Green kings & queens - the Irish entrepreneurs behind clean eating
Published 24/01/2016 | 02:30
As the health food industry continues to boom, it seems that clean eating is no passing fad. On the contrary, it appears to be a solid sector for the young entrepreneurs who are making a name for themselves with quinoa, green juices and avocados. Our reporter meets the businesspeople with a healthy interest in how Ireland eats
Indy Power, the Little Green Spoon
Indy Power (23), runs the health food blog The Little Green Spoon and has just signed a book deal. She lives and works in Stoneybatter, Dublin.
'My passion in life is food, so when I started baking it was cupcakes like everyone else. But I soon realised my family's waistlines couldn't cope with endless batches of sugary confections. About halfway through college, I became really interested in nutrition and started to really focus on the quality of ingredients I was eating. I started experimenting with lots of my own recipes that were low-carb, gluten-free, dairy-free and so on, and my family encouraged me to share them online.
"When the site started, I was studying business at Trinity. When I left school I had no idea what I wanted to do so I chose something practical and broad. The name of the website is the result of a brainstorm with my mother, who works in publishing.
"I set up Little Green Spoon entirely as a hobby, and never even dreamt of the possibility of it being a career. But as it started to grow and I fell so in love with it, I definitely started to hope it could be. I'm so happy now to be able work full-time on it now. It's kind of scary making a living from the brand because there's no set salary so every month is different. But things are going great for now.
"I graduated from Trinity last year, so now I'm studying Nutrition and Health Coaching at the Irish Institute of Nutrition and Health, which I absolutely love. My background in food thus far is really just a lifetime of loving it - I don't have any formal chef training.
"I couldn't be more excited about my book. It's coming out in the autumn through a UK publisher, and will have more than 80 brand new recipes, as well as lots of favourites from the site. Ten of my recipe videos launched on the RTÉ player earlier this month, so that's exciting too. I'm happy to be a poster girl of sorts for healthy Irish foodies!
"I don't think the interest in health food is limited to Ireland though, I think it's everywhere. People are so much more educated about nutrition now, and the benefits of eating well are undeniable so I don't think it can be ignored anymore. It's so amazing that healthy is becoming the new normal. I don't think you can ever truly go back once you understand how important eating well is - and when you realise how incredible healthy food tastes, there's no reason to ever stop."
Brian Lee, Chopped
Brian Lee (30), is the owner of salad bar chain Chopped. The company has just launched its franchise model and is about to open its fifth store on Dublin's Grafton Street. He lives in Baldoyle with his partner Sinead.
"I was into sports from a young age. I played a lot of GAA and I'd go down to Delphi adventure centre in Connemara and teach kayaking during the summer. I was always active but I never thought of it as anything to do with fitness - it was just something I really enjoyed.
"Then when I was around 15, I discovered the gym. At first it was about getting in shape, and getting my body to look how I wanted it to, but then it became about getting stronger, being able to do more and pushing myself. I got into that scene in a big way when I was still in school.
"I trained as a carpenter and shop fitter under my father and worked in that job for 10 years. That was my bread and butter while I was developing other business ideas. In my mid-20s I invested in a convenience store in the city centre. At the time I was training a lot and eating well, but I wouldn't eat the food out of my own deli - I could see how processed the chicken fillets were. I thought: 'If I feel like this then surely other people do too.'
"Not long after that I had the idea to open my own studio-style gym. It wasn't even about making money at first - I wanted to train somewhere that suited me. I realised that there was business potential in a place that wasn't just a facility with a load of machines, but somewhere people could become educated on their training. This was during the recession, when all the big gyms were taking hits on their membership. I opened FIT Studios in Fairview in 2012 with a friend, and it's still going strong.
"The idea for Chopped was always in my mind. We finally got the first store up and running later that year. A lot of people had their doubts, wondering whether or not Ireland was ready for a place like it. They said to me 'people won't queue for salad' - well let me tell you, they do! We offer fresh ingredients and absolute convenience, and best of all, the food tastes amazing.
"The economic climate allowed me to get in to the marketplace - because I didn't need any key money to open in a prime location like Baggot Street. It was a fresh idea, and people responded.
"I was asked recently by a customer if I think the health food bubble will burst, but I look at it another way - do I think Ireland will go back to eating crap? No. Places like Sydney and California are five or 10 years ahead of us in the fitness and health industry, and it hasn't gone out of fashion there. Social media has made eating well and training a global thing, and Ireland is following that pattern. Why would it be a fad that people want to look after themselves?
"Kids are growing up with new healthy norms. We didn't know any better when we were younger, but this generation does."
Rachel Keane, Póg
Rachel Keane (27) from Howth, Co Dublin, runs Póg, a healthy eatery on Bachelors Walk in the city centre. Originally only serving frozen yoghurt, the café has expanded to include an entire healthy repertoire including protein pancakes, juices and salads.
"Even though Póg started off life as a frozen yoghurt shop, it was always geared towards healthy eating. I was setting up this business just before the 'health food revolution' began.
"I lost a lot of weight as a teenager, and have had a huge interest in health and fitness since I was 15. I always wondered why there were so few places to buy anything healthy to eat.
"It was due to the fact that the economic climate wasn't fantastic that we ended up broadening the menu to focusing on healthy breakfast and lunch options. I'd visited health food cafés in New York and London, and loved the idea of having a place that focused on quick, cheap, nutritious options that the customer could amend to their own taste.
"I've always adored food - eating it, cooking it, reading cookery books. When I set out on a healthier course, I couldn't just eat 'rabbit food' or deprive myself, so I became creative with what I ate and this has fed in to the Póg mentality.
"The shop is always busy, which I'm so thankful for. People enjoy the atmosphere, as well as the food. We have people popping in to us from all over Ireland, which still amazes me.
"Fit food is in vogue right now, but in has been a big part of my life for a long time. Even before all of this hype I knew this kind of business would be a success, because in short everybody loves food but nobody wants to be unhealthy.
"After trading for two years, I no longer believe in target markets because our customer base is so broad. We get anything from bodybuilders to elderly couples drinking green juice to aid their digestion, as well as young professionals and gym bunnies looking for a decent breakfast or lunch that fits into a healthy lifestyle.
"I learned the business as I went along. I was 25 when the shop opened and sometimes felt suppliers didn't take me seriously, but they soon learned that I was tougher than I looked! My Dad is an entrepreneur and has an amazing business mind, so he has been a massive help to me from the beginning and still is. We have some exciting plans for this year; the plan is to open another few shops, anyway. I would love to open a sister restaurant with a dinner menu too, but I need to walk before I run!"
Jack and Theo Kirwan, Sprout
Jack Kirwan (26), and his brother Theo (25), are the brains behind Sprout & Co. The business started off selling cold pressed juices and cleanses, and the brothers recently opened their first standalone café on Dublin's Dawson Street. They live together in the city centre.
"Sprout came about because we wanted to set up a food business that focused on great Irish ingredients, but also food that benefited people nutritionally. The name came from wanting an identity that would suggest everything about our brand was alive, positive, energetic, healthy and honest.
"We had taken the juice business to a point that we were proud of, and wanted to be challenged with something complementary to that business - enter the Sprout & Co Kitchen. Taking a space on Dawson Street with high rent was always going to be a big risk, but we felt confident to open with our offering, and the business is growing every day.
"We can see how much people have taken to healthy eating. Our core concept is to showcase the Irish food seasons, so we work closely with growers and experts in the Smithfield fruit and veg market. The closer the veg grows to us, the fresher it is, so the better it tastes.
"We were really fortunate in having Avoca support us initially with the juice business. They agreed to take us on as one of their food partners when we were in our early 20s, gave us an opportunity to set up a juice bar and then to sell throughout all their stores. This gave us a lot of experience in business early on which we were very fortunate to get. There have been lots of pitfalls, from machines breaking to people not turning up, but that's business. If it was easy everyone would be doing it.
"The best part of it all is working side by side as brothers, being able to take the highs and the lows together - oh, and saving on petrol costs driving to work!"