CREATING A PLANT BASED PROTEIN COMPANY WITH BODYHERO MANAGING DIRECTOR ANDY BIRCH
A common question we are often asked is why we started a plant-based protein company in the first place, and what our story is all about, so we interviewed our Managing Director Andy to get the back story directly from the horse’s mouth.
Christie: “So, Andy can you tell us a bit about your background first of all?”
Andy: “Sure. So those that know me will be aware that following a degree in Sport & Exercise Science I “grew up” and had a long career with Virgin Active Health clubs. Starting out as a Fitness Consultant, Group Exercise Instructor and Personal Trainer in 1999 in the very first club in Preston, Lancashire, I worked my way up the company ladder through various regional, national and international roles to ultimately take charge of the product strategy and commercial performance for a wide range of product areas including Gym Floor design and Service, Personal Training, Group Exercise, Swimming Lessons, and Kids Creche/Fitness. Towards the latter years I was increasingly interested in evolving the proposition towards Wellbeing as I could see that this is what was going to be increasingly needed for tomorrow’s society, which meant more of a focus on nutrition and mental wellness as well – something I termed 360 degree wellbeing at the time. As part of my remit started to extend into nutrition, I studied this in more depth (and qualified as Nutrition Coach) and became increasingly interested to find better food and supplement products myself and for our members at the time. At this time, I found this pretty difficult to be honest as there wasn’t much available other than extremely chewy protein bars that gave your jaw a workout, or super gloopy protein shakes.”
Christie: ‘So how did you come to start Bodyhero?’
Andy: “Well, you’d better settle in as there’s a longish answer to this one! For me personally, this goes back many years and is a function of 2 parts of my life that collided at the time; 1) like I said, working within the health club sector and trying to improve the level of quality of nutrition products we offered at the time and 2) adopting an increasingly plant based diet myself. Quite simply I personally didn’t want to continue to consume dairy based products as they didn’t agree with my digestive system, and the more I researched into plant based alternatives the more I found that their environmental footprint was also far lower, in addition to the obvious ethical (animal based) impact that dairy based production entails. I.e. there was another way.
Whilst searching for plant based nutrition supplements to introduce at Virgin Active I noticed there was a gap in the market (which was still quite a young market at the time) for great tasting, sustainably produced, environmentally friendly and nutritionally sound plant based protein products.
Skip forwards a couple of years to when I left Virgin Active and I was approached to consult for a company that at the time was producing milk based milkshakes and protein shakes. Having taken over the leadership of this company a while later, the board and I decided to take the tough and brave decision to stop what we were doing and pivot 180 degrees to become a plant-based company. The board and I recognised that whilst it was a big leap of faith and a scary step to make, that it was the right thing to do for the business and for the future of businesses in this sector. We felt strongly that we wanted to make a stand and position ourselves as a company that stands for what is the right thing to do not necessarily the popular thing.
Let’s face it, sales of milk/whey protein still far outweigh sales of plant based protein in general (though plant based is growing faster). But that doesn’t mean to say it’s right to stick with milk/whey. I felt strongly that all companies in this space should be following suit and changing their proposition be a plant based company. So that’s what we did.”
Christie: ‘What were some of the challenges you faced in making this transition?”
Andy: “Well to start with the original company had been pretty successful in gaining distribution over a number of years in various speciality stores and supermarket chains such as Wholefoods, Planet Organic, Waitrose, and Sainsburys, so dismantling this was something those retailers weren’t used to suppliers doing! It did feel counter-intuitive at the time, but we had decided to close down the original company in order to make a fresh start as Bodyhero. So, this was a necessary evil to close down the original company and manage what was a balancing act for some months, with concurrently starting a new company at the same time. For me personally it was all new. All of it! So, there was no better learning curve than throwing myself into it and learning on the job. Doing so is always the best reminder for me that you are capable of far more than you think you are – you just have to be in a position where the buck stops with you to find out how resourceful you can be!”
Christie: “So, once you had started the company what was next?”
Andy: “What I would firstly recall is that all of this was happening just as the Covid 19 pandemic hit, so everything instantly became harder. Closing down one company, conceiving, and starting another one, all during a global pandemic was not ideal!
It took several months to even open a bank account. But I think I just worked harder than ever during the time when many were furloughed to ensure we kept progressing, albeit not as quickly as I had hoped. We were deep into product development with months if not years of recipe iterations in order to try and find formulas that ticked all of the boxes. Working with our nutritionist and food technologist teams at the time, we crafted literally sample after sample after sample before we cracked it.
There were so many other pieces of the jigsaw I was working on at the same time that you easily forget about from building the website, running social media myself, achieving Made in Britain, Vegan Society and Informed Sport certification, and starting to get our brand out there to the world. We are still at the start of our journey, but it’s been one that has been extremely fulfilling so far, and one that hopefully justifies the somewhat painful process to make the u-turn to becoming a plant forward company and does pay off in the end!”
Christie: “And what does the future hold then?”
Andy: “That brings us to where we are today, I guess. Our focus is now on our convenient, ready to consume, grab and go products, still with the same ethos at the core. We pride ourselves on striking an unequalled balance between flavour, texture, purity, nutritional potency and environmental sustainability.
Ultimately, we believe that quality of life begins with the quality of nutrition that sustains it. It’s never been more important to improve our health and wellbeing, and the environmental sustainability of our planet. We believe plant-based nutrition is the most effective way to achieve both, but there are two challenges; vegan protein snacks & supplements generally aren’t accepted for taste, and are typically quite low in protein & fibre, and high in sugar or artificial ingredients.
That’s where we come in. Bodyhero exists to empower todays’ active, health and environmentally conscious consumer with products that not only taste as good as non-plant-based products, but with a brand that has a broad, active-lifestyle appeal, no matter your dietary preference.
That’s what we set out to help solve for the consumer, and ultimately our aim is to be part of a solution to help to democratise plant-based nutrition for the masses, irrespective of dietary preference. We don’t care if you’re an omnivore, vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian or pescatarian, we just know that one less meat or dairy based meal or snack, and one more plant based one is better for everyone all round.”
Christie: “Finally I guess we should talk about product!”
Andy: “So, our Bodyhero Ready-To-Drink shakes are the perfect convenient and healthy way to support your breakfast, snacks or pre/post workout training goals. Launched in Rich Chocolate flavour initially with more flavours coming soon, I like to think we are small enough to care about doing things right compared to the big corporate sports nutrition companies.
We don’t compromise. We go the extra mile to ensure we only use the best, most sustainable and locally sourced ingredients which is something many people may take for granted. For example, most of the big companies out there use cheap pea protein sourced from China, whereas we use the best premium sources that are grown and produced in Europe. This comes at a cost to us obviously but means only the best quality for our customers, and a lower carbon footprint, so it’s the right thing to do.
We're also extremely focussed on ensuring our products can be used by as many people as possible. That means excluding as many allergens from our recipes as possible, including soy. Our shakes are completely free from all allergens, and they are also batch tested after every production by Informed Sport to ensure they are free from any banned substance and safe for everyone to use. All of our future products will always exclude as many allergens as possible.
Additionally, we strive to keep things simple and put taste at the forefront, and I would say slightly in front of nutritional specification, as let's face it, if something tastes nasty it's not going to stick. So many companies try to gain competitive advantage by throwing the kitchen sink of functional ingredients into the one product. I personally believe more in horses for courses. I'd rather produce the best tasting, most nutritious protein shake than one that claims to have all sorts of other supplementary benefits, but in reality contains minute amounts of such "functional ingredients" that they don't actually serve any function other than make false health claims and to increase the need for lots of sweeteners (which are often artificial). If I want greens for example, I'll get them through my diet and/or take a greens supplement.
One of our founding principles was also to be a positive force for nature, so we were one of the first companies in our sector to start planting 1 tree per order, and to ensure that our packaging is always 100% recyclable. There's a lot of noise about compostable/plastic free packaging right now, but I still believe that the shift to these types of materials is still debatable at present, with many formats misleading in terms of how long they actually take to break down, or not being suitable for home composting. From a commercial, quality, aesthetic and environmental stand point it still makes sense to use recyclable packaging at this point, but we're always looking at developments here.
That said, our ready to drink shake cartons are not only recyclable, they are made from FSC certified raw material. Tetra Pak® leads the world in good packaging, working with non-GMO farmers in Brazil to create plant based “biocaps” derived from sugarcane, which are used on our cartons. This represents 5% of our carton; in-fact our whole pack is 100% recyclable and made with nearly 70% renewable material, the majority of which is paperboard. Furthermore, our outer boxes are also made from sustainable fully recyclable box board.
I can’t give too much away about future products right now, but let’s just say we have big ambitions to continue to challenge the accepted norm and bring more great products to market that are better for you, better for the planet and taste delicious! “