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The Rheal deal

Diagnosis of coeliac disease can be a devastating, life-changing experience. But when Charlotte Bailey was in her late teens and told she faced a gluten-free future, little did she know just how much her life could change for the better.

Sent away by her GP to fend for herself, and frustrated by the lack of support and ineffectiveness of supplements and vitamins, Charlotte and future husband Sean Ali were still students when they started to experiment with health store superfood powders in their kitchen. Here, Colin Young speaks to the couple about Rheal Superfoods, the company spawned during their university days, to learn more about how the multi-million-pound venture is expanding to help improve health journeys the world over.

Charlotte Bailey was studying for her A Levels at college in Nuneaton when she started to constantly feel tired and unwell.

A bright student, on course for the grades to enable her to study law at Nottingham Trent University, she was a keen dancer, and as fit and healthy as any normal teenager.

But when she started losing weight, and began to struggle with fatigue and digestive problems, she was referred by her GP for exploratory tests and scans.

Eventually, she was diagnosed with coeliac disease, a serious autoimmune disease affecting one in 100 people, where the ingestion of gluten – the protein found in wheat, rye and barley – leads to damage and tearing to the small intestine.

The diagnosis was to be devastating and also life-changing for her, but in ways Charlotte could have never predicted.

And she knows she’s one of the ‘lucky’ ones; it’s estimated only 30 per cent of people are properly diagnosed with the condition.

There is, however, no cure or medication to control the internal damage when a coeliac sufferer fancies a beer or a sandwich.

The only treatment is to avoid gluten. Full stop.

“It all happened within about six months, which was quite quick,” says Charlotte.

“A lot of people live with coeliac disease for many years, and don’t realise they have it, but with me, because it was so sudden, it was noticeable that something was wrong, and we needed to get the answers for it.

“So we did.

“When you get that diagnosis, you’re basically told, ‘stick to a gluten-free diet for life’.

“And that’s all you can do. Just accept it. Off you go. There was no support.

“I really struggled to accept it mentally. “I’d never had anything wrong with me my whole life, I was never an unwell child. “I just was so angry and frustrated, and I just didn’t understand why this was happening to me.

“I remember my dad took me to Sainsbury’s because they had a little gluten-free section.

“It was very small compared to what they have in supermarkets now; it was a couple of shelves at the back of the store with some gluten-free bread and pasta.

“My poor dad, bless him, he didn’t know what to do.

“He just stood and said, ‘is this it?’”

That night, both Charlotte’s parents took up a gluten-free diet to support her, and share her frustration at the lack of options on the market.

“A loaf of bread is still daylight robbery,” she says.

“And unless it’s at a five-star Michelin restaurant, forget it anyway.”

She met future husband and business partner Sean Ali, a native of South Shields, in their second year at Nottingham Trent University, where he was studying business management and economics.

“We were actually living in the same building in our first year,” says Sean.

“We knew of each other, but never really spoke, and then we met on the first night out of second year.

“It’s a tradition for all the Nottingham Trent societies to wear fancy dress, go into Nottingham and end up in Ocean and its sticky carpets and 90s, S Club 7 vibe.

“We met in the queue outside.”

Sean adds: “After I spent some time at East Carolina University, in America, I came back in 2016 and we moved in together for our final year.

“I started to realise how affected Charlotte was by coeliac disease and being rundown and feeling fatigued.

“In January 2017, we thought, ‘why don’t we look for more natural ways to help?’”

Charlotte says: “I had my gluten-free boxes of pasta, and I thought I could live off that, but I just had no energy.

“I was still really underweight and not eating the right things to support my health.

“I tried multivitamins and supplements, but nothing was working.

“I clearly needed more nutrients in my diet to give me more energy and improve my immune health.

“But I didn’t know where to start.

“All I knew was that I needed something.”

Sean researched superfoods online and, after raiding the shelves in Holland & Barrett, they set up a makeshift lab in their Nottingham kitchen and started experimenting, mixing the likes of spirulina powder with wheatgrass powder, adding plenty of water.

Stir. Down in one. Not unlike a night out in Ocean, really…

“Some of it didn’t taste very good at all; it was like pond water,” says Sean. “I’d looked into the superfoods that could help Charlotte have more energy and better digestion.

“So we just added these different superfood powders together, putting a bit of each into water or a smoothie and, after a few weeks, we both felt the difference.

“I was always fit and healthy, but I really noticed feeling more energetic and focused, especially when I was trying to get through my dissertation in the library.”

It was a business turning point for the couple, who married in Ibiza last year, even as they were finishing their degrees.

They realised they could enhance the lives of fellow coeliacs with their unique potions.

“We were inspired,” says Charlotte.

“I wanted to take control of my own diet and health, but supplements and multivitamins were not doing the trick.

“Superfood powders are just nutrient dense ingredients that are dried into a powder, easy to add into things and mask in a smoothie if you struggle with the taste of it.

“I felt empowered to take control of my own health and wellness, and make a change.

“We both felt a noticeable difference, and we came to the realisation more people needed to be aware of it.”

Sean adds: “We were in my uni room one night and I said, ‘this tastes like crap, these products don’t taste good – why don’t we create our own range of superfood blends that taste good?’

“I remember that night, I literally couldn’t sleep.

“I woke at three in the morning thinking, quite naively at the time, ‘this is a really good idea’.

“I couldn’t wait to get started.

“It has taken a long time to get here from that moment.”

Rheal’s inception came in The Hive, Nottingham Trent’s start-up programme, which offered support and mentoring – and access to the university’s food science department.

And when they weren’t cramming in time to complete their dissertations, Charlotte and Sean were in the labs, working with experts to develop their first products.

They were ready to launch when they graduated in June 2017.

Sean says: “We ordered a lot of different superfood powders and started testing different products in the lab, and worked with a food scientist to create nutritionally dense products that had a well-balanced taste.

“Take Clean Greens, for example. It contains five nutritious super greens and freeze-dried pineapple and baobab.

“We made the decision from the start of our journey that we didn’t want to add any artificial ingredients, that we just wanted 100 per cent whole foods.

“And we can make our products without any of the nasties.”

The launch of the Super U website – the original name of the company – on Shopify, in November 2017, coincided with the couple’s switch to the North East.

They moved in with Sean’s parents, using their South Shields home as a temporary storage unit.

And they soon found the retired police officers were more than happy to embrace the entrepreneurs and get involved in their business.

Sean says: “I’ve still got a photo of the first pallet when it pulled up outside the house.

“It was literally a quarter pallet on my parents’ drive, and we were so excited.

“That was 80 per cent of the money we’d saved.

“We had ten grand in savings between us, and it was all on that little pallet.

“And then we launched.

“We just knew it was going to work because we had felt the benefits with Charlotte’s struggles with health.”

As well as launching their own website and working overtime on their social media accounts, the pair went on the road in their small white Seat Ibiza.

They travelled up and down the country to food fayres, markets and consumer events with a fold-up table, a cloth and a box of their new superfood powders in the Ibiza’s boot.

Charlotte says: “I met so many people who really resonated with my journey and my health.

“They were coeliac, or had Crohn’s, and they’d tried so many things; they just needed more in their diet to feel better.

“A lot of those customers are still with us today.

“I’m really glad we did those events.

“We had a lot of fun in that first year; it was tiring, but very rewarding.”

But just as Charlotte’s health issues were under control, they were dealt a huge blow on the first anniversary of the launch when Sean was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

At the end of a routine meeting with their business mentor in Newcastle, Sean noticed a hard lump above his collarbone.

He says: “I wasn’t worried at all, I just thought it was a swollen gland.

“When we went to A&E, they said my bloods were fine and sent me for tests.

“I never Googled it,” he adds.

“I did. Regretfully”, says Charlotte.

More tests, more scans, more anxiety.

Within a month, Sean was undergoing chemotherapy.

He got the all-clear in July 2019, and remains so.

“That was a huge challenge, beside the business,” he says.

“I had treatment every two weeks, and I’d be bed bound for a week, then I’d have a good week and we’d work.

“I was probably able to do more than Charlotte because she was focused on looking after me.

“We still managed to grow the business, and every year it has grown by more than 200 per cent.

“That showed us enough to see there was something there.

“And then me getting the all-clear, going through that, just gave us even more fuel.

“It gave us more motivation to spread the message of health and looking after yourself.

“From then on, we really gave the business our all.

“We raised our first round of investment – £160,000 for 15 per cent equity in the business – on the crowdfunding platform Seedrs.

“That was the first bit of investment and cash we had to drive the business forward.”

Understandably, the pandemic, with the world population becoming increasingly obsessed with healthier eating, was a successful time for the business.

Still living with Sean’s parents, they had to rent a small unit in South Shields Business Works to keep up with demand, which, along with the supply chain issues at the time, was a testing period.

Later that year, they were encouraged to appear on BBC show Dragons’ Den and, before all five Dragons offered to invest, found a novel way to practice their pitch in the ten days they were given by the show’s producers.

Sean says: “I’ve watched it for years and years, but I always thought I wouldn’t have the nerve to go on and pitch.

“But we thought, ‘what have we got to lose?’

“We got a picture from Dragons’ Den on the telly on the wall, and we stood and pitched to them in the living room.

“It was surreal, but the pitch just went unbelievably well, and then we smashed every question out of the park.”

The pair agreed a deal with former Dragon Tej Lalvani and long-standing Dragon Peter Jones.

Over the months following filming, they eventually agreed a private investment deal with Tej.

And when the programme aired six months later, the business took off to new heights.

Sean says: “It was still COVID-19 times and sales were going really well.

“We were already on this crazy journey with the growth, but the exposure of the show just catapulted the brand.

“In year three, we did half a million in sales. And in one month after the programme went out, we did more than that whole year.

“With people seeing us on the television, seeing the products, our story and how all the Dragons liked it, sales that night went nuts.

“We raised another £1 million in investment, and have just massively pushed on since.”

The pair have now moved into Turbine Business Park, near Sunderland, and have started expanding their team and their product range to include the likes of caffeinated energy bars and more innovative blends.

Last year, they set up a new operation in the US, and after working from LA for 16 months to lay the foundations for that expansion, are now ready to grow further from their impressive new base near Nissan’s Wearside plant.

Charlotte adds: “We’ve built an incredible team, focused on building a brand and improved our operations as a business.

“The last three years have been the craziest journey and experience.”

Sean adds: “We now have more than 30 members of staff, with half based in the North East.

“Building a team that is really behind the mission is definitely one of the proudest things we’ve done.

“We closed our sixth year in October, and we did £20 million in turnover, which is just surreal.

“We have a good product, an amazing brand and a very strong story, and with all those things, we’ve managed to do really well.

“I think a business that is created to solve a problem, and comes from a genuine desire to do good in the world, will do well.

“Our business today is 95 per cent online and five per cent retail, which we only really started this financial year when we launched with Holland & Barrett.

“We’re already number one and two in their superfood category, and we’re now looking at launching with Tesco.

“So, over the next year, retail will play a bigger role.

“There is so much opportunity.”

Charlotte adds: “I think customers trust our brand now.

“We always listen to them, and we just know we can continue to develop and enhance our product offering.

“It’s such an exciting time for everyone involved.”


Words by Colin Young

Photography by Ben Benoliel

March 8, 2024

  • Feature

Created by North East Times