Alara Wholefoods produces a variety of muesli, superfoods, granola and cereal-based snacks for a wide range of UK-based and overseas customers of all sizes, from start-ups all the way up to supermarkets.
I started the business here in London’s King’s Cross in 1975 after finding two £1 notes in a street, which I used to pay to get into New Covent Garden Market in my friend’s van. Once in, I foraged through the bins, picking up discarded fruit and vegetables.
I then squatted an empty dairy in nearby Tolmer’s Square and sold the produce. In many ways, it was my most successful day ever as a businessman I started it with £2, and ended it with £4.
The business grew very quickly from there. It helped that I had very few overheads, because I knew how to survive without money. Just before starting Alara, I had lived in a squat and relied on food scavenged from skips outside a local food distribution centre, from a nearby wholesaler, and from New Covent Garden Market.
Surviving without food (back to top)
During those years, I learned that living without money was easy, but surviving without food was impossible.
My time in the squat made me realise the importance of using our planet’s natural resources sustainably. As a species, we simply have to become sustainable to survive – we don’t have any other choice.
Now, after running this business for more than 40 years, I firmly believe we are the most sustainable food manufacturer on Earth, and I base that claim on four key pillars.
The first is our approach to the environment. With the help of an MSc student from South Bank University, who was with us for two years on a Knowledge Transfer Partnership, in 2008 we became the first food factory in the world to achieve zero waste to landfill.
We became zero waste through a number of simple recycling strategies. We also created a community compost hub for non-edible food waste. Edible food waste, meanwhile, is donated to charity.
We only use green energy on the site. We generate on average around 25% of our electricity from our solar roof panels, while the rest we buy from Ecotricity, which primarily generates electricity from wind power.
LOCATION: 110 Camley Street, London. N1C 4PW
SIZE: 1,580m2 (floor space)
MAIN PRODUCTS: Muesli, superfoods, granola and cereal-based snacks – the majority of which are organic. The product mix is 70% own-label, 30% branded.
MAIN CUSTOMERS: Alara supplies to all the major retailers. Other customers include manufacturers, wholesalers and foodservice.
PRODUCTION LINES: Three form, fill and seal machine lines, a pot line, a bakery line with an oven, a bulk line that produces 25kg sacks, a milling line that produces 5–10kg packs, and a hand-packing line.
FACTORY OUTPUT: 60–70t a week.
As we import from all over the world, producing zero carbon food is not realistic, so we offset our carbon footprint by supporting the Rainforest Saver project.
We worked on a big project with the Carbon Trust to better understand the amount of carbon that is generated from food.
The project found that it can fluctuate wildly – therefore, we make a monthly estimate of the average carbon created from all our food ingredients and then we donate the equivalent amount in money to Rainforest Saver.
Our second pillar of sustainability is how we deal with our suppliers. In line with our ethical and fair trade ethos, we don’t have a creditor book we pay all of our suppliers either upfront or as soon as we have approved the goods.
It’s a very concrete way of telling our suppliers how much we value them, and how much we value what it is they are supplying to us. And we find that has a reciprocal effect – so the supply relationships we enter into are based on mutual trust and respect.
The third pillar relates to the social wellbeing of our staff and the local community. A decade ago we extended our site and created a permaculture garden, where we grow food from 65 different trees and plants.
Parties for the community (back to top)
We produce all sorts of things – Chinese pear, Japanese yew plum, goji berries, kiwi, yacon – you name it, there’s a high likelihood we grow it. However, we don’t use the produce in the factory. Instead, we hold parties for the staff and locals, and the food is laid on there.
I won’t deny it – gardening can be bloody hard work. But wandering around the garden and watching the bees working can be a great escape from the pressures of running a business.
Corporate social responsibility is built on these three pillars, but we go one further by including good governance as well. We ensure all our audits are as transparent as possible and post them on our company website.
We believe both food safety and health and safety are integral to what we do, and making ourselves publicly accountable demonstrates this.
Another aspect of our sustainability is just how lean we are at manufacturing. We’re a ‘long tail’ manufacturer making specialist niche products – in fact, we produce more than 1,000 stock-keeping units – so being as lean as possible is vital to us.
We achieve this by having a highly advanced stock management system, which we built ourselves. We produce to order, and don’t hold any finished stock. The labels on our finished products are scanned and the ingredients are subtracted from our stockholding, so we always have a live record of everything we hold.
As we make up to 35 different products a day, we use linear weighers because they are gravity-fed and we can air-clean them. Multi-head weighers take much longer to clean.
While I believe we are the most sustainable food manufacturer on Earth, I would really like to hear from other food firm owners who would challenge that.
Our mission is to work cooperatively with people to inspire the development of sustainable food systems – so I am more than happy to learn from others.
Looking ahead, we are planning on getting our message out better – in other words, why we are here and what we stand for.
We also want to develop our branded products for retail, which we haven’t done for a long time. We’ve just hired former Jordans and Kettle Chips md Ed Olphin on a consultancy basis, who will be instrumental for us in both areas.
Redevelopment plans (back to top)
The main challenge ahead for us – though it’s also an opportunity – is our location. We sit in the Camley Street/Cedar Way industrial estate, which is owned by Camden Council. It is currently refusing to renew business leases, suggesting that it is looking to change land usage.
To address this, we’re part of a consortium that is proposing mixed usage on the land. Our plans would provide around 700 affordable rented homes, and the extra business space would double the number of jobs in the area to 1,000.
Under our proposals, Alara would operate from the ground floor of a block that would incorporate flats. All the other companies around us are onboard and plan to stay, and the Greater London Authority is keen to support it.
The buildings will be eco-friendly, and the whole community will be built on sustainability, rather than just Alara. For example, we’ll be using recycled heat from a meat refrigeration business to warm other premises.
We’ve been working on the project for four years, and in the next six months or so we’ll know if it’s a goer or not.
Should we get the green light, it still will be another 10 years before it comes to fruition. But to have a state-of-the-art food manufacturing factory in the heart of London, with 20 storeys of affordable housing above it, sounds to me like something really special.
Meanhwhile, watch Alara boss Alex Smith explain in further detail why he feels his firm is a class apart when it comes to food manufacture in our exclusive video interview.
NAME: Alex Smith
DOMESTICS: Married with two children.
OUTSIDE WORK: The forest garden takes up a lot of my time – but I also enjoy cycling and going to the gym. Another of my passions is Argentine tango. It’s a very precise dance, and it really increases the awareness of your posture and every movement you make.
GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT: Being the founder of the most sustainable food manufacturer on Earth. We were also the first cereal company to be certified organic, and the first to be licensed by Coeliac UK.
ADVICE TO YOUNGER SELF: It might be an obvious one, but learn from your mistakes. In the past, I’ve tried to do the same thing again and again in the hope of getting a different outcome. But you don’t.