Business

Friday 29 August 2014

Brewing up a recipe for success over 100 years

Robert Roberts has become one of Ireland's most successful tea and coffee companies and is always looking for new ways to keep its customers happy, writes Siobhan Creaton

Published 22/12/2011 | 05:00

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Robert Roberts is one of Ireland's oldest businesses. The tea and coffee company founded in 1905 has survived wars and plenty of recessions and is still managing to sell 190 million teabags and 350 tonnes of coffee a year in Ireland.

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Today it employs more than 200 people in Tallaght, Dublin.

From its long history, the company's production director, Ken Maguire, knows that Irish people tend to drink more tea in difficult economic times but they also still like their coffee.

"Irish people are still predominantly tea drinkers," he said.

"We sell higher volumes of tea than coffee. And, as a nation, we are bigger consumers of cappuccino-style coffees compared to other countries where espresso is the most popular."

In its early years, Robert Roberts was known for its coffee houses in Suffolk Street and later in Grafton Street. It was here that Lady Gregory convened her PEN literary society and Maud Gonne McBride was a regular customer.

The company's founders, the Goodbody family, who were Quakers from Tullamore, Co Offaly, were involved until recent years, when the business was taken over by the DCC group.

By then, Robert Roberts coffee had merged with the tea company Baker Wardell, a business that goes back to the 1700s and was also founded by a Quaker, John Wardell, in Dublin's Liberties area.

Market share

Today, Robert Roberts' teas and coffees account for about 25pc of this market in Ireland and, like every other business, it is constantly dreaming up new ways to win new customers and keep its loyal tea and coffee drinkers happy.

Sales have been affected by the closure of lots of small coffee shops that have folded in the past few years as the recession began to bite.

Shoppers have also become more discerning and are less concerned with brand loyalty than in the past -- they mostly want good value, Mr Maguire says.

This has been challenging because, while it can promote certain products through attractive offers, the price of commodities like tea and coffee are going through the roof.

"It is difficult to offer really strong value when all commodity prices are so high. We have never seen prices rise in such a sustained way before as they have in the last 18 months," he said.

This creates problems because the company wants to keep the price of its products as low as possible but continue to offer quality.

"These are difficult decisions," he added.

Sales are also at their most volatile, making it difficult to manage stocks and to tailor the business to respond to these rapid changes in consumption. A pay freeze was introduced five years ago and the company was constantly reviewing its operations, Mr Maguire said.

He is a qualified tea taster who learned his trade with Lyons Tea. He began in the company's shipping department and was offered a chance to become a specialist.

"Over a six-month period, the head tea taster assessed your palate to see if you could respond to different tastes," he explained. "There are 25 tea standards and every two weeks we had to blind-taste and had to rearrange them and comment on them so the head tea taster could see how we were progressing."

Everyone has a "blind spot" according to Mr Maguire. His was that he couldn't identify a "cheesy" taste in the tea.

This was the term used to describe how tea could be tainted by being left in a tea chest for too long. Luckily for him, tea chests were abandoned soon after. As the teas now arrive in packs, his blind spot became irrelevant.

Producers

Over many years, he has travelled across the globe to meet tea and coffee producers. The company mainly deals with brokers but he says it is important to see where the crops grow.

Its teas mainly come from India, Kenya and China, while the coffee beans are imported mostly from Indonesia, Costa Rica and Columbia. Sacks containing the different varieties are piled high with the name of the farms they come from stamped on each one.

Robert Roberts was among the first companies to introduce herbal teas in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. Mr Maguire said the firm was a bit before its time then, as it began offering Darjeeling and Assam teas here.

Now, with the switch to more health-conscious consumption, its herbal tea range has expanded to include green tea, detox blends and fruit-flavoured teas with echinacea, and it accounts for about 10pc of this market.

These are mostly consumed by women, although men are increasingly embracing green tea, he says. It brought out five new herbal teas this year.

Robert Roberts has a long tradition of encouraging its staff to come up with new product ideas and it was their suggestions that led to new coffee ranges such as its New York roast. This coffee was developed in Dublin and offers a rich, dark roast to give an authentic New York experience.

It also offers a Connoisseur Coffee Club to cater for those who like more expensive and exclusive coffees. Robert Roberts regularly scoops the tea and coffee " Oscars" and last year won 22 gold stars for its products.

It outsourced most of its printing and packaging in the past but the company has now reversed this policy and is working again with local suppliers.

Irish suppliers

Mr Maguire says it spends as much as €2m a year and is now spending more than €1m of this with Irish suppliers.

"We are trying to source as much as possible of this in Ireland," he said. The company has invited firms to tender for the business.

This is another Irish company that is showing resilience in the difficult business climate and it hopes to be around for at least another 100 years.

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