Bricks-and-mortar store is right fit for young entrepreneurs' healthy food startup
An online Irish health food store set up by two young entrepreneurs is opening its first bricks-and-mortar store as demand for its produce has soared.
Evelyn Garland (24) and Luke Judge (26) established Simply Fit Food (SFF) in January 2016, delivering healthy meals and snacks using locally-sourced ingredients right to customers' doors.
In their first year, the company made over 18,000 meals and "a countless number of snacks" as it fought for a place in the somewhat saturated health food market.
Now, in response to customer demand for on-the-ground access to their meals, the first SFF store will be opening its doors in Drogheda, Co Louth.
"We started out in Ardee Business Park in a smaller kitchen, but we moved premises to a far bigger facility in Duleek at the end of May," Garland told the Irish Independent.
"Our online presence was already established, and it's still our baby, but we've gotten so much feedback and requests on social media for a physical shop. The local area knew our story and was really behind us."
As with most startups, the first 12 months for the business duo weren't easy - despite financial backing from the Louth Local Enterprise Office - and the leap of faith into the business wasn't a decision they made lightly.
"For the first few months, it took both of us to work two jobs at once, late nights sometimes with only two or three hours sleep, giving up a job that was very well paid.
"But we knew it could work and it's the best decision we ever made."
With degrees in health promotion and physical activity from DKIT and food and agribusiness management at UCD behind them, it actually was a health scare that led to the origins of SFF. Judge was diagnosed with a heart condition called Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome.
The couple were already passionate about fitness and GAA players for Skerries Harps and Dreadnots in Clogherhead respectively, but Luke wanted to change the way he was eating after he had an operation to treat his condition.
"He found meal prep a real pain, and it was also so time-consuming," Garland said.
"We just wanted to create simple, nutritious meals that had all the convenience of a takeaway."
After appearing on RTÉ's 'Dragons' Den', the pair impressed the TV dragons but walked away without funding.
However, the filmed pitch leveraged the firm's profile and they managed to secure investment from other sources.
In the last 12 months, SFF has won a number of accolades, including topping the Louth county final of Ireland's Best Young Entrepreneur.
They've also signed deals to become the official nutrition partners of Louth and Monaghan inter-county GAA teams.
Getting their produce out to a wider market has also been a success in recent months, as SFF has managed to get on the shelves of a number of local SuperValu stores since April.
"We're in talks at the moment and are hoping to expand that out on a nationwide level.
"As we're an online brand, we wanted to try retail stores on a trial basis to see if that would work for us. Our sales have essentially tripled since April."
But now the focus is very much on the new shop, which is set to open on Trinity Street next Wednesday.
With the Fleadh Cheoil in Drogheda this year, Garland is hoping that the timing of the store's launch, right in the middle of the music festival, will be successful.
The shop will be open six days a week, selling healthy nutritious meals, snacks and coffees for the on-the-go consumer.
"We're hoping to leverage off the fleadh for the opening, and the additional footfall might help too as we'll be giving out tasty, healthy treats on the day," she said.
"We have the lease on the shop until Christmas and the option to extend that out if we see sales coming in."
Over the next two years, SFF is hoping to expand its product range, and their market base internationally. But the pair also want to share their passion for healthy living - and entrepreneurship - with others.
"Ideally, we would like to put out a cookbook. Our online presence needs to grow more, but the ideas and ingredients for our meals are so simple.
"What we make on a day-to-day basis is what you'd usually have in your fridge and press anyway.
"We would also love to take part in educational talks for the younger generation, addressing school and college kids, educating them about healthy eating but also about starting up your own business.
"Although we were both in college, and I had a focus on business, there was no real guidance on actually setting up a business.
"We want to share that it can be done at a young age."
With business booming, and many more plans on the horizon, the GAA-mad pair haven't been able to commit as much training time to their respective teams.
But that doesn't mean that they've abandoned their passion for fitness, according to Garland.
"We've both had calls from our managers asking us when we were going to come back to our respective teams properly, but at the moment we just don't have the time to get to all the sessions and that's not fair on the other players.
"But one of the main things that we've tried to keep up is training for at least five days a week.
"There's nothing like going for a run in the rain after a stressful day.
"If I didn't have that hour, I'd go mad."