Self-confessed chocoholic tickling tastebuds with Wilde Atlantic flavours
Aine O'Connor meets Tricia Farrell, who's raising the bar with her handmade chocolates firm in the West of Ireland
Tricia Farrell says she and her husband Con have three babies - a chocolate company, a son and a daughter. Tricia, who is originally from Ringsend in Dublin, met Con at UCD in the 1990s and after their degrees they moved to Clare to work in the Burren. It was Con who had the initial urge to run their own business, but Tricia took to the idea "with great alacrity".
Tricia is a lifelong self-confessed chocoholic and the advice to stick to what you know led the Farrells to combine their work in the tourist industry and that love of chocolate in a business that over 20 years has seen a major change in Ireland's relationship with chocolate.
"As a child my first dream would probably have been to own a chocolate shop but when we were thinking of running our own business we thought, 'Why chocolate shop? Why can't we make our own?'" At the time, just before the millennium, there were a few Irish companies making chocolate like Lily O'Brien's, Lir and Butlers but there were none in the West of Ireland.
Due to the size of their premises the bean-to- bar option was not a practical one for them so they decided to work using Belgian couverture chocolate, which they still use to this day.
"We started making it in the kitchen in Kilfenora. I remember messing with an old banger of a fridge we had, with a thermometer in one hand, opening and closing the door of the fridge trying to get the temperature to stay at about 10 degrees [optimum for chocolate]."
Their initial products were for the tourist market, "Irishy but not leprauchany", and this did well but they believed there was a bigger market for their product. The decision meant moving from North to East Clare to access a suitable food production-approved unit. The century was turning and Tricia recalls being in their new house on a hill in the middle of Killaloe, "with a six-month-old baby under one arm and a chocolate factory under the other". They now had a 1000 sq ft production space and what she believes to be one of the keys to chocolate making. "Really the only limit is your imagination." At the time chocolate in Ireland was rather limited, but all has changed and one of their current bestsellers is seaweed and lime oil. They often take suggestions from customers; the only real limit is that it must contain chocolate.
"We have a huge range, over 80 different chocolate things, about 35 different bars, we do fudge and rocky road, things like that. I have a team of girls working with me, we're a little like the Wild Bunch, and they're as interested as coming up with concoctions as I am." They have six full-time employees and up to three more during the summer months in their retail outlets, a shop in Doolin - "we always had a hankering to be back in north Clare" - and a stand in the Milk Market in Limerick, but their main centre is in Tuamgraney.
"Within a year of opening the new factory, say around 2001, people just started knocking on the door, 'Are you making chocolate, can we have a look?'. That grew and grew and this year we've had more visitors than ever before." The visitors helped the business grow in more ways than one, there were sales and there were suggestions. "People have a chocolate soul, a little dream of something they would like to taste with chocolate, it's all back to the imagination." There were also willing tasters. "We do loads and loads of tasting because it's very helpful to get people's feedback. Like with the seaweed and lime, that was just a mad fancy but we got great responses from our human guinea pigs who came to visit. You can't just rely on your own taste buds."
One recipe that was not so popular was chocolate with garam masala, "I loved it but nobody else did. I think it was just a bit ahead of its time but I can predict in a few years' time it will be a thing. I also did chocolate-covered bacon for a demonstration, but I was a bit premature with that!" Tricia laughs. Much of their business is in contract manufacturing for companies who want to sell Irish-made chocolate under their own brand. They have also been approached by large retailers but price point is an issue.
"When you are making genuinely by hand the price point is going to be higher. If you have 10,000 sq ft factory you can cut the price but when you're employing human beings for every step, from making it to packaging it, it's a different scenario.
"We have five different machines at the moment, wheel machines that keep the chocolate at the right temperature, and moving. They're all for different kinds of chocolate so we can make any combination and do a run of a type. But chocolate is very sensitive to environmental conditions and even within that, it's alive. It's reactive, it gets moods and some days it doesn't want to do things."
There is more to running a chocolate company than just making chocolate. Like any small business there are a lot of balls to juggle, production schedules, packaging designs, social media. Thanks to Clare Enterprise Office they made their debut at the recent Ploughing festival and have also attended the Craft Fair, excellent opportunities that required much preparation.
They are currently upgrading their website with a view to growing web sales. It is somewhat of a Catch 22 situation because shipping costs are quite high for online purchases, something that can only change if online sales increase.
Although very happy to remain a small artisan business Tricia says: "We are keen on being a little less small". They are therefore delighted to be expanding their production facilities with an extra 1,500 sq ft. "We're beside ourselves with excitement. We should have done it two or three years ago but we were nervous about expansion after the recession. Our business held up OK actually and we didn't owe any money but it made you very, very nervous about expansion. But we're at the point where we literally have no choice. The business has grown organically, without a huge amount of debt, we wanted to grow it with a solid base rather than be very brave and brash because it is a bit different when you have kids relying on you. That does take a bit of the riskiness out of your adventures in entrepreneurship."
Just as their sales were not particularly affected by the recession, neither have they been hit by concerns about sugar consumption. Tricia believes this is largely because in many respects high quality chocolate is so rich as to be self-limiting, a treat that people can savour. There have also been studies highlighting health benefits to very dark chocolate. "The appetite for high quality, well-made chocolate is big and where once milk chocolate would have outsold dark by a long stretch, it has caught up a lot. It will never be more popular but we even do a 99pc bar now."
Although expanding, the Farrells believe it's important to stick to what you're good at. "If you get really good at making certain things in a certain time frame and with your own production method you just get better at it and you get more efficient. Sometimes you wonder how you survived in the early days when you didn't know about lots of things. They say if you can survive the first year in business you're doing very well, but I think if you survive the first five years of any business then you've got a good business."
Sunday Indo Business