Roots to Work: The Muesli Magnate
In 1975 Alex Smith found £2 in the street and used it to take a van to collect waste veg from stalls in New Covent Garden Market. Forty-five years on his business, Alara, is the largest organic muesli producer in the country. We catch up with Alex and hear about his journey.
What drove you driven to work in the food industry?
Living without money is a very basic existence with water, shelter, food and warmth the key needs. When the no money experiment came to an end, salvaging and selling a tiny fraction of the huge amounts of waste food seemed the natural way to engage with money again.
And what has kept you there?
There are many things that excite me about food production starting with the planting of seeds that miraculously grow into food. Then there is the absolute foundational aspect of food, all life needs to “eat” to live. The people who work in food supply are also an amazing group of people and the pleasure of working with so many of them is one of the great benefits of working in this industry.
What is your biggest personal achievement with Alara?
The achievement I am most proud of is the team of people who work at Alara, some of whom have been here for over thirty years. During this pandemic everyone is acting responsibly and working hard to meet all the demands placed on them. All our customers’ requirements are being met to keep people fed. It is an amazing effort.
What motivates your commitment to running a truly sustainable business?
We have been given an amazing gift called being alive. It gives my life meaning to do what I can to help society emerge in the peaceful place that a sustainable world will be.
How does putting health and planet first present different challenges?
The main challenge is to make sure making a profit is put in the correct context. Adding cheap ingredients, refined sugar, fat and salt would make our food cheaper and tap into the demand for sweet, salty or fatty foods. These refined ingredients however are products mainly of the fossil fuel industry and are also unhealthy. Keeping away from them is a challenge.
And the rewards?
Putting health and planet first has many rewards that stem from right action. For instance fifteen years ago, we removed 50 tons of rubbish when we took over a new section of the factory and planted a permaculture forest garden. The reward now of being in central London but walking out to the gardens, hearing all the birds there and seeing all the food growing is the best stress reduction I can think of.
In 2008 Alara was the first zero waste food manufacturer, 12 years on, what is the mindset you have developed to eliminate waste?
There is no such thing as waste, only, with some work, raw materials for something else.
What do you wish everyone knew about food production?
It is a vital job, as food does not appear by magic in shops and without food life stops. There are also many amazing and creative people working in food. It is a great job to have.
Describe your ideal breakfast for a productive day.
Healthy of course. I normally have Alara Bircher muesli, topped with one of our new milled linseed mixture toppings. Added to this is fruit from our gardens and oat milk. It is a tasty and satisfying breakfast that keeps me going to lunch.
What are you working on now?
As social engagement is a core sustainability measure - the community around the Alara factory, in Kings Cross, has drawn up a neighbourhood plan for a world leading sustainable development that includes a sustainable food hub. Translating this vision into reality is a very engaging process and it is amazing the support we have received to turn it into a reality.
What advice would you give to someone starting up a good food enterprise in London?
If you are starting up a good food enterprise in London just to earn money, I suggest you think again. You need to be passionate about what you are doing so when you start earning money it mainly goes back into the business rather than just taking it out yourself.
I have seen several businesses with good ideas who raise money think “wow we have £100k to spend let's pay ourselves £40k a year”. After two years they fold. Be frugal to start with, do what you are doing because this is what you want to do.
I was lucky like this as I had lived without money for a year. So, when I found £2 in the street, which facilitated me selling discarded fruit and veg and had £4 at the end of the first day, all this £4 stayed in the business and purchased a bag of flour to make bread.
Following the response to the Covid 19 pandemic what hopes do you have for the future of our food system?
For the first time in my working life (45 years) during this pandemic food has been treated as critical rather than a lifestyle signifier that magically appears in shops. Food is now recognized as having real value, as do those working to supply it. There is now a chance to reappraise the financial system with more value given to sustainable food systems.
Where's your favourite place to enjoy a meal?
My favourite place to eat is in the gardens round Alara. Eating something you have grown yourself is incredibly rewarding (and tasty) so grow something, even if only some grain on a wet piece of paper in a container at home.
Find your place in the field of good food on our Roots to Work job listing site.