Sean Gallagher makes a nostalgic return to Shalvey's Poultry, the place where he landed his first ever job – plucking turkeys in a shed
'Hot deli counters appeared in every forecourt and armies of men in overalls queued patiently for their paper, coffee and breakfast roll'
LAST week I took a trip down memory lane to visit Shalvey's Poultry – the place where, in 1981, I got my first ever job, plucking turkeys for the Christmas market.
Located near Cootehill, Co Cavan, the company has grown to become one of Ireland's leading producers of cooked poultry meats. It is now more than 30 years since I worked there and I am excited to see how things have changed in those intervening years.
The first thing that strikes me is the size and newness of the company's modern processing plant. It's a far cry from the farm yard, filled with turkey sheds, that was there in 1981. I can still remember how cold it was back then in the old cow shed where we used to stand, shoulder to shoulder, as we plucked the almost endless row of turkeys that dangled on hooks in front of us.
I remember the fun and lively banter that took place as we tried to distract ourselves from the cold and the tiredness in our hands while keeping pace with those around us. While repetitive, there was a great sense of satisfaction when you finally finished a turkey. It was also strangely therapeutic in its monotony.
The place is much quieter now, compared to the sound of the thousands of gobbling turkeys that used to break out spontaneously around the farm. Gabriel, who now runs the family business, tells me that they no longer grow or kill turkeys. This part of the business is now carried out by his sister Una, and her son Paul, on their nearby farm
Inside the factory, I am shown to where the company produces a range of cooked chicken and turkey meats, breaded chicken pieces, chicken wings and a variety of raw, frozen and cooked turkey joints.
Things have certainly changed.
Gabriel explains that the business started back in the Forties when his parents, Phelim and Eileen Shalvey, got married and took seven turkeys with them to their new home. Over time they started selling turkeys at local markets and later began hatching eggs and selling day-old turkey chicks. "At one stage, my mother used to ship as many as 4,000 or 5,000 chicks per week to the UK," he says.
Gabriel left school at the age of 14 to work fulltime in the business. He explains how the company needed to move up the value chain and so gradually shifted their focus from growing turkeys to processing.
"We began by creating marinated turkey legs and turkey breasts for butchers' shops and retail outlets for sale on their meat counters," he says.
By 1994, imported meat products had begun to flood the market and Gabriel realised that to survive, the company would have to move into the cooked meat sector. He sought advice from Michael Roche, a leading food technologist from Mitchelstown, Co Cork, who helped him get started.
Due to the high costs of buying expensive cooking equipment and food grade storage facilities, Gabriel converted large disused stainless steel milk tanks into cookers and built himself a modern food storage unit by fixing insulation panels to the walls of the old hayshed on the farm. He was now in the cooked meat business. Two years later and, with business growing, he built a state-of-the-art cooked meat facility at a cost of €1.7m.
In the factory, the meat is delivered from his sister Una's farm and other sources. Here it goes through myriad processes where it is cooked, sliced, diced, seasoned and flavoured before being packed and despatched. It is fascinating to watch the production process in action.
The company's sales exploded during the period from 2000 to 2007. "This rapid growth coincided with the boom in the construction sector and, in particular, the emergence of the infamous breakfast-roll man," Gabriel explains. "Hot deli counters appeared in every forecourt and armies of men in overalls queued patiently for their morning paper, coffee and breakfast roll.
"However, in 2007, the breakfast-roll man simply left the building," he says.
In order to fill the gap, Gabriel turned his attention to the supermarket sector and the company created its own distinct brand under the name of Ma O'Shalvey, to reflect the authentic family nature of the business. Later, in collaboration with large retail chains, he developed product ranges which were labelled as the chain's "own brand". Currently, he supplies to three of the top five retail brands in the country. It's an incredible turnaround in a relatively short space of time.
The company now employs 25 full-time staff and a further 10 are hired during busy periods. This year turnover will reach an impressive €6m.
"But it's a journey that has not been without challenges," says Gabriel. "It's a constant battle to keep costs down in order to compete against products coming from other low-cost markets."
As part of his crusade to reduce energy costs, he erected a wind turbine and more recently planted 100 acres of willow which will be harvested shortly and burned for fuel. His target is to be carbon neutral within the next two years. It's an ambitious plan.
"There is a real opportunity for our green image to be a big part of our brand in international markets," he stresses.
And speaking about international markets, 25 per cent of the company's revenue this year will come from the UK and the Middle East, where Gabriel recently secured contracts to supply retail chains in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. "Because of their religious beliefs, Muslims do not consume pork and so there is a strong market for chicken and turkey products in the region," he says.
What's next, I ask him?
For the moment, he is clearly focused on consolidating the Irish market but has his sights set on breaking into the European market and will soon appoint sales agents in a number of key European countries. Further investment will be required to service export sales and he is hoping to raise €1m through a new EII company tax relief scheme.
It's clear he loves the business. He freely admits that the staff makes all the difference. He hears that, when out shopping for themselves, Shalvey's staff will regularly straighten the company's products when they see them on supermarket shelves.
Family means everything to him. He takes his youngest son with him on his nightly rounds to check the refrigerators in the factory, like his father used to take him to check on the turkeys when he was a child.
He has come to appreciate the work ethic his parents instilled in him and hopes to be able to pass it on to his children in turn.
The business has retained a strong family involvement. Gabriel's wife, Carmel, works as operations manager and is his "rock", while his sister-in-law, Mary Moore, works as production manager. His sister, Carmel O'Reilly, is the company's financial controller and another sister, Pauline, is in charge of stock control. Before I leave, I get to spend some time with Una, Carmel and Pauline all of whom served their time plucking turkeys alongside me all those years ago. We have much to catch up on.
But no visit to Shalvey's would be complete for me without meeting the woman who employed me 30 years ago.
Mrs Shalvey is now in her 80s and as active as ever. She greets me with the same warm smile and motherly hug. We talk about all that has changed in the last 30 years.
While she doesn't seem to have changed at all, the business she started all those years ago certainly has. And in the safe hands of her son Gabriel, it is set to change even further. She must be incredibly proud of what Shalvey Poultry has become.
I, for one, certainly am.