In a world where food trends come and go with the seasons and authenticity is crafted after meticulous market research, Natasha Czopor, the woman behind Natasha’s Living Food, dances to her own beat. “I don’t have a target market, I guess I should, but there are so many different people who like this”, she says, referring to the wide range of raw and vegan treats she offers under her brand, Natasha’s Living Food.
Natasha started up her business nine years ago but she’s being a raw food eater since 1990 and she was born and raised a vegetarian (she’s now a vegan). The idea for Natasha’s Living Food came to her in 2003, when she was in New York, training at Raw Soul restaurant in Harlem. “I felt there was a lack of real, authentic raw food”, she says, and she was confident about her idea since day one: “I always wanted to export, I knew it was good and needed in the world”, she adds. Nearly a decade later, her healthy treats are available nationwide and she exports to Italy and the UK.
Jill of all Trades, Master of Business
Natasha is originally from London, a city where her grandfather arrived like many other Polish Jewish refugees after World War Two. During the early nineties, she set out for adventure and left the UK to drive a bus across Europe which doubled as a home and a café. Long before hipster pop-ups were a thing, she would drive East Side Gallery -the bus’ name- to festivals through the continent.
Soon after the infamous Berlin Wall came down, Natasha moved to the east of Germany where she enjoyed “living in nature.” She arrived to Ireland in 1993 after falling in love with the country during a festival, and since then and the time she started up Natasha’s Living Food, she had a series of different occupations.
“I was a harpist in Buratty, then I ran a drugs education and prevention project in Limerick, a holistic therapy centre in Ennis and I managed a Flamenco band.” While she explains that the rest of the band “didn’t like the weather so they all went back to Jeréz”, the rain didn’t cloud Natasha’s love for the Emerald Isle, as she’s now based in Co. Wicklow and her factory is up and running is Donegal.
“We work in the old Largo Foods factory. It’s in the Gaeltach region, where everyone speaks Irish”, she adds that she would love to learn it one day and that she’s been producing there since February 2016. “Before that I was in Parkwest, previously in Stoneybatter and initially in her own kitchen.” Natasha’s staff speaks Irish at work and she mentions that she’s really grateful to the region as well as to the local government, which has invested in her.
Remembering her “own kitchen” days, Natasha recalls how it all started with one market stall in the Dublin Food Co-op, followed by another in Dun Laoghaire. “The health shops were an amazing support to me and they were my first customers”, some shops like the Nourish on Wicklow Street have stocked her products since the early days.
How did you go from one market stall to nationwide distribution and exporting?
“By working very hard and convincing people. There was no category, no health foods section in any supermarket so they didn’t even know where to put it.” Natasha was part of a program run by Bord Bia and SuperQuinn, and she also undertook Musgrave’s Food Academy. This opened SuperValu’s doors to her, and now her suparmarket presence has also extended to Dunnes and, more recently Tesco.
Regarding her current products, -all of them free from gluten, animal products, soya and refined sugar- she points out the Kale Crisps (zesty tomato or lemon and onion flavoured), her health slices range, granola clusters and raw confectionery. She takes inspiration from traditional recipes and world cuisines to come up with tasty and innovative ideas such as cinnamon brigadeiros (Brazilian truffle-like treats), raw chocolate fudges and a Mayan raw cacao spread which she points out is based on a 500 year old recipe said to be enjoyed by Montezuma himself. If it’s good enough for the King of the Aztec empire, it’s good enough for everyone.
“Now Everyone Seems to be an Expert”
Natasha notices a big change in the relationship between Irish consumers and health foods. “When I started, people didn’t have a clue and now everyone seems to be an expert”, she points out that customers now ask for more information about products, and that “they’re very educated and know what they want so you really need to know your stuff.”
The downside, she adds, is “that it’s all very fady. In the 80’s it was all against fat, now it’s sugar, but if you isolate any particular nutrient from your diet, you’re gonna have an imbalance”, that’s why her compass has moderation as a North. “Everyone’s going ‘no sugar, no sugar, no sugar’ and that’s a big challenge”.
From her experience as a vegan, she also highlights the importance of eating wholefoods and of obtaining our nutrients from many different sources instead of eating a very limited array of foods all the time.
We don’t really need to eat meat, in fact, many high performing athletes don’t.”
Regarding how she manages to stay current now that healthy foods are in the mainstream, Natasha points out that her branding “stands out on the shelves” and she adds that the “high level of nutrients” that she concentrates in her products is also one of her her unique selling points. “There’s room for high quality vegan bars that offer a high level of nutrition. I don’t use dates and oat, I use activated nuts, goji berries and seeds, no fillers.”
What are “activated nuts”?
“It’s a way of processing food and keeping it in the most natural way possible”, Natasha explains that activating and sprouting foods can be achieved by soaking them in water (time varies depending on the product and quantity).
While she doesn’t work with sprouted foods anymore, she recalls how she used to make sprouted hummus. Back then, she would play music to the sprouts, something like “Led Zeppelin or AC/DC and they’d sprout faster, but if I wanted them to slow down, I’d play them classical music.”
A No-nonsense Visionary
This music lover, business woman, and strong-principled entrepreneur counts with the support of a wonderful team in Donegal, including a quality control manager, which allows her to dedicate most of her time to product development and growing the business. “My vision is for everyone to have access to healthy foods”, she says, pointing out that keeping prices reasonable is an important part of her ethos.
Regarding things to come, she mentions that two big food trends we’ll probably see more of in 2017 are kids snacking as well as more fermented foods, “not just by themselves, but mixed with other ingredients.”
As for her plans, continuing to grow exports as well as getting ready to stock up Tesco’s shelves, and continuing to educate people on the benefits of what her living foods have to offer will definitively keep her busy.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.