Elena Shifrina is a renowned healthy snacks entrepreneur whose company has recently entered the UK and other EU markets. We caught up with her to discover the benefits of raw, vegan food bars and how they are changing the face of snacking.
Please tell us when and why you decided to go vegan?
When I was a child, my family prioritized healthy eating. My mother put me and my brother on the Hay diet in the sixth grade. She was always looking for natural, healthy foods for us to eat. She always studied the ingredients of products and didn’t allow us to eat fast food. I admit that it was hard to get used to at first. As kids we wondered why we weren't fed like everyone else! When I got older, I continued learning about healthy eating and how food impacted my body. I stopped eating meat, and noticed a positive effect; first and foremost, a feeling of physical lightness. I then replaced regular milk with soy and rice milk. My veganism is based on my love for animals and my desire to protect them. I don’t understand why we need to kill animals if everything your body requires to stay healthy can be found in plant foods.
When did you realise that you wanted to turn your lifestyle into a business?
When I studied for my MBA at Skolkovo Business School, I took a course on startups where we learned about a wildly popular trend in the West – healthy food. I started to study the market and discovered that there were no all-natural healthy snacks in Russia in an easily accessible format. That's how the idea to create a healthy snack was born. I wanted to do something that would be simple, useful and tasty. When we started looking at taste-sensation research and the eating habits of people in different countries around the world, we found out that Russians really love their sweets. So we came up with an all-natural health bar that is sweet without any added sugar, flavors or preservatives. We experimented at length with organoleptics, spices and ingredient proportions, and created Bite, our flagship fruit and nut bar. Since that time, we have created different successful healthy snack lines at our company, BioFoodLab.
Please tell us a bit about the process of getting your products on the shelves.
We produce our healthy snacks at our factory in Moscow, where we apply the highest global food product safety standards. We also have a warehouse and distribution center, from where we send snacks directly to stores. We also work with distributors in some large Russian regions and globally. In terms of getting our products on any given store’s shelves, it takes on average three to six months. When we first started out, we sold our Bite bars through small online stores while working to get them into big retail chains in parallel, so as not to lose any time. We initially focused on getting Bite into premium grocery chains. This took effort because buyers wanted to be sure that our product would sell, because it is very innovative for the Russian market. Now our snacks are sold at all leading retail chains in Russia, cafes and restaurants, pharmacies and fitness clubs. Our Bite bars can be found not only in the premium but also in the mass market segment. Outside Russia, our snacks are sold in 14 countries, including the UK, Japan, China, Canada, the UAE, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, as well as on our online store, which offers global delivery.
What can you tell us about your flagship raw vegan bars?
Our Bite bars are all-natural and consist 100-percent of fruit and nuts. They don’t have any added sugar or flavors, preservatives, dyes, GMOs, gluten, milk, or soy. They are also extremely rich in protein, Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, fiber and antioxidants. Bite is sweet thanks to the glucose and fructose found naturally in dried fruits and berries. Our bars don’t have any hard-to-pronounce or harmful ingredients. We also make our snacks at our own factory, where we use a special technology of careful production. We dry our finished products at a temperature that preserves the nutritional goodness of all our ingredients.
Were you surprised when so many children were eating your bars too?
We started to see a lot of photographs of children eating our Bite bars on social media. Mothers love our snacks, because they are confident of their nutritional value, quality and safety. As a mother, I know that kids need foods that are designed especially for them, so we set a task for ourselves and came up with our line of children’s bars, Bitey. They are made of berries, fruits and oats and are for kids two and up. We also have a nutritious oat and fruit line for kids who do sports, and berry-juice marmalades for kids three and up. All our children’s snacks are completely natural and don’t have any added sugar, GMOs, or milk.
What are your thoughts on natural sugars like agave and maple being labelled as healthy?
I stopped eating refined sugar long ago, so I don’t feel any particular craving for really sweet foods. But sometimes when I am working around the clock, or I am just in the right mood, I want to eat something that is really sweet. When I do, I usually eat our new low-calorie candy, Bite Candy, or a piece of bitter chocolate. Generally, I don’t look for sugar substitutes, because the body does not need added sugar.
Why was it important for you to make a raw bar- what are the benefits of raw ingredients?
We have a wide range of snacks, so healthy lifestyle adherents of every stripe can find something tasty to eat that meets their needs, including raw vegans. For me, it is important that any adult or child can find a delicious healthy snack in our product line that fits his or her taste. People need to have the right food at hand to stay healthy. Especially when you are just starting out on your healthy living journey, accessibility is key. We are also seeing a hike in demand for raw vegan products in Russia, which is not surprising. The raw vegan diet is healthy, allowing people to cleanse their bodies of toxins and other harmful substances in a short period of time. We process our snacks at a temperature of no more than forty degrees.
Why do you think there has been a sudden healthy food movement in Russia and eastern Europe?
The healthy lifestyle trend is growing in popularity in Russia each and every day. Many of these trends start in Europe and the United States. It is rather easy to accurately predict when a popular product abroad will start to make waves in Russia. Right now, the healthy living trend here is mostly defined by reasonably priced gyms, healthy restaurants and cafes, and healthy snacks in supermarkets. The healthy lifestyle sector in Russia has huge potential. We have much more to accomplish. We are already working on new innovative healthy food products that will soon be introduced to the market.
You used to be a model, so why did you want to move away from that and go into the food business?
My friends always told me that I am one of those people who likes to think two steps ahead. When I was a fashion model in Paris, I told myself that modeling is by nature unsteady work, and modeling was not the limit of my dreams. I asked myself how I could most effectively use my time while living abroad. The answer was to get a good education. When I finished studying, I decided I would not return to modeling. I started to think about my future earnings and how I could earn as much as I did as a model (if I would be successful, naturally). The answer was the oil industry. I managed to find a job at TNK-BP, the largest oil company at the time, and worked as a petroleum products trader for a while. I put aside some savings and then received my MBA from the Skolkovo Business School. At some point I realized that I had been in the corporate world for too long, and if I was going to start my own business, it was “now or never.” I decided it would be “now.” It was hard at first. My husband also helped me a great deal. He had a stable job, and I knew he would always put bread on the table for our family, so I could take this chance. While studying at Regent's Business School in the UK, I learned that emerging markets have enormous potential and the barriers to entry in business are conditionally much lower than they are abroad. You can enter any sector, work hard, and achieve genuine success if you put your mind to it, and that is exactly what I did.
What is next for you?
I want to continue developing the healthy food movement in Russia for adults and children. I believe that health is the key to a strong, successful nation. We have created a factory where we produce snacks at the highest level. Now I want to delve deeper into the IT technologies that will contribute to our development. The retail industry is changing fast, and e-commerce will be an integral part of our future at BioFoodLab.
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