Monday 20 January 2020

The spice of life is key to an insanely successful flavour

TASTY: Denis O’Driscoll and Tom Kearney of Spice O’Life, based in Dunmanway, Co Cork
TASTY: Denis O’Driscoll and Tom Kearney of Spice O’Life, based in Dunmanway, Co Cork

Tom Prendeville

When Corkman and food scientist Tom Kearney was made redundant by his Boston employer he spent two years travelling the exotic historical spice routes of South East Asia.

Inspired by the experience it reignited an old burning ambition to set up a spice company in rain-soaked Dunmanway, west Cork.

On his return he was unable to get a grant, so he travelled to America where he spent two years building timber-frame houses in San Francisco for a firm owned by two old school friends, also from Dunmanway. Kearney eventually saved $50,000 to start up his dream business, Spice O' Life.

His initial model involved mixing spices. However, his ultimate ambition was to open a food research and development facility and factory, where clients could present an idea which he in turn could turn into a delicious product that would have the right formula of ingredients, a good shelf life, and look good enough to sell.

However, there was one major obstacle. It was a niche business and at the time (2000) there was no demand for it.

There was also the problem of a native food industry that was also struggling to make its presence felt. Regardless, Kearney ploughed on and caught the emerging tidal wave of wholesome home-produced artisan foods. He now employs 30 people in West Cork.

Famously, Paul Newman kickstarted the whole phenomenon of bespoke food with his world famous Newman's Own range of sauces.

However, there is a lot more to starting a food range than meets the eye, and what looks good in the kitchen, fresh out of the oven, doesn't necessarily apply to what's on a shelf.

During transit, ingredients can separate and stratify into layers, or if the mixture has too much water the ingredients can collect at the end of the jar like and form into unsightly sediment.

Other perils include oxidation from sunlight or LED shop lights, which can change the colour of a nice salad dressing - all of which could ruin sales.

This is where the food scientist comes in, whose job it is to turn your dreams into a reality, rather than a sales nightmare.

Although Spice O'Life started out as a food R&D firm, today it is a major food company and produces its own range - everything from marinades, fresh perishable sauces, mayonnaise and gravy to spice seasoning blends.

Kearney takes up the story: "Dennis O'Driscoll is my partner in crime in this endeavour.

"When we started off we targeted companies who didn't have a research and development facility to develop their own products.

"However, in 2010 we started doing our own range of products: Spice O' Life for butchers and our Insanely Good range of fresh ready to use sauces for retail.

"We now have 28 staff plus some part-timers during the summer when people get out the barbeques - so it is a big pay packet on a Friday.

"Over the years we have developed over 1000 products and we currently have 350 in production.

"The secret is you have to be able to deliver as healthy a food as possible, food which is very tasty and uses high-quality ingredients.

"You have to be willing to spend a buck on good quality food rather than opting for cheaper stodge. We are serious about our food."

Kearney's business partner, O'Driscoll is proud of the company's strong Cork roots.

"We are proud to say that our range of sauces are all natural and made locally in west Cork.

"Many ready-made sauces are made abroad, so when we set out to produce Insanely Good we were adamant that we wanted to produce something that was good for you while supporting the local economy.

"We are already looking at extending our range of sauces, with new flavours coming on line over the coming months."

The firm currently produces foods for Lidl and recently signed a deal with Dunnes Stores and Musgraves to roll out their range of Insanely Good Sauces and Dips which are gluten- and MSG-free.

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