Take one hundred natural ingredients and turn them into healthy breakfasts, lunch boxes, hot pots and sweet treat bars.

Healthy food delivered to your door, the kind of wellness / holistic idea we’ve marvelled at in celebrity magazines but never really thought could hop over the Atlantic from LA. But lucky us that in 2015, Stephanie Johnson and Kristina Komlosiova joined forces to create Pollen + Grace, a range of seventeen ready meals and snacks made from one hundred natural ingredients, including breakfasts, lunch boxes, hot pots and sweet treat bars, all sold online and via dedicated and rather upmarket retailers.

Kristina Komlosiova (left) & Stephanie Johnson (right)

Suffice to say it’s become a thriving business with over seven thousand (yes you heard right) meals being sent out per week. A kitchen swapped for a unit on an army barracks, before changing again to an industrial unit (more of that later), and the size of the team has doubled and tripled and trebled before swelling to a gargantuan eighteen. If this isn’t a story of female empowerment, then I don’t know what is.

It’s genuinely inspiring to meet such a harmonious pair of founders who all but finish each other’s sentences. ‘We worked as one without really needing to communicate,’ says Kristina, ‘that’s when we realised we were onto a good thing.’ The pairing came about as a result of their working in the same office, but the core concept evolved from Stephanie’s food intolerances. ‘I started my career as a chef making traditional French cuisines with lots of butter etc, but then I was forced to look up new ingredients, so I would make absolutely everything myself. Everyone in the office started asking if I could make a few extra and they would pay me for it.’ There it was, the lightbulb moment.

At the beginning the pair, ‘had no cash to start a business, we started with a very small amount of savings.’ They started delivering to local offices by bike. Everything was prepared in Stephanie’s small home kitchen, after the council came out and inspected all her systems and procedures. ‘You have to let them know before you do it!’ she says to anyone hoping to follow suit.

Kristina and Stephanie did as much as they possibly could pre-launch whilst they were still at their old jobs. ‘We had chosen everything, the logo, the packaging etc. The last day at work was the Friday before we delivered our last lunch. It was hard juggling the two, but it takes a while to get going. We were grateful not to waste savings on living costs.’ Those savings served them well, allowing time for the business to swiftly grow by reinvesting profits as they came in.

But what of the usual hurdles of starting the enterprise? Order sizes? Packaging? ‘We went with off the shelf solutions,’ Kristina says. ’At the time ordering a thousand items of packaging seemed huge, now it seems like nothing.’ It has been a seismic four years, to go from a few dozen orders, to seven thousand in that time, so what advice would they offer others hoping to go the same way in future? ‘Steph would always say, just start! ‘ Kristina says. ’It’s so easy to put off starting a business because it can seem small,’ Kristina takes over, ‘but you have to start somewhere and things can move really quickly, even if it’s just making salad in your kitchen. That can be a hard concept to explain to people which is what can put you off.’

‘Know your costs, be in control of your margins from the very beginning.’ Kristina adds, the impetus; make sure it really is a viable business, not just a business you think is viable.

The infrastructure has changed vastly from the beginning, ingredients used to be sourced from a local market, now five dedicated specialist firms do the job. Two years ago they took their first round of investment which allowed them to move from the army barracks into a new kitchen with all the bells and whistles. That’s where they are still based with their eighteen staff, comprising a cheffing team, a packing team and operations managers. ‘We’ve been lucky that we’ve found really amazing people. The hardest part for us is managing change because we grow very quickly so sometimes it can be a little bit stressful.’ The team is multicultural, there are Europeans, Australians, Columbians, Greeks, which leads me to the dreaded Brexit question; are they prepared in the event of a no deal? ‘We have emergency measures in place,’ Kristina laughs, ‘We’ll see how it goes!’. Neither seem perturbed in the slightest given they supply to Waitrose and Ocado, ‘we produce everything from scratch every day, it will be collected first thing in the morning, kept in a cooled warehouse overnight and then be delivered out the next day. Wholefoods, Ocado will have set order days, they have two delivery days per week. The products have a shelf life of five or six days.’

Their favourite part of the day is lunch, their own, shared with their dedicated staff. They eat Pollen + Grace for breakfast, lunch and dinner, they admit, and miss it on holiday. ‘No one diet fits all, what we want to do is make our food accessible to everyone. Also for our products to feel good. Our food is much more a combination of nutrition and taste. We are predominantly vegan also.’

As harmonious as it all seems, do the founders ever disagree? They laugh, ‘not really, Stephanie says, 'the main thing is that running a business is exceptionally high pressure but we always agree on the way it should go.’ They even go on holidays together, shock horror. Their hours vary, back in the early days they were working twelve to fourteen hour days, now they work ‘shorter but harder’ Stephanie says, ‘unless you’re signing up a major new account, we’re focusing more on the future direction of the company. You never actually switch off, we do things at home.’ Which remember is where it all started, from a humble kitchen table.


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April 2019