Feature

A Taste For Adventure

Issue 8 - 2018
Words by CHARLOTTE HOGARTH-JONES · Illustration Beth Hoeckel

Charlie Thuillier, a travel addict, had a career epiphany while visiting Brazil with his brother Harry. Inspired by the country’s natural produce, they created the super-healthy ice-cream Oppo, now thrilling taste buds across Britain

Issue 8 - 2018
By CHARLOTTE HOGARTH-JONES · Illustration Beth Hoeckel

Charlie Thuillier, a travel addict, had a career epiphany while visiting Brazil with his brother Harry. Inspired by the country’s natural produce, they created the super-healthy ice-cream Oppo, now thrilling taste buds across Britain

As a student, entrepreneur Charlie Thuillier had already filled up his first passport with stamps from far-flung destinations. Working bar shifts to save up during term-time, he had criss-crossed the globe, from Ghana, Togo and Benin to Uruguay and Bolivia. He’d lived with tribes in Fiji and discovered Ghana by motorbike. But before he started his first job post-university, there was still time for one big adventure. And what an adventure it turned out to be. From this trip, he and his brother Harry went on to launch a successful business rivalling the biggest ice-cream brands.

“It was just before I started my job at Diageo [the multinational alcoholic beverages company],” he says. “My last chance to go away for a long time before joining the real world.” After convincing Harry to join him, the pair set their sights on a fantastic spot for windsurfing on the north-east coast of Brazil. But there was a catch. The nearest airport was 1,000km away. “I thought, ‘How the hell are we going to do this?’” says Charlie. “We discussed running along the beach, dune buggies, all sorts… then I saw this video on YouTube about kite buggies and I pinged it to Harry saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ He said, ‘No way in hell.’”

Harry wasn’t the only one who was sceptical. “We asked the owner of a kite manufacturer to sponsor us,” recalls Charlie. “And they asked, ‘Do you have a medic? A support vehicle? Do you even have maps?’ And of course our answer to all of these was ‘No’. They refused to help us – no one had ever done this before and the boss there said we’d kill ourselves.” Undeterred, two months – and a few white lies – later, they had sponsors galore, with kites from Holland, bespoke buggies from New Zealand, and the challenge to complete the longest distance travelled by kite power unsupported on land.

“When we arrived on this beach in Brazil we were so wildly unprepared, we’d forgotten our spanner to build the buggies,” says Charlie. From then on, it was two weeks of pure frustration. The kites got stuck in trees or were run over by the buggies, there were dangerous crashes, and progress was non-existent. Plus, they were running out of food. “We only had cereal bars – I’d lost 8kg already,” says Charlie. “We managed to speak to some locals and tell them what was wrong – they said OK and came back with a jerrycan of petrol that they nearly poured into our water tank. So we kept gesticulating: no it’s us, we need fuel.”

For the next couple of hours the Brazilians gave them a masterclass in foraging for food along the coastline: which berries they could and couldn’t eat, how to husk a coconut, what was poisonous, and what they could buy from stalls along the way.

 

“In Peru, I discovered a fruit that tastes like something between maple syrup and caramel”

“These foods tasted incredible, and not just because we were so hungry,” says Charlie. “We also realised they were super-healthy.” With more energy, the pair were able to get control of the buggies and went on to win the unofficial world record. With a week to spare, they made the most of the windsurfing too. But back in the UK, things weren’t quite as exultant.

Charlie started – and hated – his graduate job. “I did about a year of it but quickly realised that working for a massive corporation wasn’t for me.” Harry, meanwhile, went back to his job in marketing at Google, but it wasn’t long before Charlie was living on his sofa in London, trying to convince him to resign as well.

“I kept thinking about our experiences in Brazil,” says Charlie, “how the people there were using natural ingredients to make indulgent, healthy food, and that it really shouldn’t be that hard to do the same here.”

“They have a snack there called açaí, that has the consistency of ice cream,” adds Harry. “We discussed importing it to the UK, but we didn’t really think there was enough of a market.”

But the seed had been planted, and Charlie spent nine months trying to create the market’s first healthy ice cream. Something that tasted as good as Ben and Jerry’s, but that utilised unheard-of ingredients from around the world to mimic flavours such as salted caramel or mint-choc chip, without adding calories.

“It was super-lonely,” he says. “I was working 18-hour days, seven days a week. And at one point I had £1.15 in my bank account. I knew 100 per cent that I needed Harry on board – he’s my best friend, and everything I’m rubbish at, he’s excellent at.” But Harry was a reluctant employee. “I was enjoying my job,” he says of his role as Head of Marketing at a Google and Avado digital learning joint venture. “I didn’t know if we’d be able to work together as we’re very different. Then I had a kitesurfing accident and he had a week to win me over while I was in hospital, so yes, there were reservations, but at least I knew he wouldn’t screw me over.”

From then on, business boomed. Oppo – an ice cream with fewer calories per scoop than an apple – was launched in Waitrose stores across Britain, and the founder of Gü puddings came on board as a backer. The company was crowdfunded via Seedrs and became the world’s fastest food and drink company to reach its target through crowdfunding. Today, you’ll find it everywhere from Whole Foods and Ocado to Sainsbury’s and Asda, and the salted caramel Oppo has won a coveted Great Taste Award. More flavours are set to be added to the range, all using ingredients from around the world – most of which are completely new to the average British buyer.

“In Peru, I discovered lucuma, a fruit that tastes like something between maple syrup and caramel,” says Charlie. “It looks like a big melon and I realised I could infuse the ice cream with it to let the caramel flavour leech out. Then we use African baobab in our vanilla flavour, which tastes a bit like caramelised pear and grapefruit, and wild-harvested, cold-pressed coconut oil from a co-operative in Ghana – they press the coconuts for us under two huge stones, then use the waste product as food for their animals, so it’s a great social enterprise.”

Finding ethical suppliers is a key priority for Charlie, but it’s not the ingredients that the brothers attribute to their success, it’s travel – from gap years to family adventures to solo adventures in their teens. “When I was 18 I did some work for a newspaper in Bangalore and that was a hugely shaping experience,” says Harry. “Travelling teaches you how to develop a rapport with people because you have to rely on them. Once I was flying to Calcutta and the flight was badly delayed, leaving me stranded with nowhere to stay. I got chatting to the man next to me at the airport and ended up staying with him and his family for about three days.”

“I’m sure I’d have launched some sort of business without that Brazil trip,” adds Charlie, “but it would probably have folded by now. Travel teaches you resilience. You meet people with different desires, beliefs and ways of working and you’re flung into extreme situations where you have to communicate with them. When you travel around the world and see people with far fewer resources than us – people who don’t have access to things we take for granted – and they keep on powering through, it makes you realise that whether it’s a market stall in Ghana or an ice cream company in London, you need the same kind of skills to run a thriving business.”

In the future, Charlie is keen to visit Colombia, where their chocolate comes from. Harry plans to head to New Zealand, although travelling now means something different with a three-month-old baby in tow. “Charlie doesn’t have a baby or a dog, so he’s still got that luxury of doing a bit more,” he says, “but I love an adventure and I’ll keep trying to go to new places. For me, there’ll always be an exhilaration in seeing what’s possible.”

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