Paul Brown’s career in healthy food began with a snowboarding accident. At the age of 21, only a week after qualifying as an instructor in Mammoth Mountain, California, Paul broke every bone in his wrist and spent the next year recuperating on the West Coast. “While I was there I saw how everyone was eating whole foods and vegetables and drinking smoothies — pretty much like London is now,” he says.
This dietary revelation inspired Paul to try and start his own California Mexican style restaurant back home in Manchester. But when he couldn’t scrape together the funding, he convinced the founders of newly-launched Innocent to give him a job instead.
Paul stayed at Innocent for 14 years, pouring his passion for healthy food into running the company’s veg pots range. When Coca-Cola’s buy-out of Innocent in 2015 spelled the end for its food lines, Paul left to set up BOL (pronounced “Bowl”), continuing his mission of making it “easier for busy people to eat well” — not least himself. “I love to cook from scratch whenever I can but most of the time I can't because I’m trying to fit too much into every day,” explains Paul. “But I shouldn’t need to compromise on taste, health or quality.”
BOL’s range of healthy soups, salad jars and ready meals was an immediate success, winning New Business of the Year at the National Business Awards in 2015 and recording “double digit millions” in sales in its first year. The products appeared in the refrigerated aisles of nearly all major supermarkets and were primarily aimed at the lunchtime market.
Then, in 2017, Paul had what he calls his “Cowspiracy epiphany”. Reading books and watching documentaries about the food system and its effect on the environment convinced Paul to withdraw all BOL products containing meat or fish from the market. That meant over half of his recipes, including many bestsellers like Jamaica Jerk Chicken, disappearing with nothing to replace them. “We halved in size overnight,” says Paul. “We were perilously close to going out of business.”
Paul didn’t stop there. The following year he dropped dairy from his recipes as well. “Now we’re 100% plant-based and it’s the best decision we ever made,” he says. “As a brand owner it’s great to be able to be so categorically clear about what we stand for: inspiring the world to eat more plants.”
It seems to be working. Having weathered the financial storm, the company is back in profit, experiencing 95% year on year growth this year. The public appetite for veg has surprised even Paul. “I couldn't have predicted that the plant-based movement would grow as exponentially as it has,” he says.
BOL grows its veg in Grade 1 soil in Boston, Lincolnshire, and uses no preservatives or additives in its products. “It’s completely natural so we’ve got to get it around the country and into fridges as quickly as possible,” says Paul.
Having enjoyed working around Ladbroke Grove with Innocent, Paul was keen to stay in the area. Workspace’s Westbourne Studios, where he employs 16 people, suited BOL perfectly. The Notting Hill street food scene on its doorstep “helps us keep our finger on the pulse of what's going on with hot food around the world,” he says. The building, which used to be a vibrant nightclub before its transformation into imaginative office and studio complexes, also holds fond memories for Paul, who “used to go clubbing there back in the day”.
Having like-minded neighbours counts for a lot, too. “I like the atmosphere,” says Paul. “There are people here trying to do great things in music, fashion and food so there’s always someone cool to talk with in the cafe area.”
Paul has no plans to scale up his office just yet. But he might have to look to a larger space at Workspace or internationally if he achieves his dream of making BOL the “number one naturally plant powered food brand on the planet”. In the short term, Paul plans to focus on the UK market while putting out feelers into Ireland and France. “And fingers crossed, maybe California one day,” he says. Taking it back to where it all began — now there’s a healthy ambition.
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