food system, I saw the negative impacts of the meat, fish and dairy industry on the environment and our health,â Brown explained.
BOL now claims to have sold over 40million servings of vegetables worth Â£ 52million.
This fiscal year the company is expected to generate Â£ 14million and aims to reach Â£ 25million in 2022/23 by entering Ireland and mainland Europe.
The pandemic meant a rough start to 2020 for BOL, when lockdowns meant no one was buying its range intended for workers on the move.
But Brown said the first three months of the first quarter were BOL’s most successful, despite the pandemic, as it sold a record 3 million servings during the period.
The company now employs 30 people and hopes to have sold more than 100 million servings of vegetables by the end of 2023.
Brown said: âWe’re not perfect, but we try to do things a little better every day, whether it’s for the planet, for our customers or for the BOL team.
“I live by the ‘grandfather’s test.’ That means when I’m old and gray, I’ll know I’ve passed when I look back on our decisions with pride.”
He lives in West London with his wife Abbey and their two children.