heather
VBites owner, model and businesswoman Heather Mills.
Jane Imrie

Heather Mills exclusive: Bringing the plant-based revolution to the North East

As a businesswoman with strong ties to the North East, Heather Mills is very clear on what she feels is its main strength. When she spoke to Bdaily, she enthusiastically praised the “hard-working, dedicated, loyal staff” that the region has to offer.

It makes sense then that she has chosen the North East as the location of a ‘plant-based valley’ development, as part of her vegan food company VBites, based at the former Coty and Procter & Gamble site in Northumberland village Seaton Delaval.

Heather shared her ambition for the site: “My plan with my team and our plant-based valley is to make the North East the capital of food and drink manufacturing in Britain.”

The ‘plant-based valley’, in addition to the anticipated opening of a VBites factory in Peterlee this summer, reflects Heather’s commitment to creating jobs and boosting the local economy in the North East.

Speaking about the new Peterlee factory, she explained: “My friend called me and said because of Brexit, factories were dropping like flies, so I wanted to do my bit to try and help this nightmare situation for everybody.

“I have now bought three factories in the North East and I am hoping the food industry supports British manufacturing in light of the situation we are currently in.”

Heather in the former Walkers factory at Peterlee, which will open as a VBites factory this summer.

For Heather, the region’s main challenges include a “lack of financial support for private family businesses compared to large corporates” and the task of “convincing people and supermarkets that they cannot have cheap products without consequences”.

Heather’s passion and personal motivation for supporting small business is apparent as she talks about VBites Ventures, an initiative to support local plant-based entrepreneurs, which she described as “the first plant-based incubation unit of its kind in the world”.

She explained: “My motivation to help small startups was to help them prevent and overcome the hurdles that I had suffered with no help in my early days of small business as a teenager.

“I felt one of the key things was to incubate them all under one roof not only to stop the feeling of isolation as a business owner, but to mentor, manufacture, distribute and help them sell into our distribution network covering 24 countries.”

As the popularity of plant-based food rises, it is clear that VBites, first established in 1993, has been ahead of the current trend for some time: “We have been pushing it as a community for years and years.”

Heather attributed the current trend of vegan products to the community’s long-time advocacy and activism, as well as “the huge sale of Quorn for £550m to the Philippine company Monde Nissen, Field Roast Vegan Sausage for £120m to [Canadian company Maple Leaf Foods] and dairy free Daiya cheese for £320m to [Japanese firm Otsuka]”.

VBites uses plant-based ingredients to create a range of vegan foods including burgers, sausages and pies.

According to Heather, this level of financial potential “is absolutely why the corporates have sat up, listened and jumped on the bandwagon.”

Heather’s views on adopting a plant-based lifestyle are unambiguous, and she is on a mission to spread the word: “My plan is to educate people - as I have been trying to do for 25 years - on the fact that you cannot support climate change without being vegan.

“Intensive farming - resulting in huge deforestation - to grow crops to feed cattle instead of people, is the primary cause of global warming three times more than all planes, trains and automobiles put together.

“Yet daily, people scream about climate change and head for a burger… we just need them to head for a Vbites vegan burger!”

With sustainability becoming increasingly important to consumers and companies, the plant-based revolution doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.

Heather’s message to companies resisting the tides of change on this topic was very simple: “Get with the program and get ahead of the curve.”

The UK is set to leave the EU on 31 October 2019. Are you preparing for Brexit? Complete the North East Growth Hub and Tees Valley Business Compass’ 3-minute survey →

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