Tuesday 21 October 2014

Irish food is on the move

New Irish food companies are fighting to take their place internationally. With more support than ever, they are succeeding

Naoimh Reilly

Published 17/08/2014 | 02:30

SO GOOD WE BOTTLED IT: From left, Clodagh Davis of Naturally Cordial; Susan Kelly with her children who inspired her Bella Hen business; and Dermot Twomey of Healthy You.
SO GOOD WE BOTTLED IT: From left, Clodagh Davis of Naturally Cordial; Susan Kelly with her children who inspired her Bella Hen business; and Dermot Twomey of Healthy You.

Food is a growth business in Ireland at the moment. The international demand for Irish food products is soaring. New Irish food entrepreneurs are creating unusual and exciting products.

With high quality ingredients, talented people, investment and support, it has never been a better time to start a food business. Evelyn Flynn's new company - Trifolium - develops high-protein, low-fat dairy products to help us stay healthy.

"I have always admired people who take a chance and set up their own business and explore new opportunities. Ireland has a fantastic tradition, reputation and provenance for great food products both at home and abroad," she says.

Evelyn grew up on a dairy farm, where she learned to produce food as simply as possible and worked with fresh natural ingredients. She participated in the IGNITE Graduate Innovation Programme at UCC. The business is in pre-trading stage and will launch in September. After an initial launch in Ireland, the company intends entering the London convenience market, where 24 million journeys are made on a daily basis across the London Transport Network.

"I hope that my business will make a positive contribution to the health of busy on-the-go people who will no longer have to compromise their health with processed, high-sugar, convenience snacks," she added.

The food and beverages manufacturing sector employs 50,000 people in Ireland directly. In 2013, Ireland exported €10bn worth of food products.

Ireland has an strong reputation overseas for high quality produce. Some of the most prominent consumer trends at the moment are seafood, whiskey and health and wellness products. Ireland can't produce enough seafood to meet demand and there are 15 new whiskey distilleries currently being built.

Jennifer Melia manages the food and drink high-potential start-up team at Enterprise Ireland. Her team is always looking for new products and works with people to help them develop their business. They make introductions to potential investors and also provide investment funding.

"Ireland is a very good place to start a food business. We have great ingredients, a talented workforce and a very supportive environment. However, starting a food business is still tough and entrepreneurs need to make sure they have undertaken the market research beforehand," she says.

"Products with a shorter shelf life are more challenging to export," says Melia, "and companies with such products are constantly striving to develop something with a longer shelf life that will be more appealing to the retailers."

James Grimes set up his company, iASC Atlantic Seafood. His first product is Irish Shellfish Butter, which is a protein-enriched culinary butter. It gives a umami flavour to fish and seafood. He takes full creamery Irish butter, rope-grown Irish mussels, wild, brown crab meat and then dries, sifts and blends them while adding dried flakes of Dillisk seaweed and seasoning. It results in the world's first umami butter.

He took part in the Foodworks Programme and began selling in Ireland in late August 2013. He now exports to the UK and will soon be exporting to the UAE and USA. He has advice for those who want to set up their own food business. "Question and re-question: what is different about my product? What does the consumer see? Ensure you have funding to complete your plan!"

Susan Kelly, from Bella Hen Eggs, has a free-range egg business based in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford. She started the business to teach her kids where food comes from. She didn't want to be away from her children so she decided to make it into a full-time business.

She started with 10 hens in a field at the back of her house, and as demand grew she bought 100 more. She now has 1200 hens and supplies three SuperValu stores and 10 independent stores.

"My advice to anyone starting a food business would be to start small and grow your product locally and see were that brings you. Don't run before you can walk," she says.

Jessica Clinton's business, Ballyhar Foods, is based in Ballyhar, Co Kerry. She produces high-quality gluten free products. The company spends months developing each product so that it has the same texture and taste as a regular product. Her aim is to make products that are appealing to everyone and just happen to be gluten free.

With help from the Kerry Enterprise Board she participated in the food academy start-up programme and secured funding. Her words to those embarking on a new start-up?

"Seek help and supports such as the mentoring service provided by your local enterprise board. Network with other small business owners, exchange leads and build a support network - if for nothing else but to ease your mind that we all struggle. Take time to enjoy yourself, this is an exciting time."

Dermot Twomey's company, HealthyYou, supplies seaweed products that promote healthy nutrition to enhance well-being. Seaweeds are one of nature's superfoods with a host of essential minerals and vitamins. He saw these products selling in Japanese restaurants and felt the philosophy of Japanese nutrition could be made available to a wider European audience.

With the help of Enterprise Ireland's New Frontiers programme, he is developing other seaweed products using Irish seaweed. Currently, Mr Twomey supplies 35 outlets around Ireland. Mr Twomey has advice for start-ups. "Give full commitment to your idea. It will require constant attention. Do not get into debt; start small. Be prepared to lose what you invest and learn from the experience. Opportunity will always come again. This is my third business attempt and the longest-running and most successful."  

Clodagh Davis's company, Naturally Cordial, makes premium cordials from organic fruit. She has just finished phase two of the New Frontiers programme in Waterford and currently has sales of 20,000 year to date. Ms Davis was made redundant and decided to make her hobby into a business when she realized there was a gap in the market for an Irish cordial. She plans to eventually export to the UK and Europe.

Ireland was an early developer of a food-focused accelerator programme called Foodworks. Foodworks is a collaboration between Enterprise Ireland, Bord Bia and Teagasc to help food and drinks start-ups get their products to market. This programme gives companies with the potential to export access to the resources they need.

Enterprise Ireland also offers a number of early stage financial supports, such as the Competitive Start Fund or an innovation voucher which will support you to work with a third-level institution to help you solve a technical problem, make your product or offer more innovative. New Frontiers is Enterprise Ireland's national entrepreneur development programme for innovative, early-stage startups. It is open to all industry sectors so it is not food specific.

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