Scan the shelves of your average health store or supermarket these days, and you’ll find no end of energy bars, nutritious treats and ‘wellness’ snacks, which have been birthed in the last few years.
Among those, and achieving both rave reviews and plenty of awards, is the fabulous female-founded brand, Squirrel Sisters.
We’ve been chatting to one half of the ‘sister act’ behind the creation.
It’s a pretty common scenario that an entrepreneurial business comes to find its humble beginnings in trying to solve a problem.
Think of Mr Dyson not wanting to have to contend with a messing vacuum cleaner, or Rob Law (he of Trunki fame) wanting to solve the dilemma of battling through an airport with suitcases and kids in tow.
Arguably, Squirrel Sisters has its roots in an ‘issue’ not dissimilar.
After all, it was because of Sophie Tyrrell’s personal issues with certain food ingredients, that sister Gracie had begun turning her hand to creating ‘healthy bars’ in their shared kitchen.
Sophie was often left struggling for the perfect nutritious fix because of a gluten intolerance and a severe reactive issue with sugar, which had resulted from a heart procedure.
Thank goodness then, for the compassion, creativity, and culinary genius of a foodie loving sibling.
“Snack bars were something I’d started making Sophie in our 20s when we lived together, but it wasn’t that we’d initially thought we were going to be the creators of a snack brand – not at all,” Gracie insists.
“In fact, we were more ‘bloggers’ in the early days, than purposeful food producers.
“We had always been into health and wellbeing, but took the kind of approach to our lives that we wanted to be able to go out and have fun, enjoy a glass of wine, feel satisfied and not restricted, but enjoy healthier approaches to indulgent food.
“This was the ethos to our blog, which we started in 2014, and it gained a great following of people who liked our attitude toward balance and nutrition.”
It was their musings on their blog, and their regular recipe contributions, which meant that the ‘Squirrel Sisters’, now aged 31 and 33, had accidentally stumbled into an arena which would form the foundations of a foodie business.
As daughters of self-employed businessman and a “highly creative” Mum, perhaps all the ingredients were there from the outset, because by 2015 they were starting their vision to bring those ‘problem solver’ nutritious bars to the masses.
“We reached a point where we recognised that our bars were popular, potentially the starting point for a wider range, and something we could turn into the core of a home-run business,” Gracie continues.
“It was quite a side step from the career worlds we’d started out in after leaving university – me in film and TV, and Sophie in new business roles for a branding agency – but we were clear that we felt our future was in something more entrepreneurial.
“After discussions with our parents, and complete support and enthusiasm from the outset, we decided it was a scratch we had to itch.”
Cue several dedicated months of the sisters testing and tweaking, from their kitchen in their shared London flat.
Thanks to Sophie’s boyfriend of the time (now husband) being immersed in the world of brand design, the siblings were able to develop a catchy brand concept and ‘get going’ with next to no investment.
There followed a period of ‘social media stalking’ to get in front of the kind of stores in which they wanted their product to be seen.
“Sometimes I feel I need to pinch myself at how that process came together and how quickly and successfully we were able to get our new healthy bar in front of the retailers,” confesses Gracie.
“We were just starting from our kitchen, after all, but here we were getting recognition from Wholefoods, Planet Organic, and a handful of others.
“It was such an exciting time, and we quickly realised we would have to up our operational capabilities if we were to deliver on expectations from the retailers who were trusting us to be part of their supply chain.”
From originally creating bars with a food blender on their counter top, suddenly they were in discussions to secure a factory which could take on their needs.
As foodie founders passionate about family and about a supportive ethos, perhaps it’s no surprise to learn that they set their hearts on a relationship with a family-run factory, with which they could partner for the next stage of their journey.
By late 2015, it was all systems go, and their original recipe bar was beginning to be stocked in a number of the UK stores best associated with health foods.
Awards, more stores, and product line evolution followed swiftly.
In fact, it’s hard to believe that a brand which is now in Waitrose, Morrison, on Ocado, and in the likes of WHSmith Travel stores and BP (M&S forecourts), has STILL received no outside investment.
“Investment wasn’t something we wanted to just ‘accept’ too lightly,” stresses Gracie.
“We’ve had plenty of approaches, and to be honest, if we’d thought more about where we might head with this journey at the pace we have, we would probably have sought out the investor relationship much much earlier on, because some retailers really do expect it.
“In certain cases, some outlets want you to stump up huge amounts. One asked us for £65,000 in order to be on their shelves – so we walked away.
“That said, we have always been clear that we wanted the right relationships for every aspect of our business, and so it was important we didn’t ‘rush in’.”
The point is proven by the fact that this sisterly pairing had recently been in well developed discussions with one investor, who was keen to contribute with a healthy sum.
However, on discovering that Sophie is now pregnant with her first child, that individual’s tone changed, and the decision was made to abort seven months of legal conversations and kindly tell the potential investment partner that they would no longer pursue.
“We’re all about female empowerment and about supporting each other through our lives and our business journey, so whoever we collaborate with, has to be on a similar wavelength in our view,” Gracie continues.
“We’re sure we’ll find someone else with the right fit in the next few months, and right now it’s a great time for them to be wanting to be part of our world.
“Not only have we moved into share bags as well as bars, but we also produced a book, which has gained us even more of a following.
“Our customer base is phenomenal, and growing continually; and we’re always getting approached by more retailers and exciting propositions.”
It’s hard not to get immersed in the excitement and enthusiasm with which Gracie discusses the business and the ‘as yet undisclosed’ new plans for the brand.
Clearly, she and Sophie are having huge fun in developing their business – and proving themselves darned good at this entrepreneurial lark too.
“There’s always so much more we could be achieving, but yes, we’re hugely proud of what we’ve developed so far, and how well loved the brand is already,” she says.
“The excitement of seeing your brand on the shelves of stores never goes away, but perhaps one of the greatest things is being able to say that we’re genuinely pursuing a passion, together, as sisters.
“Living a life which focuses on wellness and on being healthy without restriction is exactly who we are, so contributing to that marketplace, particularly at this time of so much more focus on nutrition and wellbeing, is incredible.”
She adds: “I can honestly say that I get up every day feeling happy to be doing what I’m doing, and being excited at what the future may bring.
“We may not have thought this would all happen so quickly, but I promise you, we’re certainly not complaining about that.”
The coming months may well be set to feature the arrival of a new human being for one of the Tyrrell sisters, but you can be pretty certain it won’t be the only update to the story of this pairing.
With the brand now increasingly recognised UK wide, and countless retailers keen to add this relatively new product range to their shelves, there’s bound to be some very interesting chapters to come in this foodie story.