How We Started a Successful
Vegan & Gluten-Free Seed Snacks Brand
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Susan and I started Pep & Lekker in 2016 with my sister-in-law Juliette.
The UK snacking fixture has long been crying out for a healthier living/lower calorie range. One that values incredible flavours, nutritional worth and convenience in equal measure. In one fell swoop, we dispel the lazy yet long-standing urban myth that all-natural, better-for-you snacking means selling out your taste buds to snacks devoid of imagination, appetite appeal and bold, wholehearted flavours.
In a nutshell, Pep & Lekker’s seed snacks are a 5-strong selection (sweet and savoury flavour formats) of highly nutritious plant-based snacks that positively bristle with full-bodied flavours and healthy convictions.
It is all in the name. Pep, as ‘pep in your step’ as seed snacks are high protein and fibre and ‘lekker’ means tasty. Although it is a word used in the Afrikaans, Dutch and German languages, and we are English, we thought that we could use it as it’s a great word and is in the English Oxford dictionary. We thought that it worked well as taste is at the heart of everything that we do and would initiate conversations. It would also give us a cosmopolitan feel.
Seed snacks are the only snack on the market that are high protein, high fibre, low sugar and allergy-free. We are also mindful of the planet and seed snacks are free of palm oil and sold in fully compostable pouches.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
I qualified as a corporate solicitor in the 1980s in a large magic circle law firm. It was the era of Margaret Thatcher with the idea that a woman could have it all. I was very driven and determined and loved advising entrepreneurs and hearing their stories. Although, at that time, I never had the courage to do the same.
As flexible working at that time was very limited, when I started a family, I compromised my career and moved to non-fee-earning roles. I helped to establish a business development/marketing group and it grew from two to over sixty people. After 12 years in this role, and desperate for a change, I went to business school and did an MBA. Despite not having been in a classroom for thirty years, and being twenty years older than everyone else, I came top of my year with a distinction.
During my MBA I had to come up with a business idea based on a problem. The problem was that my son was vegan and was eating really badly. At 18 years old, his hair was starting to grey and he was very lethargic. I was struggling to find nutritious food for him. The combination of nutrition and taste was really hard to find. I was also horrified when I started to read the back of packaging (BOP) labels that so much of the food I was eating was not as healthy as it purported to be.
From this, the idea of Pep & Lekker was born. A brand that was synonymous with both nutrition and taste that puts the needs of the consumer and their welfare first and the starting point was not an excel spreadsheet. A brand that was truly authentic and could be trusted and was not all about marketing image. My MBA taught me that having a social conscience does not always have to be ‘bad for business’. I asked my sister-in-law Juliette who is a psychotherapist and a fantastic cook to help. She has very different skills. She is much more practical but very capable.
In order to keep sane on this mad entrepreneurial journey, I walk my Newfoundland every day and play tennis, jog and enjoy weekly spinning and hot yoga classes. I have been married to Martin for 31 years, and have 2 boys.
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
There have been many challenges.
Firstly, Juliette and I were new to the food business and did not have experience in the sector. This proved to be a massive disadvantage as it is an incredibly competitive market and there are so many unscrupulous individuals willing to sell you the dream.
We knew that we would have to rent kitchens ourselves and do the hard yards to prove our concept. We decided to start with soup and snacks as we thought everyone loved soup, and that would be easy. I swapped my City suits for overalls and a kitchen porter hat and worked 10/12 hour days in a kitchen lugging 25kg of onions and 40 litres of hot soup. Although I am fit, this is incredibly demanding work and I now have the utmost respect for people that work full-time in kitchens. Again, it is very physical and demanding work!
When Ocado agreed to sell our soup, we thought that was it and we were on our way, but it was only the beginning. Then we really began to learn about the food business. The costs of chilled distribution, the struggles with finding the right manufacturers, and the challenges of a seasonal product. Fortunately, we had another great product, the seed snacks. This is why we could pivot and switch to them and postpone the soups on hold for the time being. However, this was a costly switch.
The difficulties of building a brand and raising awareness on a tight budget when you are self-funding (bootstrapping). Having a great product and getting buyers to like them only gets you through the door. Communicating it to the public and getting them to switch to put your product in their basket is very expensive!
Finally, and our greatest challenge is being able to achieve the right selling price. Using a range of quality ingredients and avoiding sugars, salts and oils to give flavour, coupled with avoiding plastic packaging, it is really hard to get the price right. At small volumes, our costs of ingredients, labour and packaging are really expensive and although consumers want all of this, not all of them are willing to pay for it!
Who is your target market?
Seed snacks weren’t born simply to provide yet another plant-based snacking option. Seed snacks are an accredited Vegan Society range that was created to raise the bar with regards vegan snacking discernment. Today there’s still an alarming dearth of sub-standard vegan snacks that are either overtly processed or loaded with ‘lazy fillers,’ (unsatisfactory masking sugar, salt or unwarranted fats).
Although seed snacks are justifiably proud of their responsible calorie counts (each recipe is less than 130 calories) low calories in isolation aren’t the Holy Grail because we believe there are bigger issues at stake, namely eating the right food (e.g. whole grains over refined grains) and reducing dependence on ‘health impacting’ salt and sugar. The low carb and low sugar credentials mean that they are a great snack for those on a keto diet.
Seed snacks are low sugar and are a great option for children. They are much more tasty than rice cakes, which have proved to be very popular, but they are as versatile in that they can be eaten with peanut butter, hummus or with dips.
We have also removed all allergens from the 14 ingredients so they are a great snack for lunch boxes and to take with you when travelling. Also they are one of the few gluten free snacks that are also high fibre, an important combination!
Seed Snacks appeal to an eclectic cauldron of ‘healthier living’ foodies from appreciative vegans/vegetarians to time-poor commuters, pregnant women, coeliacs, gym enthusiasts, flexitarians, students and snacking aficionados.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
To be honest I find it very difficult to measure ROI with marketing and advertising but when you are creating a brand, especially food and drink, it is just something that you have to do.
Three months ago, we took the decision to invest in someone to help us with ads on our social media platforms Facebook and Instagram. Not huge amounts as we are still self-funded. This has led to a massive increase in followers and engagement and also a lot more enquiries. It does not instantly translate to sales but is important to raise awareness and will make us well placed when we are out of the current crisis.
We have also paid for someone to help us with Amazon and have a small budget for that.
To raise awareness we have given away snacks as samples. We have also recently donated seed snacks to the NHS and other front line workers. We felt that this was important to do our bit and also hope we would have gained some customers along the way.
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
This is difficult as, before Covid-19, most of our sales were via retailers meaning we didn’t have direct contact with our customers. We are now trying to develop more direct contact with customers through our own website. Though again, there are restrictions with data protection rules, and we are a small company, so we don’t want to get bogged down with compliance issues.
Most of the customer relationships that we have are with ‘early adopters’ those that appreciate our innovative product and what we are trying to achieve. One customer is such an advocate that she demanded that her local Revital store stock us and got us a new listing and new distributor. Another customer invited us to add a blog on our products to their business website as she loves them so much.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
To drive down costs and keep our operation lean, Juliette and I are the only employees and we outsource all our functions.
I chose Juliette to come on board with me as I trust her completely. She has very different but complementary skills to me, but we share the same values. We are very open with each other. If we disagree, we do so in a respectful way. We learnt early on that you should not allow things to fester. Juliette’s psychotherapy skills come in very handy to calm me down and understand customer behaviour.
I have outsourced our functions to freelancers who were successful in their sector before they started their own businesses. They are working on their own from home so can provide a great service at a reasonable cost. With our client base, I have been able to use my client relationship skills that I gained through 25 years of work in a large City firm. Communication is key, as is paying people on time and thanking them for their hard work.
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
Mailchimp – this is free for newsletters.
For our website, we use Squarespace. It is easy to use and has enabled me to do a lot myself. Since we only have five products, we did not need a more sophisticated shop as you might find with Shopify.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
- Patience – Everything takes much longer than you think
- Pivot – Be prepared to continually modify your business plans and forecasts and this does necessarily mean that you have failed
- Costs – Everything will cost much more than you ever imagined, or that people will tell you.
It’s a bit like watching those design programmes where someone renovates their house for £30k and looks amazing. Then, when you do it yourself, the whole thing costs four times as much!
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
After my long experience as a City lawyer, I love the freedom and flexibility that having my own business provides. I hated being on a crowded Northern Line train every day and was not well suited to the politics of a large firm. If I do not like someone and am treated unfairly, I find it very difficult to swallow with a smile!
I am so proud when I see our seed snacks in retail stores or discover our seed snacks when I am out shopping. I was recently shortlisted for an award and attended the Grosvenor House to present. Whilst there, I discovered our ‘Apple and Cinnamon’ seed snacks in the Grosvenor House coffee shop. What a delight!
But perhaps the best thing is the positive feedback you receive from customers. When you hear about the positive difference that you have made to their lives, you really feel like you are doing something important. This makes all the challenges worthwhile.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
My least favourite aspects are:
- You are at the bottom rung of the ladder. It can be very frustrating and difficult to get yourself heard/be seen.
- I miss my salary. I work 24/7 and have still not been able to take a salary. Fortunately, my husband has allowed me to release my own pension to pay for the business whilst living off his salary. This makes finances tight, and I hate not having my own finances and feeling that I am paying my way.
- Risk. As an entrepreneur, you have to live with a huge level of risk and uncertainty. As a lawyer by profession, this has been a struggle for me as I have spent my whole professional life mitigating or eliminating risk for my clients!
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
Gosh! This is difficult as I read so many great business books during my MBA and am an avid reader. When placed on the spot, I often find it difficult to remember them. I am the same when someone asks me to tell them a joke – I cannot remember a single one!
However, the books that I can remember are:
- Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull. An incredibly inspiring book about how he founded Pixar and followed his dreams.
- Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore. This book gave me an understanding of what it really means to bring out a new innovative product and the journey it takes from early adopters to mass market
- Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. The importance of the 10,000 hour rule. How you do not become good at things overnight and that hours of practise are necessary to hone your skills.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
Well, we have a trial in 70 Sainsbury stores in June. We have also had interest from another multiple. A listing with a multiple would be a game-changer and enable us to bring our prices down and become more widely available.
We believe that once this crisis abates, people will become even more concerned with their health and having done their own baking will appreciate non-processed foods more. Like the bounce bar that took a while to catch on, we think that seed snacks can become a household choice.
Our aim in the next 2-3 years is to increase our revenue by at least 500%. We’d like to take on investment and look beyond the retail sector to food service and ‘ready to go’. Look out for seed snacks when you are on the move on trains, planes, hotels and airports, and please give us a try as seed snacks are now widely available online!!