With her first child due this summer, an audience of 2.5 million and a new app launching next week it’s an exciting time for Ella Mills, founder of Deliciously Ella. We spoke to the entrepreneur and plant-based food advocate about the trials and triumphs of developing a fast and lasting success in a brave new world.
“Deliciously Ella is entirely an accident,” Ella Mills, founder and creative director of the plant-based food company that includes three bestselling cookbooks; a chart-topping podcast; YouTube channel; deli; frozen food, healthy snacks and cereal ranges, plus a huge social media community, tells me as we sit in her Soho office; a bright, welcoming space where a team of 20 are based. Just a short walk down the road in Mayfair is the Deliciously Ella deli, which sells healthy and delicious (it’s in the name) plant-based cuisine to central London’s breakfast and lunch crowds.
As accidents go, Deliciously Ella is a pretty impressive one. What began as a personal project exploded into a hugely successful food brand as Ella tapped into a shifting appetite for inspiring plant-based food. But back in 2011, when Ella suddenly became very unwell while studying History of Art at St Andrews University and spent 4 months in and out of hospital searching for a diagnosis, she could never have anticipated that this would be the reality eight years later.
“I was diagnosed with something that affected the functioning of my autonomic nervous system,” Ella explains. “I couldn’t control my heart rate properly – sitting down, it would be normal (around 60bpm), but standing up it would be 190 within seconds, and my blood pressure would drop so I couldn’t control that properly. I also had loads of digestive issues; chronic fatigue; bad migraines; loads of pain. I got a secondary diagnosis of something called mast cell activation disorder, which is basically when you’re having allergic reactions to things you’re not allergic to.”
At 20, Ella found herself practically housebound at a time when all her friends were living the typical student lifestyle. “My mental health got really bad as a result. I felt alienated and completely lost – I felt I’d lost any sense of who I was, especially because when you’re a student what defines you tends to be fun, active, outgoing things and I couldn’t do any of them.”
After a year of unsuccessfully trying different prescribed medicines and steroids, none of which worked, Ella says she hit rock bottom. In desperation, she began researching online for alternative solutions, and was encouraged by the stories she read of people that had overcome symptoms of various illnesses after changing their eating habits. Overnight, she switched to a plant-based diet, giving up meat and dairy.
Searching online for vegan recipes, Ella was uninspired by what she found and decided to launch her own personal food project, through which she would not only learn to cook and experiment with plant-based cuisine, but also how to photograph food and to write and share recipes online, helping her mental health in the process through learning a new hobby. The Deliciously Ella blog was born.
By its first birthday, and a few days before Ella’s 21st birthday, it had welcomed its millionth visitor.
“I think in any business’ success, right time right place is always key. I obviously wasn’t the only person looking for a way to make vegetables interesting, quick, and doable – and beyond boiled broccoli,” says Ella, who started the blog around the time when the horse meat scandal had spurred people to start questioning where their food was coming from.
“Reaching one million was a pivotal moment,’ she says. “We wanted to amplify the message further via social media and I thought ‘OK, there’s this thing called Instagram which looks cool.’ It’s funny – now Instagram is such a big part of our lives and it was only six years ago. It’s been a crazy journey,” she says of a business that today reaches an audience of more than 2.5 million and shows no sign of slowing down. The new app will launch next week with over 300 recipes, as well as 40 yoga videos (Ella is a qualified yoga teacher).
Working closely with her husband and CEO of DE, Matthew Mills, Ella says they’re on a mission to make eating veggies cool. “It’s incredibly important for a number of reasons,” she says. “I don’t believe everybody should eat a solely plant-based diet, because you have to be realistic in your goals. It’s not right for everyone and it’s important to respect that.
“That said, just 27% of the UK population eat their ‘five-a-day’, and we know we’re meant to be at 10-a-day. We need at least 30g of fibre a day, and we’re averaging between 17-19g. We’re seeing a rise of lifestyle-related diseases like Type 2 Diabetes; the NHS is struggling, so need to address the way we’re living. One in 10 people have IBS symptoms and so much of it is stress related. It’s important to remember that health and wellbeing is a 360 approach. You can’t just focus on broccoli.”
(READ OUR FAVOURITE QUOTES OF ELLA’S HERE.)
Ella is also keen to challenge the perception that eating healthily has to be expensive or about the latest superfood trend. “I’m passionate about making lentils cool and carrots cool – that’s what it fundamentally comes back to,” she explains. “What we can’t have is people thinking that having an adaptogenic mushroom latte is what defines health. If you want to do all those things I personally have no judgement, if it works for you – that’s awesome. But what defines health is eating more fibre, eating more vegetables, and that doesn’t have to be expensive,” she says. “It’s important to separate what’s a health and wellness trend and what’s a staple and core of human health and wellbeing.”
The impact that eating less meat and dairy will have on the planet is a major driver, too. “People join this conversation from an ethical, health or environmental perspective, but then naturally become interested in all three,” she says. “As much as my health is significantly better, I became more passionate about it the more I learnt about the environmental impact – it added fuel to the existing fire.”
In January, shortly before announcing that they’re expecting their first child, Ella and Matt published ‘Why We Care’ on their website and podcast – a statement containing a collection of thoughts and statistics that have fuelled DE’s mission, opening with a quote from the UN: ‘A global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change’. “We’re learning more everyday about the profoundly positive impact of a plant-rich diet, if not solely plant-based diet, on the environment,” says Ella.
As a brand that has built a highly engaged community through social media, the responsibility to use social media for social good is always front of mind, too. “I’m definitely aware and conscious and don’t want to offend anyone,” says Ella, “but at the same time, it’s a careful line to tread – something I almost over-trod in the last couple of years out of fear of saying the wrong thing. So I was always neutral, neutral, neutral.”
Now more than ever, she feels it’s time to be more vocal. “We have a responsibility to do the right thing,” she says. “Only one in five kids eat their five-a-day – that’s not really OK. I don’t blame anyone for it because I think it’s hard for various reasons: our mindset; the way we live; the unavailability of it. But we’ve got 12 years to have a genuine impact on climate change, and I just can’t sit back – if we can talk to 2.5 million people about this then I’m going to. Then it’s up to them what they do with the information.”
As someone who tries to respond to every social media message personally (“It’s like 24/7 direct-line customer service,” Ella laughs), how does she deal with unfriendly comments? “I’ve learnt a lot. Not reacting is my biggest thing. And breathing. Learning to remove the personal from it; not be offended; and just think: ‘That’s just someone else’s problem that they’re reflecting onto me.’ It can be challenging,” she admits. “But really it’s about 0.5% of the messages – it’s generally constructive criticism.”
“There’s only so much you can do about the way that someone’s going to interpret something. Sometimes people just aren’t going to like you,” she adds. “I’d rather people didn’t like us but that we stood for something.”
As well as promoting plant-based living, the DE deli donates leftovers through OLIO – an app that connects neighbours with local shops and cafes so that surplus food is shared rather than discarded. Packaging is carefully considered, taking into account the current UK recycling and composting capabilities, and being responsible about not making false claims.
“We’re keen on the idea of ‘progress, not perfection’ – I think you’ve got to work with what’s available,” Ella says. “It’s not possible to be perfect within this space. The packaging and recycling chains aren’t where consumer demand want them to be, but we have to be realistic. It takes engineers time to develop solutions – plastic was a major breakthrough when it was first invented – it’s going to take time for the next major break-through. We have to be patient and responsible about accepting that that’s the reality. We put so much pressure on what can’t be changed tomorrow and ignore what can be.”
“Sometimes I find the plastic conversation a bit frustrating – not because it doesn’t matter, but because it’s not the sole issue that we have in the world right now and I think sometimes it takes away from things that we can change – like food waste.
“We don’t ever need a plastic water bottle – that’s a really easy swap – but there are other things that aren’t, because they don’t currently exist. Take composting: “compostable” wrapping in supermarkets isn’t actually compostable unless you take it to an industrial composting facility, which as consumers we have no access to. It’s so misleading. We need to stop saying things are 100% recyclable when it’s only zone 5 recyclable, so unless you really read the label and take it a really specific site, then you’re going to put in your household recycling and it’s going to contaminate the entire recycling stream.
What changes has Ella made herself? “For me it’s being more conscious across the board,” she says. “The more I’ve understood about the effect of the fashion industry the more I’m a more conscious shopper. I’m not saying I’m never going to buy anything ever again – I’ve had to buy a couple of stretchy things recently I have to say! But I’ve bought so much less in the last year or so, and everything I’ve bought I’ve absolutely loved – I’m investing in it and want to wear it for the next 10 years.’ I’m not going to waste stuff; I’m not going to throw stuff away; I’m not going to buy stuff I don’t need. Same with plastic water bottles and plastic bags.
“Being a conscious consumer is quite eye opening. The more I learnt about food waste, the more I was like OK, no don’t throw away that piece of bread, freeze it, do this with it, do that with it. Don’t let it get to the point where you need to throw it away.”
Having launched a business from scratch straight out of university, Ella has learnt a lot over the past few years. “My biggest learning is you will always put one foot in front of the other, even on the worst day – you will always do it,” she says.
“Two years ago, all in the course of a week: Matt’s mum [Labour cabinet minister Dame Tessa Jowell] was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and given a year to live; the London Bridge terrorist attack happened on the same street my dad and my brother live on and walk down every single night – that’s where I grew up. Obviously they were so lucky and fortunate but it was terrifying. We were having a cash flow nightmare at work; feeling like we were going out of business every other second. And my parents were going through a really bad divorce. I was just wondering how we’d all get through it; how I could support Matt through it? It was all so awful. But you do get through it, and you always do. My biggest learning is that you will always put one foot in front of the other, even on the worst day. I’ve seen that with Matt – he was so close to his mum and she went through such a challenging time but you always put one foot in front of the other; they did that phenomenally gracefully.
“There is always some kind of light at the end of the tunnel.”
After what was an undoubtedly a challenging year – Dame Tessa Jowell passed away in May – the couple are now preparing for the arrival of their first child in summer. And working motherhood is bound to bring new learnings. “I’m trying to be super flexible about it – there’s no way of knowing before doing it, because every baby is so different,” Ella says. “But I’m not going to be turning off from [the business] because I love it and I feel too involved. I’m lucky to be able to work from home more – because a lot of what I do is coming up with ideas and content creation and doing the books and overseeing the visuals and strategy – a lot of that can be done at home. I feel very lucky that it’s a family business as well.”
For Ella, Matthew and the Deliciously Ella team, the future’s looking bright. “I’m really excited about the app; working on new products; writing the next book for 2020; having a baby – just continuing with everything we do. We’re always trying to find new ways to share inspiration that in some way, shape, or form is positive for the lives of our audience.”
Want to learn more about the benefits of a plant-based diet? Read more about it here.