Nitesh Mall and Andrew Vanezis

Nitesh Mall and Andrew Vanezis

Saving lives with seaweed

Midland entrepreneurs Nitesh Mall and Andrew Vanezis are battling to reduce potentially deadly strokes by encouraging consumers to swap salt for seaweed. Jon Griffin reports.

A fledgling health food company aims to cut the rising cost to the nation of strokes and reduce the dangers of high blood pressure via a new salt “substitute”: seaweed imported from Taiwan. Long-standing friends Nitesh Mall and Andrew Vanezis have joined forces to ship thousands of tins of Kombu seaweed a month from the Far East to the UK – and have already signed up around 900 UK outlets, ranging from health stores to pharmacies.

From this summer, the enterprising duo has reached an agreement to sell its seaweed product – which its branded SALTernative – in 370 Holland & Barrett stores nationwide. And its struck a deal to sell the product in the in-house pharmacy at the world-famous Harrods store in London.

The two friends now have their sights set on stocking SALTernative in supermarkets to further boost sales to between 10,000 and 15,000 tins a month. They are also being helped to explore markets by the enterprise team at Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce.

“If everyone were to cut a gram of salt out daily, it could potentially save 6,000 lives a year in the UK,” says Mall, 28, from Sutton Coldfield. “Kombu seaweed contains 92% less sodium than table salt – there’s a massive opportunity in commercialising the product for consumers

“Eliminating salt from Indian cooking, for example, is very hard. But when we tested the seaweed it worked a treat. The thought of seaweed in food may not be appealing to everyone, but we wanted to see if it would work in the mass market and so far we have had a positive response.”

Vanezis, 33, adds: “Everybody is focusing on sugar at the moment, not many people are focusing on salt. But the effects of salt are not as noticeable as sugar – you may not realise you are suffering from high blood pressure. If left undetected and untreated, it can lead to strokes.”

The two friends opted for Kombu seaweed – found in the seas off Taiwan – after flying out to the Far East in May last year to sign an exclusive deal with one of the region’s biggest seaweed producers to ship the tins back to the new firm’s distribution centre in Preston.

SALTernativeVanezis says: “We feel we are the only ones in the UK market heavily pushing a seaweed-based product as a salt alternative. Until this summer we were pushing up to a figure of 3,000 to 4,000 tins a month, but are aiming to reach between 10,000 and 15,000 a month.

“It was good to go out there and physically see the seaweed. We wanted to make sure that the seaweed was well sourced and processed to the right standard and that it was the best variety in the area – 90% of the seaweed in the world is from the Far East.

“It was a bit of a leap in the dark going all the way out there. But you have to make the jump, you have to have the confidence to do that. When you have been there and seen it for yourself, it is a lot easier to identify with the product.”

The pair forked out around £4,000 between them for the exotic two-week Far East trip – but insist that the substantial outlay was well worthwhile in business terms. Vanezis says: “To build a customer base, it’s going to cost you money – you have to think that everything is a cost in the first year. You have to remember that most businesses fail in their first year because they do not take heed of the fact that they need to have enough finance in place to get through the first 12 months.

“At present everything is going back into the company – we are putting everything on the line.”

Mall says: “For us, we would rather go 100% at it and fail than just go 50% and have regrets. You have to set yourself realistic goals and keep cashflow in mind. We have learnt so much since we started.”

The pair both extol the virtues of social media in spreading the Kombu seaweed message. Mall says: “We attracted 4,100 followers on Instagram alone in just two months earlier this year, which has helped our online sales. Around 35% of our sales are currently online and we are trying to grow social media.

“We also use Skype and WhatsApp to deal with the Far East. We would not have been able to achieve what we can without technology – for example 20 years ago, we would have had to fax each other, which took time and money.”

The firm is also tapping into the endless possibilities of the digital world by working with a local gym to reinforce the healthy lifestyle message crucial to the success of SALTernative – displaying custom-made home exercise videos on YouTube.

Vanezis says: “The majority of our customers are already health-conscious. We are trying to sell the concept that as a population we need to get healthier. Too many people are not aware of the fact that they need to cut their sodium content, that there is too much salt in our food.

“The Western market is not used to using seaweed in their diets. But we have around 900 retailers now and it is distributed via pharmaceutical and health food wholesalers. Last year we did the Good Food Show at the NEC to help get the product to consumers and we plan to attend more consumer trade shows over the course of the year.”

Mall and Vanezis have also agreed a corporate partnership deal with national charity Blood Pressure UK to help raise the profile of Kombu seaweed and publicise the new SALTernative product.

“We are in discussions with other retailers, including supermarkets, grocers and other chains, and from this July have been selling in 370 Holland and Barrett stores,” adds Nitesh.

The SALTernative tins retail at £3.99 for a 50g supply, which can last for up to a month depending on usage.

“We are just rolling our sleeves up and knocking on doors. And if we knock on enough doors, people will listen to you. It has been a hard slog so far, we are still at the growing stage.”

SALTernativeIt may still be early days for Kombu seaweed, but the duo is understandably delighted to have exclusive London store Harrods on board. Mall says: “We had a meeting with them and explained what we were trying to achieve and what the product was there for. They really liked the concept and idea.

“It is a great name for us and can be an ambassador. The single store is not likely to sell millions, but having it as a stockist gives the brand precedence.”

The company behind SALTernative is mainly owned by Mall and Vanezis, with 43% and 42% of shares respectively. The remaining 15% is owned by Walsall-based investor Daljit Birdi, who’s now the new firm’s commercial director. Birdi’s share comes after he bolstered the seaweed initiative by ploughing investment into the business.

Mall and Vanezis mainly work out of the Birmingham area and have a small office in Walsall. But much of the time they are out and about, working remotely. For example, they’re aiming to broaden their horizons further with an export drive, with Europe, the United States and Russia in their sights for the future. Meanwhile, their employee Shailesh Ahya is in charge of pharmacy sales.

Mall says SALTernative’s annual turnover is looking likely to be “a six-figure sum” by the end of this year, but both entrepreneurs are adamant that profitability is not the new firm’s only goal. He worked in the pharmacy sector before launching the Kombu project and explains: “One in three adults suffer from high blood pressure and salt is the biggest culprit. 

“If we can create a company that helps the UK population and is a viable business that is a win-win situation. It is a good feeling that you can help people’s lives. The ideal concept is that when people are doing home cooking, they will choose to use our products as a seasoning agent without putting any salt in.”

To that end, the firm is keen to eventually break into the education sector. Mall says: “We would very much like to take the message into schools but it is going to take a while to get to that stage. We are also looking at restaurants with this product.”

Vanezis, who started working life as a chef in Welwyn Garden City, agrees: “If we continue to grow, schools are something we can look at in the future. We are still learning ourselves as we go along. One of the main factors is to get a customer base and sustain that customer base, especially with the opportunities offered by social media.”

As much as anything else, the impressive growth of SALTernative in less than a year is testament to the trust and friendship shared by the two young entrepreneurs. They met when working at a retail store in Enfield back in 2008 – and have been firm friends ever since.

Vanezis adds: “I think it helps we get along, the trust is there as friends. I do not think that age is always the key – you sometimes need to go through failures before you become successful.”

Mall nods in agreement: “Because we are very close, we can be open with each other. When you are young, you have all these dreams and ambitions and you do what you can to make it work. But if you really put your mind to things, I am convinced you can do what you want.”