The war on sugar is not an easy one, but it’s a fight that London-based siblings Sophie, 35 and Gracie Tyrrell, 33, are willing to make through start-up, Squirrel Sisters, which offers consumers a range of ‘no-added sugar’ snack alternatives.
Gracie says the problem is supermarkets have the power when it comes to influencing consumer choice and are swayed by the bigger brands.
She explains: ‘Walk into most supermarkets to bombarded with processed, sugary, unhealthy products piled high on offer and bulk deals – making them hard to resist for even the most strong -willed shopper.’
Gracie Tyrrell (left) and Sophie Tyrrell are sisters and business partners in the Squirrel Sisters no added sugar snack brand
To counteract this, they’ve launched a ‘health’ brand, Squirrel Sisters, which offers four lines: Cacao Brownie Share Bags, Cocoa Orange Share Bags, Peanut Caramel Snack Bars and Peanut Raspberry Snack Bars.
The products range in price from £1.10 for a bag of cashews to £50 for a large bundle box of 36 snacks.
There is a personal reason behind the launch of this brand too.
Gracie explains: ‘We launched our business in 2015 after Sophie was diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening heart condition called Wolfe-Parkinson-Whyte.
‘After the surgery, Sophie started reacting really badly to sugars and processed foods, she could not tolerate any sugar in her diet.
‘Trying to find tempting foods for her that had no added sugar was almost impossible so I went on a mission to research foods that would be suitable for her.
‘I found none and I was shocked at what I discovered about the majority of snacks that I found.
‘We as consumers simply do not understand the extent to which sugar is hidden in our food- savoury as well as sweet- so I started to create my own recipes for her that were healthy, tasty and naturally sweet.’
The sisters are proud that their snacks can be found in Sainsbury’s, Holland & Barrett, Ocado, Waitrose and Whole Foods
The snacks have been on trial since 14 February this year in Sainsbury’s stores and on its website, but this is due to end next month.
The trial is conducted through Sainsbury’s ‘The Future Brands’ scheme which has been designed to support smaller businesses that have limited resources.
It gives companies like Squirrel Sisters the opportunity to secure a permanent listing.
Gracie adds: ‘The Sainsbury’s trial takes everything into account. The reason for this is because all the brands on the bay are usually very different and all have different price points so it wouldn’t be fair to look only at the sales.
‘So, they look at the marketing activity we do, the flexibility of the brand and how well we work with Sainsbury’s, how well we work with supply chain, they also look at the data – how many repeat customers we get, if we are bringing in new customers and who our customer is.’
Squirrel Sisters snacks is currently ‘on trial’ at Sainsbury’s which means the sisters have just three months to convince the retailer to give their products a permanent listing
‘If you get into The Future Brands trial bay, you get three months to make it work and if it does work you stand the chance of securing a permanent listing and getting rolled out to all stores. We are currently in 70 stores and online.’
But even if the trial with Sainsbury’s doesn’t work out, the snacks are available in other retailers such as Holland & Barrett, Ocado, Waitrose and Whole Foods. Last month the snacks were also launched in the United States through an importer as well as the Middle East.
Gracie says: ‘So far our products have been very well received. We are going to go out to the US as soon as we can to visit the stores and meet the customers.’
The initial launch was in Texas into the well-known chain Central Market.
Gracie says: ‘Our strategy is to start here and also online (Amazon) to grow brand awareness and then as we grow this we will start rolling out to more retail stores.’
The Squirrel Sisters selection box consists of four bars and costs £7
Covid-19 and investor challenges
But creating Squirrel Sisters also came with its challenges. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the UK, the impact on the business was immediate and without mercy, says Gracie. ‘We saw 50 per cent of our business disappear almost overnight.
We did have to take a hit on salaries, but that’s quite normal when starting a business
Gracie Tyrrell, co-founder of Squirrel Sisters
‘But we weren’t going to let go without a fight – we had already put heart and soul into building a successful company.
‘We both believe that life is 10 per cent what happens to you and 90 per cent how you react to it.
‘We had to make a choice; we either embrace uncertainty and adapt our business to this new way of life or risk losing everything we had worked so hard for.’
In response to consumers’ changing habits the duo launched Squirrel Sisters as an online store in January this year.
This was swiftly followed by the Sainsbury’s launch in February, the product’s entrance into the US and the Middle East and the sister’s national ‘sisters on trial’ campaign, which have featured on screens and billboards around the UK.’
Snack bars like this peanut and raspberry flavoured one can set you back just £1.50
Their personal lives have also proved a stumbling block to the business and attracting investors.
Gracie says: ‘When I was going through a very traumatic time with my divorce Sophie took the business reins and dealt with things, which allowed me a bit of breathing space to cope with everything and adjust to the changes in my life.
When Sophie gave birth to little Lola and now Teddy I took the reins and looked after the business so Sophie could get used to her new life as a mum.’
The business was created on a shoe-string budget of £200 in 2015.
They were ‘armed’ with just a NutriBullet to make their healthy snacks and shared their recipes on their blog. The tight budget meant they had to be savvy with their spending and managed to get on by relying on their savings for a couple of years.
Gracie says: ‘We did have to take a hit on salaries, but that’s quite normal when starting a business.’
Finding the right match
‘After we hit the three-year mark, we realised we would need some investment and help to get us to the next level.
‘We went down the crowdfunding route then got approached privately so decided to stop crowdfunding and pursue the private investment.’
But while the investment sounded good on paper the sisters quickly realised that the match wasn’t quite right.
Gracie says the investor showed a different side after realising Sophie was pregnant.
Consumers can also buy bundle boxes which offer a variety of snacks from the Squirrel Sisters brand
‘He didn’t like that Sophie had fallen pregnant. In the final meeting before we were going to sign the contract he asked if we could add “if Sophie goes off the rails as a mother can I get my money back.”‘
‘After that meeting, we chose to walk away, there was absolutely no way we were going to work with someone that had such a backwards, old fashioned way of thinking.’
Gracie admits it was initially difficult to run a business with just her and her sister until they were welcomed into The Hatchery – a start-up incubator for food entrepreneurs – in Kings Cross in January 2020. The business now turns over nearly £2million and is profitable.
Gracie says: ‘Fast forward a couple of years and we met Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones AKA The Black Farmer.
‘We met him and instantly felt that this was the right way forward for our business, he was unique, understood small businesses, had the expertise and had an energy that we were in awe of.
‘We have been working with Wilfred for over a year now and it was the best decision we have made.
‘He is heavily involved in the business (we talk most days) and he has really helped us take our business to the next level.’
For others thinking of heading down a similar entrepreneurial path with family, Gracie advises: ‘Make sure you have the same vision and values.
‘We’ve seen some family businesses tear the family apart so you must be conscious of this and must only do it if you’re sure that you can work together well.’
Small Business Essentials
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