Many people have food blogs, but not many manage to turn a food blog into an international business, all while holding down a high flying job in a completely different industry. But that’s exactly what Danielle Copperman has done. “The blog was more of an online journal for myself; somewhere to keep the research I was discovering about nutrition,” she tells me, sipping a coffee in the back of a little hole in the wall café in her local Stoke Newington. “I started it as a way to record my recipes – I never thought anyone would ever find it! I didn’t even have my full name on there at first because I didn’t want anyone I knew to discover it.”
She’s refreshing self-deprecating and often downplays her achievements when in actual fact, she’s the walking embodiment of a multi-hyphenate. First things first she’s a model, a top model at that, having worked for the likes of Chanel and Burberry. She’s also an in-demand chef having catered backstage at shoots and shows for fashion week. Her blog, Model Mange Tout, is also touted as one of the top wellness sites in London. In 2014 she added ‘entrepreneur’ to her repertoire when she launched Qnola, a gluten-free, paleo breakfast product made from organic quinoa. It’s grain, dairy, gluten and sugar free and the first breakfast cereal to be made from quinoa without any other grains. What started off as a side project cooked up in the kitchen she rents with her sister is now a fully-fledged business stocked in 30 locations including Selfridges and Planet Organic.
Balancing both was surprisingly easy in the beginning. “I would be on a shoot or at a casting during the day and then get home and write for the blog. On the weekends or the evenings I would experiment with new recipes, and then write up the content on my lunch breaks on a shoot or on long journeys when I was travelling a lot. The balance definitely became more challenging when I launched Qnola.”
Food and fashion are industries that haven’t always gone hand in hand but that’s quickly changing. In fact, it was her work as a model that promoted her to delve deeper into what she was eating. Having grown up in Bath, she moved to London at 18 to become a full-time model after being scouted at the Clothes Show Live. It was feeling exhausted and looking grey after eating ‘the most boring salads ever’ in a bid to stay in shape that inspired her to look into alternatives.
She’s the first to admit her transition was drastic to begin with. “I’d read about having to completely detox the body of any unnatural ingredients, chemicals and hormones before you can teach your body to learn to use food properly and run off the right kind of energy and nutrition. It was definitely difficult to begin with because I was living with two models and we’d always eaten what we wanted – which often meant a packet of cookies from the 24hr shop around the corner – so life without sugar was tough to get used to. But after 3-5 days, I noticed a difference in my energy levels and stopped having headaches which, until then, I’d just assumed were a normal part of every day life.”
The dietary advice she offers on Model Mange Tout (like avoiding processed fats, gluten, wheat and sugar) isn’t the fruit of a session on Wikipedia. On a mission to become more informed, she took up biology with the idea of studying nutrition, which never transpired because Qnola exploded. She knows that abandoning sugar, grains, gluten and wheat sounds intimidating so she’s made it her mission to show clean alternatives to normal comfort foods through recipes on the blog. In fact, it was through researching for recipes for Model Mange Tout that she came up with the idea for Qnola as an alternative to her beloved granola. She experimented with other grains like amaranth, but found that quinoa worked best.
“The catalyst for Qnola was definitely when I changed my diet,” she tells me. “I had to leave sugary granola behind. Everything on the market was wither dry and bland, lacking flavour and crunch, or high in sugar and hydrogenated fats, and came with gluten. I felt like a truly nutritious, high protein product was what the market was missing and someone who was working out a lot, I wanted to create something with even more protein than grain based cereals.”
Her motivation was never weight loss. “I never do that as I find that as soon as you make rules with yourself, you naturally eat more and can’t stop thinking about food. I changed my diet to cleanse my body on a cellular level, not to lose weight. On giving my body the food it really needs and can use, it’s manage to maintain a weight naturally. No drastic weight loss, no deprivation and no socially awkward restrictions.”
Is there a fine line between eating healthily and become obsessed, I ask? “When any relationship with food becomes obsessive, it’s unhealthy, even where nuts, kale and dates are concerned. These foods are healthy, but the mental relationship people can develop is not,” she says. “When I first started working out and eating well, I definitely became obsessed, but I enjoyed it and I became obsessed with feeling good rather than what I saw on the scales.” She keeps tabs on herself though. “There were times when, if I didn’t have a healthy option, I would feel lost and agitated. I don’t know when exactly that becomes unhealthy. I think it’s different for each person. For me, it’s all about balance and being able to cope with situations where green juices and gluten-free options aren’t available without feeling like a failure!”
Thanks to her helpful meal ideas and beautiful photographs, her blog exploded overnight and the Qnola orders quickly followed – first through the blog, then through an online store and now in most of the top health food destinations in UK.
“If I remember correctly, I made a Qnola bowl for myself in December 2013 and posted a photo on Instagram. I moved to New York for one month in January 2014 and when I got back in February, the interest that my Instagram post sparked inspired me to work on the recipe and develop a full range,” she explains. “I sent bespoke flavours out to direct customers until June when I secured my first stockist, The Detox Kitchen. That was when I had to actually design labels and create a proper business structure.”
Despite the long list of stockists, getting her first foot through the door wasn’t easy. “I had no training whatsoever! When I was 15 I took GCSE Business Studies, but I don’t remember a thing and I’m kicking myself now! I worked in a tiny local pub alongside modelling until I moved to London to model full time so was totally unprepared,” she laughs. “It’s hard to believe, but when I first emailed Selfridges to see if they wanted to try samples they replied assuring me that the buying and press team loved it and were planning to get in touch.” They set up a meeting and the department store instantly introduced the brand to their food hall. “I find the best way is to meet the buyers, talk them through the product and allow them to get to know you as well as the brand. They must get samples sent to them all day every day so if they don’t understand you product, it could easily be cast aside. It’s similar to modelling,” she continues. “Casting directors see hundreds of girls in one day so you have to make an impression.”
She’s well aware that not everyone is going to give up bread, dairy and sweets but she’s a big advocate of self-educating as way to learn more about the impact what we eat has on our bodies. She assures me that adopting healthier practices needn’t feel daunting. “Start by filling the kitchen with healthy, fresh ingredients and throwing out unhealthy snacks,” she begins. “You need to be consistent so you do need to think ahead and prepare food the night before if you know you won’t have time for breakfast or time, or just as a way of making sure you’re eating properly for lunch. Then, try to schedule in 10 minutes a day to stretch, meditate, do yoga or even go for a walk. Being mindful and open is the key to staying positive, especially when you’re trying to eat clean. You need to be mindful about why you making certain decisions with food, and you need to be open to try new things instead of feeling hostile about changing your old ways.”
She’s currently in the process of making a range of quinoa-based bars, clusters and cookies to add to the range and there’s talk of a deli in the future too. “I try not to think about these things,” she says. “I never planned to set up a business and was unprepared to say the least. I wasn’t really aware of the risks or how a business should work, so I didn’t consider a lot in the early days. One of my best pieces of advice is just to do it, and not to question it. You are never going to break down every barrier or every ‘what if’; you are never going to solve every problem and you are never going to be prepared enough for every obstacle, but if you want to do something and love it enough to spend the rest of your life with it, then do it. If you’re serious about it, your passion should override your fears. Amazing things will happen…”