We were back in the studio recently, and welcomed Gracie & Sophie from Squirrel Sisters. The two founders of the company served up a cheeky recipe from their new cookbook, but while we had them off screen, we took the opportunity to quiz them a little on how they started their own food brand, and how it has gone from them making snacks in their own kitchen, to a popular snack available across the UK...
Ladies, thank you for coming down to the studio this afternoon! So can you walk me through how Squirrel Sisters came into being, is started off as a blog in about 2015, is that right?
Sophie: "Yeah, it was about October 2014 actually. We were both living on opposite sides of the world, I was living in Singapore and Gracie was in London, and we’ve both always been into food & health & nutrition, and we used to cook a lot together when we both lived together here in London, so we decided to start a blog... both as a way to keep in touch and documenting our recipes and our healthy lifestyle tips, but without being too preachy – just being about two normal girls".
Had you set out with the intention of one day starting your own food brand, which is a dream for many people, or did it come about as a natural extension of your blog?
Gracie. "It was a very natural progression... so I used to make these bars for Sophie about 8 years ago when we were living together, because Sophie has a gluten intolerance. And we’ve also always been into healthy food, and it’s all about food & mood – how it makes you feel, and not missing out by being healthy. That’s why we made the bars, because there wasn’t really anything out there that actually tasted good, that was gluten free. The ones that did taste good were usually packed full of sugar… as the blog grew we saw an opportunity to make it into something bigger, and we already had the bar recipe, so we felt they were perfectly aligned to what our blog was all about, so we decided that we’d launch with the bars as our first product".
That's fantastic... obviously the blog blew up, and now you've got a selection of bars available across the UK, and now you're launching your cook book - where did the recipes for this book come from, as they move away from your bars a bit...?
G. "I guess whats quite good about the book, we both have very different tastes, is that there is a massive range of flavours [in the meals]. For example, I don’t like eggs but Sophie loves them so if one of us was doing the book on their own, the recipes would probably be a lot plainer.
What’s different about it also, is that everything is snack and treat-size. We took our mum’s granola recipe, and made that into bars that you could take on the go. All the ingredients are also available in your local supermarket, because we wanted it to be something simple that was accessible to everybody".
Do you have a favourite recipe each from the book?
S. "So mine is probably the gluten free mini pizzas, and the white choc crispy squares".
G. "I really like the vegan mini muffins, and the blueberry pancakes, oh and also our mums granola, and the salmon skewers with lemon rocket".
So many people now try to launch their own food brands or businesses - as two individuals who have started completely from scratch, would you have any advice for those starting out in this journey themselves?
S. "I think you have to start with something you’re really, really, really, believe in. We really believed that there was an opportunity for our brand and our bars. If we hadn’t believed in it enough, and really thought there was an opportunity there – because it is really hard, you have to persist with it and keep going. If it something you’re going to do for the sake of just saying you have a business, then I don’t think it’ll work as well. You need 100% commitment and passion".
Is there anything you wished someone had told you about this journey beforehand?
S. "I don’t think so, because I don’t think we would have listened to them! We would have carried on doing it the way we thought we should – I mean, we didn’t have any pre-conceptions of what it would be like and we didn’t have any experience, so we’ve learned as we’ve gone along.
We have sought advice from other companies that we really admire, or people in the industry who have a lot of experience, so when we’ve really needed to ask a question, we’ve looked out for the right people".
Something a lot of people looking to start their own foods brands struggle with is finding buyers; you can have the best recipes, or products, but if you cannot get them into shops, then they're not going to go anywhere. How did you go about getting your first buyers?
G. "So my background is in New Business, so being familiar with LinkedIn really helped; but really, some straightforward ways such as calling up a store and they’ll put you through to the right buyer – [sometimes you have to hope] you’ve got the right person on the right day. Also places like Planet Organic, which is always open to new brands and always wants to hear from new products.
Some are a lot more tricky, so for example, with the Wholefoods buyer we found him on Linkedin but couldn’t get through. Found his e-mail, but couldn’t get a reply. Then we found his personal Twitter account and started tweeting him pictures on squirrels and he eventually replied because we finally got his attention!
Definitely not the right approach for all buyers. Just do whatever you can really [to get their attention]".
A lot of brands use social media as a way to reach their customers, particularly start-ups as the costs involved are so small; aside from social media, what has been the next best way to reach your customers or new potential customers?
S. "We try to do a lot more talks and events, so things like The Performance Kitchen are great because it’s a different avenue, but social media has been so good for us, we’re are a tiny company without any big budgets, so we’re able to promote [ourselves] for free, and it also allows us to connect with our customers directly which is great.
We try to go to a lot of networking events…"
G. "We’ve had a lot of positive PR throughout which has been great, both press and online. Social media advertising, where you can target the right group of people has been good".
What are the drawbacks to social media, both as a new-ish brand and as individuals?
G. "We’ve had this discussion quite a lot, as it’s a massive topic. It’s [social media] is great, but there are some negatives to it as well. For us as a business, we fall into the trap of looking at other businesses and thinking, ‘oh God they’re doing so much better than us’, or thinking we should be doing this & that… I think, as long as you remember you’re viewing things through rose-tinted glass; it’s not real, it’s just the best snapshot of that’s persons life… just take everything on social media with a pinch of salt.
I think for the younger generation, we have said that personally, we feel really worries for them because the pressures are enourmous. In the future we’d love to do more talks about that, and just help younger people that [looking good on social media] is not the be all and end-all".
As a health brand, and as individuals, have you seen any health fads on social media that have really made you cringe, or though 'that is just not healthy at all'?
S. "I think when food trends get scientifically proven to not be ‘a thing’, it can be a bit cringe when people are still talking about them… I know there was that alkaline thing that was huge a few years ago and now people have realised you can’t actually be in an alkaline state – you would die – so when people still talk about that… or when people make statements about particular food groups, which people need to live and are an essential part of your diet that can be a bit worrying, especially when you know that there are vulnerable people out there listening to them".
G. "I find, personally, the snapshot of where it’s ‘Instagram vs Real Life’… though you know the ‘real life’ bit is still extremely set-up and perfect and just… it just feels so self involved, and they’re just doing it for the likes and I just cringe everything I see one of those".
So now that your bars are in almost every major retailer, and you've now got your own cookbook out in stores, what is the next step for you both?
S. "We would like to get our core-range out to even more people, so hopefully getting it into all the supermarkets, and getting it into Europe. We’d also like to have more time to work on product development, so new flavours in our core-range, and new formats.
Ultimately though, we want to build the cause for Squirrel Sisters; so we’re looking to become a B-Corporation which is a company that gives back to society and has a positive impact. And also, as Gracie was saying earlier, helping young people with their perceptions about social media".