Back when we chose to base Erudus in the Northeast we had a pretty sizeable list for doing so – the vibrancy of the area, its friendliness, the work hard – play hard ethos, not to mention a rich industrial history and the pride its people take in that.
These days we’d have another – Heather Mills is set to open Plant-Based Valley, a 385,000 square foot production lot for her vegan food company VBites, on the site of the old Coty factory in Seaton Delaval. In addition to bringing jobs to the region, it will serve as an incubator for VBites Ventures, her initiative to support local, plant-based entrepreneurs. For the area’s standing in the food industry, this can only be a great thing.
Especially since it’s a particularly well-timed move – vegan diets are currently enjoying a popularity boom, with more celebrity followings and headlines than they can count on their green fingers. So we spoke to Mills to find out how her decades-spanning passion for a plant-based lifestyle materialised into a plan to turn the Northeast into a food industry capital…
Who are VBites?
The vogue for veganism did not exist when VBites launched their food range back in 1993. Mills, a celebrated charity campaigner and vegan since the nineties, purchased the company in 2009, and implemented a deceptively simple strategy – ‘Make the food taste good.’ She reasoned that if her (competitively priced) plant-based offerings tasted as good as meat options, consumers would be more likely to give them a chance. It paid off – the 134-strong line is now sold in 24 countries around the world.
The story so far…
It was a sense of loyalty to the Northeast that led Mills – a native herself – to set up here. She explains, ‘I was living between Austria and England and had gotten to know the Austrian government. They agreed to fund a [VBites] factory and would gift us the land so long as we brought jobs. But then a girlfriend of mine rang up and said the Walkers factory in Peterlee was closing down. That’s where I was born, and brought up.’ So, with fond memories of their pickled onion crisps, Mills pressed pause on Austria and stepped in to save the Peterlee factory – transforming it into a plant-based facility.
With commitment to the Northeast now established, Mills was keen to expand in the area, snapping up a smaller factory in Benton to produce vegan cheese. When the Coty factory came up it posed an amazing opportunity, if something of a risk – the site was huge, and Mills had long faced scepticism about the future of veganism. But for her, this was absolutely the right move. ‘I knew that soon everyone was going to be desperate for plant-based only facilities. So I put everything in it.’ And the old Coty factory was reinvented as Plant-Based Valley.
This is great news for local workers!
Seaton Delaval’s ex-Coty employees were actually one of the big attractions for Mills when purchasing the site. ‘They’re all amazingly trained in the factory sector – the Coty factory had highly skilled production teams. When you’re setting up a factory, if you’ve already got a skilled workforce in place it’s so helpful.’
She hopes to generate around 400 jobs within 5 years, and Northumberland County Council, who are keen to invest in the industry of the future, are seeking to build a Newcastle-Northumberland railway line which would improve accessibility to Plant-Based Valley (among other places).
A plan for the future …
The vision for Plant-Based Valley extends beyond the factory walls – the end goal is to create local procurement and stop relying on shipments from abroad. This would help cement the area as an industry leader. Mills explains ‘We’ve been speaking to all the local farmers and the farmer’s union and they’re all excited to work with us – we can then place big orders in the oat and plant-based categories.’ She also intends to use the factory’s existing resources to pioneer use of algae, one of the vegan industry’s most exciting and versatile products – ‘I was hoping the tanks in the ex-Coty factory could be used for algae, and I’m delighted to say they are. We’re also going to grow algae and hydroponic mushrooms on the 10 acres down the side [of the site].’
Showing our support
In addition to VBites, Plant-Based Valley will also act as an incubator for vegan start-ups, because whilst Mills thinks the success of the vegan movement is about ‘flooding the market with consumer choice’, she also believes that small vegan businesses should be helped and protected – to avoid the fate of being swallowed up by bigger brands.
Of the 125 small businesses Mills intends to help, 5 have already started the process. And in support of what Mills and VBites are doing, Erudus has offered a year’s free subscription to our Manufacturer Solution to those manufacturers in residence at Plant-Based Valley, to help them share their food data and amazing vegan products with the rest of the industry.