A mother's love is the force behind wholesome snack firm
Gillian Treanor's concern for the products her children were eating led her to make her own healthy foods, and so Nutri Snax was born
FOR most people, it's a confusing experience, cruising down the aisles of your local supermarket in search of a healthy breakfast cereal or biscuit that doesn't contain significant amounts of sugar, salt and all classes of additives.
This was the driving force that spurred entrepreneur, and single mother of six, Gillian Treanor, to set up her company Nutri Snax.
Established in 2011 and located just outside Cavan town, the company manufactures a range of homemade healthy breakfast cereals and snack foods.
It's early morning as I arrive to the factory which is close to Gillian's home. There, I am greeted by Gillian, her daughter Alicia, and Sinead, who looks after production. They have just finished baking a batch of their wholesome biscuit range.
The biscuits are fresh from the oven and still warm, and the factory is filled with aromas more akin to a country kitchen than a modern factory unit. I sample each of the different types. First it's the apple and cinnamon biscuits, next the banana and blueberry, then cranberries and nuts and finally, my favourite, goji berries and seeds.
I am genuinely surprised by the taste and texture of the biscuits. I'm even more surprised to learn that they are 100 per cent natural and contain no added sugar, salt or preservatives.
Next Gillian takes me to where the breakfast cereals are mixed and toasted. Boxed and ready to go to the shops, the cereals come in original and fruit and nut recipes.
Gillian is passionate about the quality of ingredients she uses. The base of many of her products is oats which she buys from Flahavans in Co Waterford. And she is keen to stress that all her ingredients are sourced from Irish suppliers as she points to shelves containing coconut, wheat germ, bran, sesame seeds, brazil, and pecan nuts, almonds and sultanas as well as large jars of honey and sunflower oil.
The breakfast cereal and snack food markets are among some of the most competitive segments within the food sector in Ireland. I am keen to discover from Gillian why she picked this sector for her new business.
Originally from Co Monaghan, Gillian comes from an entrepreneurial background. Her father runs his own business, Treanor Stone-Tec, where he specialises in making stone fireplaces, granite worktops, headstones for graves, and supplies stone for the building sector. Gillian helped run the business before setting up her own company.
Gillian left school when she was 17. It was while she was working as a child minder that she first began to take an interest in the area of nutrition, particularly in relation to children.
"I noticed that the children were constantly getting colds and flu and I noticed too, that many of them had very poor diets," she says.
"When I became a mother myself, I began to notice that my own children were constantly snacking," she adds.
"I wasn't very happy with the products they were eating because they seemed to be very high in sugar as well as other additives and preservatives," she says
Gillian began making her own, healthier, cereals and snacks. "I made them for my own children at first but then other parents began to ask me if I would make the same for them. And that's how it all started," she says.
She researched the wider market and began analysing the typical ingredients that went into most cereals and snacks. She was shocked.
Her research led her to St Angela's Food Centre in Sligo. There, with the help of the college, she began to develop her own range of healthy food products.
"I started first by looking at breakfast cereals," Gillian explains. "Breakfast may be the most important meal of the day, but for many, it is also the one they have least time for," she says. "As a result, many people end up snacking throughout the morning, often on high sugar and low value foods," she adds.
Along with the staff at the Food Technology Centre, she worked on choosing only fresh and nutritious ingredients to ensure that her products would also offer an abundance of health benefits.
"I wanted to make sure that what the children were eating was not just helping to fill them up and to satisfy their appetite, but was also nutritional and beneficial to their health. In particular, I wanted to find products that would help fight off colds and flu and help build up their immune system," she says.
Somewhat of an expert now, Gillian rattles off the benefits of many of the ingredients in her Nutri Snax products.
"Nuts are great," she says. "The risk of death from coronary heart disease is lowered, by half, in people consuming nuts at least once a day. Coconut is anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial. Wheatgerm fights cancer, helps lower blood pressure and contains over 24 nutrients. Wheat bran is high in fibre, helps lower cholesterol and reduces the risk of diabetes. The sesamin, contained in sesame seeds, helps reduce cholesterol, while almonds help provide double-barrel protection against diabetes and cardio-vascular disease."
While Gillian's Nutri Snax products are available in a large number of outlets, particularly SuperValu stores, throughout the north east, north west and midlands regions, her focus is most definitely on expanding her distribution.
While feedback from retailers and customers has been extraordinarily good, the real challenge for Gillian, as with all emerging food companies, is getting listed with the large multiples.
It's an age-old dilemma for many early-stage food businesses. How do you get listed when customers don't know about your product? And how do customers find out about your product if you are not listed and on the shelves for customers to find you?
"You have to get your product listed first. Then you have to get bar codes for each product. Only then can your product be included on a store's planogram which identifies exactly in what section in the store your product will be displayed. If, like us, you haven't yet managed to get listed, you have to rely on individual store owners to give you a chance," she says.
Gillian was so convinced about the quality of her product and the need for healthy snack foods, not just for children, but for the general population, that she went door to door to many shop owners. While she got some no's, she also got many yes's.
"It was these yes's that kept me going," explains Gillian. She is quick to acknowledge the support she has received from many local store owners.
"Many parents are delighted to have found a healthy product for themselves and their children and are now including our products as part of their children's lunch boxes," she says enthusiastically. "So much so, we recently developed a range of smaller cereals pots for lunch boxes and for those on the go, who are too busy to eat breakfast at home," she adds.
Gillian started the business on her own. Her story is typical of many start-up companies in the food sector. Today, she employs two staff and during busy periods draws on the help and support of family and friends.
She works hard. When she gets her six children, aged between five and 18, to bed in the evening, she starts a second day's work. "But I love what I do," she says.
She is grateful for the support she received from Cavan County Enterprise Board, who provided her with financial support towards equipment to help her get started and a mentor to offer guidance in the early days. She recently got involved with the i-Factory Programme, through the enterprise boards, which helps provide marketing expertise to emerging food companies.
Gillian is committed to growing and to improving everything she does in the business.
Not long in existence, the company has won many awards including a silver award at the Blas na hEireann National Food Awards in 2011, the 2012 Business Innovation Award from Cavan County Enterprise Board and the Best New Business Award at the Cavan Business and Tourism Awards 2012.
Gillian Treanor started her business out of her love for her children and the desire to provide for them. She also started it out of concern for the food that her children, and other children, were eating. In doing so, she has entered a market that is not confined to children, but to everyone who wants to eat more healthily. And it's a market that is definitely growing.
Gillian is a hard worker. Her humility comes across as strongly as does her enthusiasm. But her focus now is firmly on scaling her business. It will not be without challenges.
However, having tasted the products and gotten a clear understanding of what drives her, I have no doubt but that we are going to hear a lot more about Gillian Treanor and about Nutri Snax. Definitely a company to watch out for.