Inspired by trail mix in the United States, former Innocent Smoothies worker Joe Taylor and his wife, Carly, launched Real Handful, a high-energy snack now stocked by Boots, Holland & Barrett and Sainsbury’s, as Dawn Collinson reports.
As a keen ironman triathlete, Joe Taylor regularly put in up to 20 hours a week in training to maintain his contest-level fitness. But a hiking trip to the Grand Canyon back in 2008 gave him more than just a rigorous workout – it introduced him to a business idea that he brought home and made his own.
Looking for something tasty and full of energy to keep him going on the trek, Taylor tried trail mix, a combination of dried fruit, nuts and – in this case – M&Ms.
“Trail mix is a term everyone recognises in America,” he explains. “It’s a really popular nutritious snack that provides a great hit of naturally-occurring fats, protein and carbohydrates, and it’s flexible so it can have popcorn, candy or sweets in it along with dried fruit, seeds, nuts or granola. Me and my wife, Carly, both have a sweet tooth, but we like that feeling that comes from eating natural stuff that is functional and gives you energy.
“When I told Carly about trail mix, we wondered why it wasn’t available here. You could get standard fruit and nut mixes but if you wanted something a bit more unusual or a bit more special, you were left to making it up yourself.”
The couple, who live in Cheadle in Greater Manchester, began creating their own at home and thought it was only a matter of time before an independent company spotted the market for something different in healthy fruit and nut snacking. “We were just waiting for someone to do it and no-one really was,” Taylor recalls.
The pair decided that “someone” would be them. And, in 2013, kitchen table combinations put together for themselves became the starting point for developing their own business, Real Handful.
They launched in 2016, with health food retailer Holland & Barrett as their first customer and have gone on to secure major high street stockists including Boots, David Lloyd fitness clubs, Ocado and Sainsbury’s. With a team of four, Real Handful’s first full-year turnover was £250,000 and it is now looking to broaden its range and look at business opportunities outside the UK.
For Taylor, now 37, Real Handful has not only been a life change – becoming his own boss, with all the pros and cons that brings – but a 180-degree career shift too. The Liverpool-born entrepreneur landed his first job with tech giant IBM straight from a management science degree at Loughborough University.
He spent four years in IT with the company, moving to Manchester to be with Carly. But, he says, he gradually realised that he didn’t love the industry and was dreading going in to work on Mondays.
“Carly worked in food and drink and I think I had job envy because it was something I loved and it’s the opposite of IT because it’s just so tangible,” he says. Keen to make a move, Taylor focused on a rapidly-growing company he admired.
“I applied for every job Innocent Drinks advertised for about six months and they eventually relented and offered me one,” he laughs. “It was a different industry and a different culture.
“They were launching a new juice drinks brand, which is now Juicy Water, so they spun off the team and we worked on product, marketing and sales. There was this little team of six of us, at the front end, and the first six months were maybe even tougher than launching a business, but it did really well and I learned so much.
“If anything, being at Innocent was my ‘Sliding Doors’ moment. I saw the founders going through everything: the tough times and the good times but most importantly showing that with a good plan, great people and fantastic products you can create something really special.
“Now there are at least a dozen other start-ups that have been founded by former Innocent employees who’ve all been inspired and empowered to go out and do it themselves in their own ways.”
When Taylor left Innocent for Kellogg’s, and subsequently Heinz, the idea behind Real Handful was coming together and by 2013, with a plan drawn up, he and Carly knew they definitely wanted to take their own products to the market.
“The name Real Handful came about when I was out walking the dog one day and thinking about a name that reflects what we want to do… to just use natural real ingredients, to make something that’s convenient to grab and go, and not only about trail mix so we could stretch our range beyond that,” he remembers. “We wanted something that was fun as well because we don’t want to take ourselves too seriously – healthier snacking can become a bit worthy so we’re really passionate about making it more of a fun experience.
“It’s not about ‘good and bad’, we believe in better – that’s what we stand for. It’s about natural nutrition and executing it in a way that really focuses on flavour. You should look forward to what you eat, enjoy it while you’re eating it and feel good about what you’ve eaten afterwards rather than feeling guilty afterwards because you’ve overindulged or not enjoy something because it’s a bit dry and dusty.”
Real Handful began life with around 30 concepts, which were narrowed down to test in the market. “We basically started off by drawing up a list of our favourite really decadent desserts – things like Eton mess and Key lime pie – and then we worked with a food developer to recreate those flavours,” says Taylor.“With Key lime pie mix, we combined lime-flavoured raisins with cashews, which replaced the texture of the meringue and little white chocolate drops and lime peel – suddenly we had a fruit and nut mix with a bit of indulgence and it really worked.”
The couple launched with six core combinations to appeal to the widest spread of potential stockists. “Different retailers find different mixes are right for their customers so someone like David Lloyd buys our goji mix because it’s functional and a great source of fibre and protein, whereas Sainsbury’s might prefer our strawberries and cream mix,” Taylor says.
Over time, he explains, the mixes have evolved and some have stayed on the drawing board, despite their best efforts. “We created this banoffee-flavoured mix that tasted incredible but we never wanted to use unhealthy fried banana chips so we worked with a raw organic banana slice.
“I remember the day we turned up at the factory and the banana slices had all stuck together in transit into one huge banana lump. We literally spent days preparing that one ingredient and trying to find a way to work with it before we admitted defeat… maybe one day.
“Not everything that we love on paper makes it into production and we’ve realised that the indulgent dessert idea can send out a confusing message so now we talk about bigger bolder flavours and that seems to resonate more with people. For that reason, we’re about to launch a new range with names like ‘Mint Choc Chipper’, ‘Strawberry Stomp’ and ‘Blackcurrant Blast’ because it’s all about the energy as well as the lead flavour.”
It’s been 10 years since Taylor discovered trail mix, but his passion for the idea has never wavered. If anything, he says, people’s desire to know more about what they’re eating has grown and smaller independents like Real Handful are best-placed to innovate in the industry.
Alongside the new flavour launches this spring, the company is introducing its first two bars and a range of kids snacks. Those, he explains, have been inspired in part by their own three boys – aged one, four and six – who love eating and testing the products at home.
“They’ve eaten them since they were about two years old, but we know they’re not the only ones who love it,” he says. “Sainsbury’s tells us it has customers getting in touch who are sharing our mixes with their kids so that’s what’s encouraged us to bring out a range of kids snacks later this year.
“You need to keep kids fuelled, and it’s nice to give parents options. With kids, you get inspired snippets of insight; they eat a lot based on what something looks like, and their palates change so quickly.
“Our two older boys used to pick out the cashews and throw them away but as soon as they were four they’d demolish those as well. Now they and our friends’ kids are our guinea pigs, helping us create the new kids’ mixes.”
Real Handful is very much a hands-on family business for Joe, Carly and their sons, although it does mean that juggling time can be tricky. And those ironmen triathlons that helped start it all have had to be put on hold for now.
“I’m lucky if I get out and do a half marathon once or twice a year at the moment,” he says. “I love the flexibility of working for myself, but you need time for everything else too – the business is the fourth child and I always feel guilty when I’m not giving one of the four enough attention.”
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