Huel hits heights

The British ‘food of the fu­ture’ is selling £14m a year

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Front Page - By So­phie Christie

One in four British adults to­day is obese, which Ju­lian Hearn, co-founder of pow­dered food maker Huel, blames on our easy ac­cess to un­healthy con­ve­nience food.

“Hu­mans and their an­ces­tors have, for most of our his­tory any­way, not had a con­sis­tent source of food … but to­day, in­stead of eat­ing only what we can find, we now eat what we want, when we want, with the only lim­it­ing fac­tors time and money,” he says.

It’s around three years ago that the 46-year-old launched Huel, a brand you may recog­nise from In­sta­gram posts fea­tur­ing toned men and women in gym gear car­ry­ing a bot­tle of the pow­dered shake in one hand and a sweaty towel in the other.

But Huel, a port­man­teau of “hu­man fuel”, is touted as the “food of the fu­ture”. Nutri­tion­ally com­plete, con­ve­nient, af­ford­able (it works out at around £2 per meal), with min­i­mum im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment and an­i­mals. It’s 100pc ve­gan, sourced sus­tain­ably and eth­i­cally, and – as users only use the amount of pow­der they need to consume, there is min­i­mal food waste.

It comes ei­ther un­flavoured or vanilla and is made up of oats, pea pro­tein, ground flaxseed, brown rice pro­tein, and var­i­ous vi­ta­mins and min­er­als. There seems to be a mar­ket for it. Af­ter launch­ing in 2015 last year turnover reached £14m. Hearn ex­pects this fig­ure to “dou­ble, or even tre­ble” this fi­nan­cial year.

Celebrity en­dorse­ments from the likes of One Di­rec­tion’s Niall Ho­ran and pro­fes­sional skate­boarder Matthew Pritchard, as well as from on­line fans known as “Huel­ers”, have helped push it into the spot­light.

While the “beige gloop”, as one taste tester de­scribed it, has been crit­i­cised for its lack of flavour, it is none­the­less grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity. In the US, monthly sales surged by 140pc in the three months be­tween De­cem­ber and Fe­bru­ary 2018, from $500,000 (£352,200) to $1.2m.

Se­rial en­trepreneur Hearn founded Huel with sports nu­tri­tion­ist James Col­lier, af­ter he re­ceived a wind­fall from the sale of pro­mo­tion­al­, his dis­count codes web­site.

Their aim with the busi­ness was to take the con­ve­nience of pro­tein shakes, which have be­come ex­cep­tion­ally pop­u­lar over the past few years with gym­go­ers, and to make them more nu­tri­tional. Mak­ing the prod­uct en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly and ve­gan was also a pri­or­ity, Hearn says.

While he isn’t a ve­gan him­self, Hearn un­der­stands the im­pact of in­ten­sive farm­ing for meat pro­duc­tion, and ac­knowl­edges that it is “in­ef­fi­cient and in­hu­mane”.

De­spite Amer­ica eat­ing more meat than any other coun­try in the world, around 120kg of meat per per­son per year, this has not had an im­pact on Huel’s state­side pop­u­lar­ity. Amer­ica’s ob­ses­sion with con­ve­nience food means Huel’s shakes, which take less than a minute to make, fit the bill. The US mar­ket is so big that it’s ex­pected to over­take the UK by June, Hearn says.

Bri­tain-based Huel al­ready has a US ri­val, but this doesn’t seem to have im­pacted the busi­ness. Soy­lent launched just be­fore Huel did in 2015, and of­fers meal re­place­ment drinks that meet all the nu­tri­tional re­quire­ments of an av­er­age adult.

Los An­ge­les-based soft­ware en­gi­neer Rob Rhine­hart de­vel­oped the prod­uct in 2013 as an al­ter­na­tive to fast food. The prod­uct was named in homage to Harry Har­ri­son’s 1966 sci­ence fic­tion novel Make Room!

Make Room!, which ex­plores the im­pact mas­sive pop­u­la­tion growth could have on world re­sources.

While Soy­lent has faced some set­backs since it launched – last year traces of milk prod­uct were found in batches of one of its pow­ders that was ad­ver­tised as free of lac­tose and milk prod­ucts – Huel, by com­par­i­son, is grow­ing from strength to strength.

Hearn says its team of 38 peo­ple, most of whom are based at its head­quar­ters in Ayles­bury, where Hearn lives, will likely dou­ble by the end of the year, and its emer­gence into new mar­kets will bring new op­por­tu­ni­ties. While the firm has al­ready launched in Swe­den and France this year, it is look­ing at ex­pan­sion in the Nether­lands, Italy and Spain next. The lan­guage bar­rier means each new mar­ket has to be en­tered in iso­la­tion, Hearn says, but thanks to Huel’s ex­clu­sive part­ner­ship with Ama­zon, it doesn’t have to rely on a big pres­ence in each coun­try in or­der to grow.

Could Huel be the food of the fu­ture? With a grow­ing global pop­u­la­tion putting sub­stan­tial pres­sure on the food sup­ply chain, it might just be.

Ju­lian Hearn, co-founder of pow­dered food maker Huel, has seen turnover jump to £14m as In­sta­gram and word of mouth have pop­u­larised the ‘hu­man fuel’, which has been touted as the ‘food of the fu­ture’

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