Saturday 23 June 2018

Innovative snack firm has tasty pop hit on its hands

Sean Gallagher meets the owners of small and medium-sized businesses and shares the lessons they’ve learnt in building their companies

Sean Gallagher with Ronan Keher. Photo: Colin O’Riordan
Sean Gallagher with Ronan Keher. Photo: Colin O’Riordan
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Broghies Ireland, based in Kildare town and Rathcoole, produces an eponymous low-calorie health food snack. Set up in 2016 by Martin Walsh, Damien Carroll and Ronan Keher, the company employs 15 staff and with sales on the rise, annual turnover looks set to hit €2.7m over the next 12 months.

"Broghies is a bakery product and a healthy alternative to bread. Made almost completely from wheat, they have no preservatives, are fat-free, sugar-free, low in salt and have only 19 calories each compared to a typical slice of bread, which contains about 100 calories," says Ronan.

Ronan then takes me on a tour of the production and packaging facilities and shows me the line of counter-top machines which produce the Broghies. Here, staff are steadily pouring bags of specially-formulated wheat into the top of each machine. Within seconds, using a combination of only heat and pressure, the finished Broghies literally pop before being expelled from the machines.

"What is also unique about the product is that it is produced by heat and pressure only and 'popped' from a machine rather than baked or fried," he says.

Crunchy in texture and similar in shape to a round poppadom, they are versatile and can be eaten plain or with all manner of sweet or savoury toppings - from meat and salads, to spreads such as hummus or peanut butter.

"They are great for snacks, for those on special diets from the Atkins or Keto diets to those involved in Weight Watchers and Slimming World and also great to include in children's' school lunch boxes," says Ronan. "We also recently added a new cornflour Broghie, which is ideal for those interested in gluten-free products," he adds.

They are available in a wide range of outlets including SuperValu, Dunnes Stores, Tesco, Barry Group, BWG, Iceland and Lidl with Aldi due to come on stream in January next. The company is also in discussions with large retailers across UK, Germany, Italy and Denmark. They have also had enquiries from a number of prominent airlines which see potential to include Broghies as an onboard snack and alternative to bread.

While the business has really taken off, it all started from a simple enquiry to co-founder Martin Walsh by one of his customers.

"Martin owns and runs NA Meats in Kildare town and has been a butcher for over 30 years," says Ronan. "One day a woman asked him if he knew anyone who stocked Broghies. Having seen them in Canada while on holidays there, she wondered could they be sourced in this country," he says.

Curious, Martin began researching who made Broghies and discovered that they were being produced in Canada by a company called Garavogue, which was owned by two founders of Irish origin, Terry Brush and Ken Tracey. Both had long careers in the snack industry and had come across the concept of wheat popping in Korea and began importing the machines to Canada where they started and grew their new Broghies business. The name Broghies deriving from the names of both Terry and Ken's daughters Broghen and Brogyn. The company's name Garavogue had its origin in Ireland too - called after the Garavogue river in Sligo where Ken had grown up.

Their initial idea was to import the popping machine and sell these and the wheat to shops who would make the Broghies on site in their stores helping create in store theatre and extra revenue for retailers. Having contacted Terry and Ken in Canada, Martin decided to licence the brand for the Irish market.

He was later joined in the business by Damien Carroll and Ronan Keher. With over 20 years' experience in the food sector, Damien had built up a very successful wholesale poultry business while Ronan, a former manager with AIB, had taken early retirement from the bank in 2012 to pursue business opportunities and had been working with Damien on a number of new food service businesses.

"The Irish market proved different from that of Canada or Asia, with retailers wanting the product already made and pre-packed rather than having to make them in store themselves every day. So that's the direction in which we took the business," says Ronan. "Many of the early retailers were family-run local supermarkets while initial consumers of our products came from groups like Slimming World and Weight Watchers.

"However, word quickly spread to the wider market. From there we got into the larger retail chains. It's been a real exciting start for us. We only began trading in May 2016 and have doubled turnover month-on-month. We've also moved production facility three times in that period to increase production capacity to meet demand," he adds.

Ronan is proud too that all the company's 15 staff had been unemployed before the company set up and have been taken off the live register. It's something he believes could also be mirrored by other companies.

Keen to build on their success in the Irish market, the company are now focused on expanding into the UK and European markets where they believe there is huge potential for their products. They also see significant opportunities in the gluten-free side of their business and also have plans to begin manufacturing a range of dips to complement their core Broghies range.

Life has certainly changed for the one-time bank manager. While he has always had an appreciation of entrepreneurs, being one is a different story.

"You have to work 18 to 20 hours a day when you are trying to get a new business off the ground. Even when you are not working, you end up constantly thinking about the business, how to deal with current challenges as well as how to exploit future opportunities. But I love it," says Ronan. "It's been a real rollercoaster and one which we see as only the beginning of our journey."

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