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  1. The Business Interview
18 October 2021

“We’ve had no helping hand”: Ella Mills on building a wellness empire

The Deliciously Ella founder on opening a restaurant during the pandemic and the role of “weird and wacky” wellness.

By Emma Haslett and Phil Clarke Hill

What is it about Ella Mills that makes people roll their eyes? Perhaps it’s her strict, plant-based diet, which has brought her clear skin, sparkling eyes and massive commercial success: six Deliciously Ella cookbooks, a range of food products, an app and now a restaurant – all in less than ten years. Then again, perhaps it’s her Instagram presence, which – with its food close-ups, smiling family photos and shots of her in yoga poses – could be seen as more than a little smug.

We met at Plants by de, the vegan restaurant that opened in June at the site of her former deli off Oxford Street. It’s as shi-shi as you would expect, with lots of marble and brass detailing, and soft jazz in the background. As we arrived, a group of women with a baby were finishing a surprisingly boozy-looking lunch (the restaurant serves wine and cocktails, as well as proper coffee – though your latte will be served with plant milk). The baby’s nanny sat at another table, fiddling with her phone.

Ella’s husband and business partner, Matthew Mills, was also there. He is Deliciously Ella’s chief executive, and if not the brains behind the brand – this is a family business and a group effort, they insist – he is its chief strategist. It was Matthew who, during the pandemic, took the decision to make four of its 22 staff redundant. “By doing that, we knew that we could guarantee [to the rest of the team] that they would be on full salary… for at least another year,” he said.

Since the pandemic, the Mills’ lives, and their business, look very different. Their second daughter, Maywas born in October last year. Their first daughter, Skye, arrived in 2019 and Ella returned to work, having a number of prior commitments, shortly afterwards. This decision, she said, “wasn’t my best idea,” and having a baby during lockdown was a different experience. “It meant a much more extended period of time at home,” she said. 

“I appreciate [talking about motherhood is] not always on the feminist agenda,” she added. “[But] I think it does fundamentally, for so many of us, create changes in the way we can work or are able to work. I think acknowledging that makes it a little bit easier.”

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They also opened the restaurant. Two weeks before lockdown began, they temporarily closed the deli after trade dropped 70 per cent in a week. “We could see the changes happening very quickly, and right in front of our eyes,” said Matthew.

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So far, however, they’ve been immune to the hospitality sector’s recruitment struggles. “We benefit from the fact that if you’re a vegan and you want to work in hospitality, there aren’t that many places to go,” explained Matthew.

Although the deli struggled during lockdown, sales of Deliciously Ella snacks and cereals, and its app, with its healthy recipes and workouts, flourished – so much so that the Mills’ were able to buy out their investors in August, a move that means they will “not have to make decisions because investors are breathing down [our] neck”, said Matthew.

Mills handles much of her own PR, and it’s obvious why: she seems unflappable. How does she respond to accusations that family connections (her mother is Camilla Sainsbury) gave her a leg-up when she launched her food products? “We’ve had no helping hand in any shape or form,” she replied breezily.  

It’s only when criticisms of the wellness industry come up (she doesn’t like the phrase “clean eating”) that a hint of prickliness appeared. Is she worried the sector is being appropriated by those with a less-than-healthy attitude to eating? 

A pause. “I think it’s easy for that, to some extent, to slip into the diet space… and that’s absolutely not what it is… That being said, I think there’s a flip side.” 

Suddenly, she’s reeling off stats. The nation is in dire nutritional straits: people aren’t eating their five a day, or 30 grams of fibre, or 30 different plant-based foods a week. She cites socioeconomic factors, psychological factors, cheap food. She talked about education and supermarket supply chains. She listed all this at speed, and with a defensiveness that suggests this is not the first time she has had this conversation. 

But while she concentrated on the facts around nutrition, Mills has more than once been mentioned in the same breath as Gwyneth Paltrow, whose wellness brand, Goop, sells “detoxifying superpowder” and stone eggs that bring “crystal healing” to the user’s vagina. Asked if she rejected the comparison, the composed PR expert returns. 

“I’ve got huge respect for anybody who puts themselves out there, and who’s willing to explore things,” she said. “The challenge with wellness is [that] so often what makes the headlines is the weird and the wacky. That being said, if it creates a bit of conversation by making it weird and wacky, there’s perhaps something in that as well.”

Weird and wacky is not, however, what Ella Mills aspires to be: in fact, she said, they’ve deliberately opted for the boring end of the wellness spectrum. Which means that, in real life, the annoying reputation doesn’t stand up. Like a cauliflower steak, the idea of her is much worse than the reality.