Dr. Will’s: A dollop of common sense
The no-added-sugar condiment brand has secured shelf space in major UK supermarkets and launched a social media campaign that’s gone viral. NutritionInvestor speaks with co-founder Liam White to find out more
Dr. Will’s is a newcomer in the condiments category – it hit the UK market with a range of ketchup, mayonnaise, and dressings made with tomatoes, dates and apples, among other natural ingredients. Liam White, co-founder of the start-up, says the brand is adamant about always being free from added sugar and of using ingredients anyone would recognise from the kitchen.
The start-up is the brainchild of co-founders Will Breakey, a medical doctor, and hospitality connoisseur Joshua Rose. They recognised the need for a healthier alternative to the mainstream brands in the market that are sweetened with refined sugars – up to 20 grams in 100 grams of product in some cases.
“Will’s mother is a teacher and always commented about how parents were trying to get their kids to eat their vegetables by covering them in Heinz ketchup,” says White. “She thought there must be something better than this product full of sugar.”
While the inspiration for Dr Will’s was health-driven, there’s also a trendsetter angle to it. Newcastle-based Rose was working at a gastropub that prides itself for its locally sourced food and craft beers, but something was out of tune. “The condiments on the tables were the standard, mainstream brands that have been around for years and years,” says White. “So, the idea of making an alternative came about.”
The entrepreneurial trio met and formed Dr. Will’s in 2016. “The first product in the range was developed in Josh’s kitchen and was a recipe that went wrong but tasted great, so we kept it,” says White. “It’s now our beetroot ketchup.”
White says they were trying to make tomato ketchup using only tomatoes. The sauce came out orange, but beetroot’s natural red colour did the trick.
The product range grew slowly. First with a barbecue sauce, and followed by the tomato ketchup. A year later, Dr. Will’s launched the mayonnaise range, including original, avocado oil, chilli mayo, and a vegan version. A Siracha hot sauce, and vegan-friendly Caesar and miso tahini dressings complete the range.
Dr. Will’s has been selling direct to consumers from the outset. “We started by getting into wholesalers and independent stores like farm shops and delis,” says White. “Our first break was in the summer of 2017 when we went into Selfridges, and after that into places like Planet Organic and premium healthy food shops.”
The start-up joined Ocado in April 2018, and from then on, sales have grown. Last summer, the brand went into Holland & Barrett, and in August this year into Waitrose and Tesco – reaching customers nation-wide for the first time.
“We first met Tesco’s buyers in 2017 and had a positive meeting, but it was very early on in our journey,” says White. “We only had three products at that point, and not much of a sales track record. They wanted to see us go into another retailer and show that there was a demand for the products,” he adds. “We had some data proving consumer interest in healthier condiments, but they wanted to see traction.”
The start-up kept in touch with Tesco’s buyers, updating them on the progress of sales while improving product development and launching new SKUs.
Branding through social media
Dr Will’s activated the listing on Tesco with a social media campaign with a personal touch. The founders decided to share the news with their customers – friends and family, and people who they met along the way – through video messages posted online.
With the campaign, Dr Will’s aims to sell 10,000 bottles by the end of November, and pledges to give £10,000 worth of sauce to food banks upon reaching the target.
“We went back to where everything started for us – Josh to the pub in Newcastle and Will to the farmers’ market, and I to the building of JP Morgan where I used to work,” says White. “In the videos, we explain what we’re up for, that we had made it to Tesco and to prove them right we need your help.”
By inviting people to buy Dr Will’s from Tesco, they were also raising awareness of the no-added-sugar alternative in the market. White says Dr. Will’s donated to food banks in the past, and that it is a cause close to their hearts.
“We’ve done this through our personal networks, and we have seen so many people sending photos of them buying products – it’s overwhelming,” says White, noting that after a week, the campaign has already reached 15% of the target.
Recipe and price point
Like many start-ups, Dr. Will’s has bootstrapped its operation. In the beginning, product formulation was based on the scientific background of Dr Breakey, but the commitment to use only natural ingredients called for an expert.
“We realised that we were making a recipe that would taste amazing in the kitchen, but it wouldn’t work in production,” says White. “So, we started to work with a food scientist, and she suggested using dates – we have used dates to sweeten our products ever since.”
White says launching the vegan options was challenging. “One of the vegan food traits we wanted to avoid was processed ingredients,” he says. “Vegan products tend to have a long list of ingredients, many of which you don’t recognise,” he adds. “Our brand’s position is that our label will only have ingredients you would recognise from the kitchen or understand what they are.”
White says the vegan Caesar dressing was an exciting project. Working with an experienced flavour house, the option it presented was to use maltodextrin. “We didn’t want to use it as it’s against our core values,” says White. “In the end, the flavour house reformulated it with rice flour, and it really gives that cheese taste you would expect in a Caesar dressing.”
Using only natural ingredients gives a punch to the products’ nutritional profile. “While the mainstream ketchup brand has 23 grams of sugar in 100 grams of product, we have 16 grams of sugar, which comes from dates only – that’s about 30% less,” says White. He notes that Dr. Will’s Siracha has 13 grams of sugar in 100 grams of product while the leading brand has 22 grams of sugar.
White knows that going for all-natural ingredients comes at a cost. Dr. Will’s is more expensive than the mainstream brands, but the start-up is trying to bring production costs down to be at least closer to its competition.
“Our goal is to have a price so that anybody who wants a healthier, tasty and natural choice could pick up our products. We don’t want to be an expensive brand,” says White.
Today, Dr. Will’s products are about 30% cheaper than they were in 2017, and White says that as sales grow, it will become easier to reduce the price.
“It’s a tricky game because you need to have a sensible price for people to buy from you, but you need people to buy from you to reach a sensible price – it’s like a chicken and egg situation!” says White.
Funding the business has been straightforward. Dr. Will’s has done a few angel investments rounds, raising £900,000 to date.
“Now that we’re available across the country, we’re looking at further fundraising,” says White, noting that angel investors have worked well for the brand.
“Our aspiration is to become the disruptive challenger brand in condiments, and that’s about brand awareness in the UK,” says White. “We want to raise awareness of the amount of sugar and additives in condiments, and that there is an alternative. We need to amplify the message through the listing on Tesco and Waitrose, and we believe there’s a lot of growth to have.”
White reveals that Dr. Will’s tomato ketchup is version 57 of the original recipe and that winning a star in this year’s Great Taste Awards encourages the start-up to continue improving the product.
“We’ve been telling people we have made a healthier ketchup that tastes great, and now that it won a Great Taste award, we don’t have to convince people,” he concludes.