“I’d been eating cereal, and looked at the back of the box — a brand I had been eating for years — and was really alarmed by the salt content; I felt conned,” Barnard explains. “I had been eating it as the health food it was marketed as, and it just wasn’t.”
At the time, Barnard had a toddler and a newborn baby with her now-husband — and now co-founder — Nick Barnard. The pair had both been working as consultants on B&Q’s line of books about DIY, but then came their muesli side hustle.
Fast forward 18 years, Rude Health now spans 60 foods and drinks, with bestselling almond and coconut drinks and “ultimate granola” bringing in £30 million annual turnover.
Food, says Barnard, who is now 52, has “always been my happy place: eating, cooking — averagely, I am not a brilliant cook — reading about it, shopping”.
She and Nick first met over a chance meal in Moro, the Exmouth Market restaurant, “so starting a food business together was, in hindsight, the obvious next step.”
The pair spent £4000 on grains, nuts, fruit and seeds, tubs, labels and branded aprons to host tastings in those early days. “We made the muesli, testing and mixing hundreds of first batches at our kitchen table. Then we learned that to be certified organic we needed an entirely organic kitchen, so we moved to an organic cafe off King’s Road — I was home with the kids, and Nick would go do the mixing in the nights when the café was shut.”
Early stockists of their first three mueslis were local health food shops, Planet Organic, and Ocado — “it was really young at the time, and open to new brands”.
The pair set up a rudimentary ecommerce website in 2006. “I discovered that our 1kg bags of muesli fit perfectly into a child’s shoebox, so I used to collect empty ones from the local shoeshop to fulfil orders from home.
We were very agile, looking out for any opportunity which might come our way. We branched out into porridge from muesli just because we were sent the ‘wrong’ oats and couldn’t bear to waste a whole sack. Chewier oats make for great porridge.”
After two years of oaty nights, the pair both went full-time on Rude Health. It climbed onto Waitrose’s shelves in 2008.
“They stuck with us through the [great financial] crash, when the other supermarkets were introducing value or essential ranges. That set us on the course to where we are today.” Marketing was rudimentary at first: “Social media didn’t exist, so it was word of mouth. Nigella [Lawson] was an early ambassador, buying small tubs to gift to friends and family, she also mentioned us in a column and featured Ultimate Muesli in a bread recipe in one of her cookery books.”
An early environmental idea to remove the cardboard carton and package the muesli in the bag only was “a complete disaster: they fell over, ripped, looked awful in store and spilled cereal everywhere. We also had a brief stint trying out kombucha, but we quickly stopped because it wasn’t stable and would occasionally explode in our office — very disconcerting.”
Another memorable moment was when the entrepreneurs married in 2006, and their guests used Ultimate Muesli as confetti. “I don’t recommend it,” Barnard laughs, “very painful — it’s got a lot of nuts, and I was picking bits of oats out of my underwear for days.”
he pair raised £500,000 from friends and family between 2008 and 2010 — “that’s it. We’ve had organic growth from there on, still self-funded.”
It was all about muesli at the start but in 2013, Rude Health launched three dairy-free milks: brown rice, oat and almond.
Sticking to their principle of “only using kitchen cupboard ingredients, not things no one knows what they are” saw the duo use rice in almond milk “because the alternative was to use a whole selection of gums, emulsifiers and stabilisers to round it out”.
At the time, Barnard says, “we didn’t realise the alternative milks would be a turning point, but now we now sell mostly milk — it’s 75% of turnover.”
Last year, Barnard stepped back from her chief executive role to become brand director — “I’m now responsible for how Rude Health appears to be the world,” she says. “The business was outgrowing me. My skill is having ideas — I have an endless supply — and getting them off the ground. Running a business is not the same skill set so stepping back allows other people to do that.”
Is she ruminating about a second start-up? “No! I know what it takes now to start a business and there’s no way I have the energy to do it again — we started making one breakfast cereal at our kitchen, now 18 years later we are in all the major supermarkets, 20% of our business is international, alternative milks are normal, people want to eat healthily to feel good, and that’s the essence of Rude Health. I feel like the world is now on our side and there’s lots we still have to do.”