Thursday 13 December 2018

Your Business: Cake maker lines up sweet deals

Robert Hallam tells Sean Gallagher how being diagnosed with diabetes inspired him to set up a business producing tasty treats with low sugar

Robert Hallam of 250KAL and Sean Gallagher Photo: Damien Eagers
Robert Hallam of 250KAL and Sean Gallagher Photo: Damien Eagers
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

After entrepreneur Robert Hallam was forced to close his previous business, following the collapse of Ireland's construction sector, he reinvented himself - and this time he's on a personal mission.

Diagnosed with diabetes in 2008, developing a range of tasty cakes that he could eat himself has led to him to start a new business - 250KAL.

Set up in 2014, along with his sister Denise, it now employs three staff and looks set to hit €1m turnover this year.

The underlying message of his story of innovation and reinvention is that our next opportunity can often come from solving challenges in our own lives.

"We produce a range of low-sugar and low-calorie cakes and pastries that enable consumers to have a treat without the sugar high and subsequent crash that usually occurs - and also without the usual trade-off in taste," Robert says.

Fresh from the morning's production run, he offers me samples of cakes that include a mixed-berry flavour as well as pear-and-almond and carrot cake. To my surprise, they taste much better than I expected, given how low in sugar they are. It's a response Robert has become well accustomed to. "Every time we do tastings in retail stores, the feedback is always the same - people love the product because of the taste. The fact that they are low in sugar and calories is an added bonus," he says.

Currently available in selected SuperValu stores throughout counties Dublin and Wicklow, Robert is hopeful that coverage will be extended nationally over the next 12 months.

"SuperValu has been very supportive of us as have Insomnia, who began stocking our products in 10 of their stores but have since rolled them out to the remainder of their outlets. Such help is critical for new companies like ourselves," he says.

The business looks set for a busy year. Next month will see them launch in 100 Spar shops and discussions are ongoing with one of the large multiples.

To add to this, there is considerable interest coming from the food service sector, which will also likely lead to the launch a forecourt option later in the year. Ambitiously too, Robert is gearing up to launch in the UK market in the second half of 2017. At least one large retail chain there, Selfridges, has already expressed a strong interest.

"We're also working on a range of treats for children that do not spike sugars or strip tooth enamel," says Robert. "In this regard, we have already had an expression of interest from Fulfill, a food service company in the UK that supplies thousands of meals to schools throughout the UK. So we are super excited about this area, given the importance of reducing the level of obesity among children."

Originally from Dun Laoghaire, Robert began his career working with Lafayette's Hi-Fi in Dublin before landing a dream job in the newly opened Virgin Retail store just off Dublin's O'Connell Street Bridge.

"It was an exciting time because I had always been an admirer of Richard Branson and his 'have a go' attitude to life and business," Robert says.

Later, when the store decided to close its AV department, Robert negotiated a deal to take space in it where he set up his own audio-visual business, Hi Fi Corner. Having done well, he went on to set up a Sony Centre, in Ballsbridge, three years later, the first of six which he would roll out over the following decade. In 1998, he expanded even further, launching In Control, a firm that specialised in installing high-end audio visual equipment into upmarket houses and apartments.

Working with a mix of home owners and property developers, this business grew steadily until the collapse of the property market in 2008. With few new homes being built and many of the developers he had worked for now out of business, he was finally forced to close. To add to his woes, the downturn meant that his chain of Sony Centre stores was also struggling to survive. In an effort to save the jobs of the 65 staff, Robert did a deal that saw Sony ultimately take over the stores.

"It was a difficult time considering it had taken 20 years of hard work to build up the business but I was determined to stay positive and try and build on all the experience I had gained," says Robert. "Around this time too, I was diagnosed with diabetes - not the typical Type 1 or 2 diabetes, but a halfway house variety that required a complete change of diet and lifestyle and the elimination of refined sugar from my diet."

Having created a selection of low-sugar and low-calorie cakes for himself, he began to get requests from his friends for his recipes. Realising that this could potentially be the basis of a new business, he decided to test market his range in a number of SuperValu and Insomnia stores in order to get the market information he needed.

"The feedback confirmed that there was a gap in the market for a low-sugar option, one that was fresh rather than long shelf life and where the label was clean and free from additives and preservatives," Robert says. "My sister Denise, joined the business. She had been working in property management but her career had also been cut short due to the downturn. An excellent baker, I credit her with much of the new product development that is taking place," he adds.

He has high praise too for the help and guidance the pair received from Bord Bia, Enterprise Ireland and the Local Enterprise Office in Wicklow. Surprisingly, he feels his lack of experience in the food sector, turned out to be somewhat of an advantage rather than a disadvantage.

"We didn't come into this space with any preconceived ideas and that made it easier and more natural for us to be disruptive in our thinking and approach," says Robert.

"Coming up with a process that could achieve low sugar and low-calorie content without sacrificing flavour and taste became the real challenge. But we eventually cracked it by developing a scientific process where ingredients are mixed in a different way. That's the secret sauce in what we do and the reason we have caught the attention of so many retailers and food service customers," he adds.

For Robert, the real satisfaction though, comes from taking a product to market that didn't exist before. "We get letters and emails from people all the time saying how great it is to have a treat option that doesn't make them feel guilty and from parents who tell us that their children can enjoy our products without ending up bouncing off the walls like they would do if eating other high sugar treats," he says.

With plans under way to develop a unique children's range as well as a desert range, there is much in the pipeline for the brother and sister duo and his range of low-sugar treats that look set to bring him his sweetest success yet.

Robert Hallam's advice for other businesses

1 Perseverance beats talent every time

Perseverance trumps talent when it comes to achieving success.

If you can continue to move forward, despite everything that is thrown at you, your potential to succeed will increase significantly.

Steely determination and tenacity are vital to the success of any business.

2 Learn to trust and follow your gut

If it is your own business, you have to go with what you think is right.

To do that you have to learn to trust your gut. In my experience, your gut is rarely wrong.

After all, you will have to live with the outcome of your decisions so you have to fully own and be able to stand over the decisions you take.

3 Utilise all available research

Take advantage of every type of research that is available to you.

This will give you a more in-depth knowledge of your subject area and help reduce any guesswork involved in decision-making.

This is particularly important if you are starting a business in an area that is new to you.


Company: 250KAL Foods

Business: Producers of low-sugar / low-calorie cakes

Set up: 2014

Founders: Robert Hallam and Denise Hallam

Turnover: €1m

No of Employees: Three

Location: Wicklow Enterprise Centre, The Murrough, Co Wicklow

For further information:

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