Business

Monday 25 September 2017

Donnelly enjoying fruits of its labour as it branches out

60 Second Pitch: Why you should invest in Donnelly Fruit & Veg

Oranges and Lemons: Ciaran Donnelly, the 34-year-old managing director of Donnelly Fruit & Veg, comes from a long line of greengrocers. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Oranges and Lemons: Ciaran Donnelly, the 34-year-old managing director of Donnelly Fruit & Veg, comes from a long line of greengrocers. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Horned melons and the Chinese delicacy lychees were unheard of in Ireland about 40 years ago. Even broccoli — a fairly run-of-the-mill veg today — was rarely eaten. Tastes have changed dramatically since, and no-one understands that better than Ciaran Donnelly, the 34-year-old managing director of the fruit and veg supplier Donnelly Fruit & Veg.

“When the business was first set up, broccoli didn't really exist,” said Mr Donnelly. “Broccoli is now well established — and Irish people are far more open to trying new fruit. We sell a range of exotic fruit such as kiwanos — also known as horned melons — and lychees.”

The large immigrant population in Ireland has also led to a demand for fruits which would never have been bought here before. Over the last 10 years, the company has seen a big jump in its sales of yams — a staple crop in many African countries.

Donnelly Fruit & Veg was set up in 1976 by Ciaran's father and grandfather. The company was originally based in the old fruit |market beside Smithfield. It wasn't long before it won a major contract which got the business off to a flying start.

“When the company was set up, it got the chance to supply Superquinn with swedes and turnips,” said Mr Donnelly. “My father and grandfather built the business on this contract. By 1992, it supplied all of the fresh fruit for Superquinn.”

In 2001, Donnelly Fruit & Veg moved to St Margaret’s in north Co Dublin. It started to supply Spar and Eurospar around that time. Since then, it has added Aldi, Musgraves, Donnybrook Fair and Costcutters to the list of retailers it supplies fruit and veg to.

The company had a turnover of €65m last year — about 3 per cent higher than the year before.

The increasingly health-conscious Irish are more interested in eating fruit and veg today than they were a few years ago, according to Ciaran.

“Irish people have become far more conscious of their health,” said Mr Donnelly. “More and more people are involved in sporting activities. They are far more conscious of what they eat and drink.”

So what fruit do the Irish eat most?

“Bananas have always been a big seller as are citrus fruits, berrries and apples,” he said. “The biggest exotic fruit sellers are mangos, pineapples and papaya.”

One of the biggest changes in the way people buy fruit and veg today comes down to convenience, he explained.

“People want more convenience in the way fruit is produced — be that the way it is is packaged, the size of the fruit or a preference for seedless fruit,” said Mr Donnelly. “People want to eat fresh fruit and veg — but they want convenience. People are very much time-poor. One of the main challenges we face is to make it easy for people to eat fruit and veg.”

This is one of the reasons Donnelly Fruit & Veg recently branched into prepared fruit and veg through its sister company, Wonderfoods. Many of the salad bags and wet salad bars on display in supermarkets today come from Wonderfoods.

This isn't the first time Donnelly Fruit & Veg has branched into something new. When the company moved to St Margaret’s about 13 years ago, the group set up the crate wash and rental company, Glan Aris.

“The thinking behind this company was the cost and environmental impact of cardboard boxes going through the retail chain,” said Mr Donnelly. “If you go into a supermarket today, you'll see the fresh fruit and veg in green and black crates. Glan Aris supplies these crates — and this helps to cut out a huge amount of cardboard boxes from the retail chain.”

It’s important to buy Irish, according to Mr Donnelly, and the company believes in sourcing as much product as possible from local growers.

“Historically what we've done is we've contracted out our veg to Irish growers. We have a close working relationship with 40 Irish growers. Ireland is excellent for growing veg. We have excellent soil and rainfall. During the Irish growing season, we will buy Irish as much as possible. Ireland grows good berries, cooking apples and dessert apples. Other than that, Ireland doesn't have the sunlight to grow other fruit like pineapples and so on. Most of the fruit range is imported for 12 months a year.”

Last year, the company started to grow its own strawberries and cabbage.

“Strawberries are good sellers,” said Mr Donnelly. “Twenty to 30 years ago, they were a small item in fruit and veg departments — now they're almost a pick-up product.”

Growing strawberries and cabbage should come easily to Ciaran — he joined the family business shortly after graduating from UCD with a degree in horticulture in 2003. He is married to a paediatrician — and has two young daughters.

While he admits not eating as much fruit and veg as he should, he believes there is a strong future for his business.

“There will always be a future for the Irish fruit and veg industry as people here want to buy Irish,” he said.

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