Meet the school friends whose humble start-up became a £55 million empire thanks to lockdown

Until recently Mindful Chef was a little-known brand. But during lockdown, it trebled in size in three weeks and the website almost crashed

The co-founders of Mindful Chef, Giles Humphries and Myles Hopper, who have changed the way we cook
The co-founders of Mindful Chef, Giles Humphries and Myles Hopper, who have changed the way we cook Credit: Luke Stephenson

On 12 March this year, Boris Johnson announced that anyone with a new continuous cough or a temperature must self-isolate. Panic started to rise as people turned to supermarket websites in their thousands, searching for evaporating delivery slots. But for one young business it was a game-changing moment. Mindful Chef, which offers a subscription delivery service of healthy recipe-box kits, was about to turn five years old, with business ticking along steadily. That day, orders started to come in thick and fast.

‘We knew about Covid in the background,’ recalls Giles Humphries. ‘But no one knew what was coming.’ He and his two co-founders, Myles Hopper and Robert Grieg-Gran, were on a stag do. ‘We’d gone to France for a weekend skiing,’ says Hopper. ‘Then it all started kicking off and we realised, this is a bit more serious than we thought.’

They raced back to the UK. ‘Then, on 23 March when Boris announced lockdown on TV, he actually used the words, “Use online food-delivery services,” and our website went absolutely ballistic,’ says Humphries. ‘I was sitting there watching the traffic numbers, and had messages coming through from our team: “Oh my goodness me, this is going bonkers.” In one day, we had 30 or 40 times the normal orders, and that continued to grow and grow.’

By the end of April, Mindful Chef had sold more in 2020 than in the whole of 2019. Before the pandemic, it had around 30,000 active subscribers – today, it’s 100,000. Its projected turnover for 2020 was £23 million (compared to last year’s £16m); instead, it’s on track to take £55 million.

Now in October, I’m sitting in the glass-walled HQ of Mindful Chef in Wandsworth, south London, with Humphries, 35, and Hopper, 32. (Grieg-Gran, 34, prefers to let Myles and Giles do press. ‘His name doesn’t rhyme,’ jokes Hopper.) Fresh-faced, trim, and far healthier-looking than your average 30-something bloke: they are a great advert for the lifestyle they’re selling.

The office is small, with an open-plan kitchen in which one of their chefs, Kevin, is quietly preparing ‘meatless meatballs’– the main ingredients are fennel and aubergine. Some of the photography is done here, but there’s a larger development kitchen on another premises. They’re about to expand into a much bigger HQ: ‘We’re building an amazing test kitchen area – it’s going to double up so our community can come in for classes, demonstrations and supper clubs as well,’ says Hopper.

Though everything appears calm, this year hasn’t been easy. ‘I would never complain, because there are so many people who have lost their jobs,’ says Humphries. ‘But it’s been very draining. It took us five years to grow the business, and then three weeks to treble its size, so it was a mixed bag of pure exhilaration, adrenaline, and at the same time also running yourself into the ground. At times, there was barely any sleep. I recall saying to Myles in May, “We’re at risk of burnout, and we each need to take a long weekend off.”’

Hopper has a three-year-old daughter, and when we meet, his wife, who works for a marketing agency, is overdue with their second baby. ‘We’ve got a few more greys now, I think,’ he agrees. ‘It’s been a super-weird year.’

The three founders met at school in Devon; they played sport together and would hang out in Cornwall, where they all took summer jobs. ‘We were always friends, but because we were slightly different ages, we had other sets of friends as well – that works nicely now, because we have that separation outside of work,’ explains Hopper. As adults, Humphries went into marketing, working for M&C Saatchi; Grieg-Gran was in banking; and Hopper was a personal trainer and nutritional coach.

‘In the summer of 2014, we were all down in Devon and went out with family friends on a fishing boat,’ recalls Humphries. ‘We were watching the fish being landed. It was their business on the side: they used to do the catch, head back about 5pm and text local villagers to say, “This is what we’ve got.” As the boat came back in, people were waiting for fish on the dock. We thought, “This is amazing, that the food supply-chain can be that simple.”’

Then a friend mentioned a new culinary trend that was taking off in New York: recipe-box deliveries. ‘We looked at the concept, married it up with our experience on the fishing boat, and thought, “This is a really good opportunity.”’

Hopper and Humphries left their jobs early the next year to concentrate full-time on launching Mindful Chef, with Grieg-Gran following nine months later. ‘We were getting to that point in our careers where you’ve got a bit of experience under your belt, so throwing that away was a scary prospect,’ says Humphries. ‘Myles and I would sit in a coffee shop and write down the pros and cons. What it eventually came down to was, “If not now, then when?”’

Initially, they did everything themselves, using Grieg-Gran’s London flat as an office. ‘It was ridiculous. We’d use his kitchen to test and create recipes,’ continues Humphries. ‘We were taking the best ones we could find from cookbooks and online, and making healthy versions – looking at dishes loaded with pasta and saying, “Everyone eats loads of stodgy carbs, so let’s put in some nutritious sweet potato.” We were also doing the photography, which was bonkers. I used my dad’s old SLR camera; we found a piece of wood in a timber yard and painted it white for a backdrop, and we shot the dishes in the apartment. At weekends, Myles and I would then be delivering it to friends and family in a little Del Boy-style van that we bought second-hand. We genuinely did everything. Then almost a year in, we hired our first staff member, Louisa, our chef.’

Giles Humphries (left) and Myles Hopper Credit: Luke Stephenson

By the beginning of 2020 they had 43 staff, but the unprecedented demand created by the pandemic could have flattened them. ‘The next two or three months were spent just keeping the ship upright,’ says Humphries. Today they have 85 staff, and last month Mindful Chef’s frozen ready-meal range – the likes of smoky pulled jackfruit and rustic chicken cacciatore – was picked up by two prestigious bricks-and-mortar retailers – Planet Organic and Selfridges. ‘That’s exciting, because it’s our first opportunity to move into offline retail,’ says Humphries. Most significantly, earlier this month Nestlé agreed to acquire a majority share in the business.

It is not the only recipe-box company that’s thriving. Gousto hired an extra 400 staff in the first part of this year; HelloFresh saw its number of active US customers reach an all-time high of five million. But as an underdog in the industry – ‘Even now, if you were going to ask 100 people out there, probably 80 would never have heard of us,’ says Humphries – Mindful Chef is a particular success story.

The meal-kit phenomenon started with Swedish company Linas Matkasse in 2008; its popularity is said to have inspired HelloFresh, which launched in Berlin three years later. The latter has gone on to be the most successful brand of its type, netting £1.6 billion in 2019, with a staff of over 7,000. Many competitors have followed, from Gousto to Blue Apron.

The industry trades on the fact that we are busier than ever, and meal planning takes time; these companies remove that hassle by offering a wide range of recipes, and providing everything we need, as many times a week as you choose. Even before the pandemic, the UK’s recipe-box market was expected to exceed £1.5 billion by 2022.

What makes Mindful Chef unique is its focus on health. ‘If we had just done the same as the others, then we certainly wouldn’t be here today,’ says Hopper. ‘From a business point of view, we thought, “OK, let’s make healthy eating really easy,” because we think that’s a pain point for people. Trying to eat well, week in, week out, is really hard.’

Chicken cacciatore with sweet-potato mash. Available in Mindful Chef’s healthy frozen ready-meal range Credit: Mindful Chef

Their goal is to minimise sugar and refined carbs, which means no bread, white pasta or white rice on the menu; the recipes are both gluten- and dairy-free. ‘What’s good for you to eat regularly is lots of protein, lots of veg, lots of fruit,’ says Humphries. ‘Our competitors were filling their boxes with cheap, stodgy fillers like pasta and burger buns. So we said, “Let’s remove any refined carbohydrates, and all the processed stuff.”’ It’s an approach that has attracted investors from the world of sport, including Andy Murray and Victoria Pendleton.

The recipes are planned up to six months in advance, making the most of seasonal produce, from hot-smoked salmon, courgette and coconut yogurt to golden aubergine fritters with plum-tomato sauce. Although a few favourites remain on the menu (lasagne made from aubergine instead of pasta is popular), most of the recipes are changed weekly.

It’s not an easy gig for the product team, who are responsible for creating the recipes. ‘They’re constantly suggesting new ingredients,’ says Humphries. ‘One of them told us about a company called The Cornish Seaweed Company, so a month later, Myles and I went snorkelling with them, plucking the seaweed out and bringing it back to shore.’

Within months of launching, the company noticed a rising trend for vegan food, and decided to introduce plant-based meals. ‘At the time, that was considered very niche,’ says Humphries. ‘Now, roughly 12 per cent of our customers are purely eating vegan meals, and well over 55 per cent are choosing to be flexitarian – so perhaps getting one fish dish and one vegan dish a week.’ The plan is to increase the options until the menu is 50 per cent vegan, adds Hopper.

The immediate challenge in March was sourcing the quantities of ingredients. Mindful Chef uses only grass-fed meat, free-range chicken and fish caught in UK waters; it chooses to work with independent, high-
 welfare British farms, like the free-range-only Traditional Norfolk Poultry, but existing suppliers weren’t enough to keep up with the demand. ‘We hadn’t realised that 95 per cent of supermarket chicken is not free-range,’ says Humphries. ‘So our buyers had to call every free-range chicken farm in the country. Suddenly, instead of working with our two or three core farms, we were speaking to 30.’

For its packing warehouses near Birmingham, it hired local staff, some of whom had lost jobs because of the pandemic. ‘On a normal week we’d have about 40 staff packing boxes, and we had to take it up to about 150 overnight,’ recalls Humphries.

It also launched a next-day care box, to help those who were shielding and needed food urgently; customers could order until 9pm and receive it the following day. ‘We thought, “Let’s just make things a bit harder for ourselves,”’ jokes Hopper.

What Mindful Chef offers is best summed up as convenience with a conscience. The business model itself reduces waste, because – in normal times, at least – you order ahead and so they know exactly what they need. It also works with the charity One Feeds Two, donating a school meal to a child in Malawi for every meal a customer buys: it has just passed the milestone of donating five million meals.

But it’s not without its critics. There’s the problem of packaging: many have criticised recipe-box companies for all the pots, bags and boxes that carry their ingredients. In Mindful Chef’s case, it’s all recyclable, and it provides a free returns service for its insulation and ice packs; still, I wonder how many customers chuck it away.

Then there’s the impact on our culinary skills. Some argue that recipe-box services are so paint-by-numbers that they’re actually preventing people from learning to cook; Hopper almost rolls his eyes at this. ‘Most of us on average cook seven recipes, I think,’ he says. ‘With Mindful Chef, the average customer gets three meals a week, so that’s potentially 150 recipes a year, from cuisines all over the world. You can’t tell me that’s not opening up their repertoire.’ Humphries chips in: ‘I always remember one lady saying, “My husband hasn’t cooked for 20 years. I’ve given him a recipe box, and he’s now whipping up a Keralan monkfish curry.”’

OK, but what about the cost? A single serving of shredded Asian chicken with noodles, cucumber and mint costs £10.50. ‘Ordering for one person is slightly more expensive, because you can’t send half a cauliflower,’ points out Hopper. ‘So in some cases you’re getting more food and could stretch it to more meals. And you’re also paying for the convenience, for the variety.’

As the pandemic rolls on, we continue to rely on services like Mindful Chef. In November, two days after a second national lockdown was announced, Humphries gives an update: ‘Yesterday we saw the highest number of orders since late April. Luckily, we’re in a much better position this time around.’ It is about to launch soups and broths, and is looking at other opportunities to sneak into our lives: ‘We’re hoping to become more relevant, more often across the week,’ says Hopper. ‘To help people with how to eat well at breakfast, or with snacking.’

This Christmas, if restrictions will allow, they hope to head back to Devon to see their families. Usually, Mindful Chef pauses deliveries for a couple of weeks in December, but this year it’ll be going up to the 23rd.

‘We’ve added in festive dishes, like turkey and sprouts, partridge, and nut roasts,’ says Humphries. ‘We felt we could do our bit to support people who might be shielding or spending time alone. I saw a comment from a customer yesterday who said, “I’m 70 years old, and I was delighted to see that you are looking after those of us who are alone. Normally at Christmas time I’m presented with party packs for eight to 10 people, whereas now I can order a festive dinner from you.”’ Humphries is proud of this, not unreasonably. It’s been a grim year, and he and his co-founders have helped many people; now it looks like, for some, they might also be the start-up that saves Christmas.