in 1998, three college friends, Adam Balon, Richard Reed and Jon Wright, decided,
at the grand old age of 26, that they needed either to get serious about their "grown-up
jobs", or give them up and go into business for themselves. What kind of business,
they weren't quite sure yet. Electrical bathtubs were mooted, until the small issue
of electrocution was raised. They decided that easy, healthy food was the way forward
and so, in Balon and Reed's shared kitchen, they pulped some fruit and made smoothies.
"Understanding fruit was much easier than electrical bathtubs," Balon says cheerfully.
"Easier to deliver, too," Wright adds
But what to do about their normal jobs? To help them decide, the puppyish trio set up a stall at a festival and put up a large sign asking, "Should we quit our jobs to make these smoothies?" with one bin below saying "Yes", and another saying "No". The Yes bin filled up immediately with empty bottles. So they staked their future on a bin? "Well, we did toss a coin, too," Wright says. The next day, careers were discarded; three months later, Innocent was launched.
Eight years on, the Innocent office has more than a touch of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory about it. They refer to their workplace as "Fruit Towers". The floor is covered in fake grass, and there's a high glass ceiling, giving a bucolic feel to what should be a grim west London warehouse. Chipper young things dash about, grabbing at the fruit and smoothies that deck every flat surface; white-coated assistants mix different combinations of fruit, pausing only to wave cheerfully at passers-by.
But alongside all the quirkiness (call up and you are greeted with a chirpy "Hello, banana phone!") is an impressive business. Turnover doubled from £16.7m to £37m from 2004-5, and it is expected to break the £70m mark this year; market share of the smoothies industry went from 37%-61% last year. They now sell over 1m drinks a week - a definite increase from their original turnover ambition, which was "about seven" - many of them delivered to stockists in distinctive, grass-covered Innocent vans. "We used to have the bush van, which had these massive great branches sticking out of it," Balon remembers. "Every night I'd check how many cyclists I'd impaled." They run an annual London festival - Fruitstock, of course - and are expanding across Europe and Scandinavia. Their attitude to their many imitators exemplifies this balance of friendly inclusiveness ("We welcome brothers-in-arms") with ambitious acumen ("But we are the only ones to use all natural ingredients").
Aside from the greenery, one of the first things you notice about Fruit Towers is
just how happy everyone there seems to be. Understandable, really - they've got a
cheese club. "Oh yes. It's our most popular club," Wright says with a solemn nod.
Alongside share options, a healthcare plan, a £2,000 bonus on having a baby and the
chance to receive a £1,000 scholarship to pursue outside interests, employees have
a slew of after-hours clubs to choose from, including the cheese club. Every month
a favourite cheese is selected by the club members and at the end of the year they
have what they inevitably refer to as "Cheese Idol". With such financial and dairy-based
attractions, Innocent was named Guardian Employer of the Year in 2005 and was the
top food and drink company in the Sunday Times Best Small Companies To Work For list.
Customers are similarly loyal: one couple recently came to Fruit Towers to celebrate
their 50th anniversary.
Wright, Balon and Reed continue to source the fruit themselves and work only with suppliers who have sound ethical and environmental standards. In 2004 they set up a registered charity, the Innocent Foundation, through which they invest 10% of their profits in the countries from which they buy their fruit.
"I'm not surprised the product has been a success," Reed says, leaning forward to do the professional sell. "It's a good product." He looks at his friends and leans back with a laugh. "I'm just surprised it was us who kept it together