No lying low for Athenry-based gluten and additive-free bakery
Galway couple count their blessings as family firm continues to thrive, writes John Cradden
If you had spent years building up one solid business and had laid all the groundwork for a second, new venture, it would be natural to feel a strong sense of pride and accomplishment.
That's certainly how Siobhan Lawless felt one night in mid-2011, walking through the premises of The Foods of Athenry, the baking firm she runs with her husband Paul.
At that point the couple, who had established the company as a home-baking enterprise in 1998 to supplement their income from farming - they would later expand into a fully-fledged manufacturing and wholesaling business in 2004 - had decided to expand into an emerging growth market for 'free-from' and certified gluten-free.
They had developed a range of baked products and branding, and added extra production space and machinery.
"We had just finished painting the loft because we were actually at that point just adding on that second bakery for gluten-free and there was a lot of new stuff around the place and it looked really well," says Siobhan.
"I remember walking through when the place was quiet and thinking: 'This place is really great. Look at all we've done, how far we've come'. I remember feeling really proud."
Weeks later, the premises were burnt to the ground when a small fire broke out in the kitchen. Although the effect of that fire was to be felt acutely for the next three to four years, they managed to rebuild the business - focusing purely on the gluten-free and 'free-from' sector - to the point where they now employ 24 people and have a €2m-2.5m turnover, with a rising share driven by export sales.
But the fire clearly left its mental mark on Siobhan to the point where she admits to not allowing herself to feel pride for their success - just gratitude. "I remember after the fire going, 'I was punished for feeling so proud'," says Lawless. "I'm not convinced that pride is a thing. So in some ways since, I would now never say I was proud of something. We have 25 people that work for us now - that doesn't make me proud, but that makes me grateful - that we can create employment in the area."
It's also made her a tougher businesswoman, she adds. "I don't think I would be the same person that I am now and therefore I think the fire left me a better person to drive this forward. You just become a better negotiator because you have this thing in the back of your head, 'Well, I had a fire. What did you have?' Very little scares me now."
In the immediate aftermath, though, she says herself and Paul were very much in denial about the accident, but that - to their amazement - their eldest son Eoin, who had just finished college and had joined the workforce, urged them to keep going and rebuild. All the more remarkable given that he had just moved into an apartment that his parents had built next to the premises which also burnt down - destroying everything he owned.
"You know, you do for them and you probably spoil them, but one day they turn around do something for you, something huge and you just go, 'wow'," says Siobhan. "Afterwards when we were on autopilot we just knew we had to come back and Eoin drove us, so we were happy to let him. So in some ways we felt like a passenger on this journey."
But they quickly realised that, besides setting a poor example to their family if they "gave up at the first sign of adversity" as Siobhan puts it, cutting their losses and moving on wasn't an option because they still had four other children in college. "So at the time we just had to do it for the kids."
As it happens, the kids were also the catalyst for branching out into the then-emerging gluten-free and free-from sector.
Siobhan had long realised the importance of eating a good, wholesome diet as Eoin and his sister, Meadhbh, suffered with a lung condition called bronchiectasis as children, resulting in both losing half a lung.
Others in the family also suffered from bad eczema, asthma and other food-linked problems, while some members of Paul's side of the family are coeliacs.
The company was already baking products that were free of things like artificial preservatives, sweeteners, flavours and hydrogenated fats. "We could see the potential for a burgeoning free-from markets and even at the time we would never have anticipated it would get to be as big as it has got and still growing."
At the same time, competition in the wheat-based home bakery market was also getting tougher. "It's well known that bakery business or a small preserve business are the two easiest sectors to set up in from the point of view of investment. What we were finding was in every small town in Ireland where we were selling in, all of a sudden popping up was Mary's Brown Bread and Paddy's Buns everywhere."
"These people were only trying to do what I had done to some degree whatever 10 years earlier," she added.
In any case, the fire had more or less incinerated the original business because they were forced to close for 10 months, during which time they lost their grip on that market, leaving them to focus wholesale on gluten-free, wheat-free and additive-free products.
Like the wheat-based home bakery market, the Lawless family were ahead of the curve in terms of the trend towards it.
"We were one of the first people to look at it from a kind of a different way and say look, if you choose to eat this way you deserve potentially the same choice, variety and quality as whoever else chooses to eat a different way," she says.
After the fire in 2011 they funded their rebuilding by selling some fields that Paul had previously used for dairy farming before they invested all their time into the bakery business.
At some cost, they kept all their core staff, and continued to develop their products in-house rather than go the pre-mix route.
"We always wanted to be slightly different and not copyable," says Siobhan, a natural baker from an early age, and who has steered the firm to more than 60 awards to date - including the Great Taste Awards, the Irish Food Awards, Free From Food Awards.
In terms of their export markets, around half is to the UK, but with the development of a naturally extended shelf life products (which range from three to well over six months) they are now targeting markets as far afield as Australia and the UAE. Siobhan is currently studying for a postgrad diploma in export selling with Enterprise Ireland.
She describes their marketing approach as "very organic" over the years, due to lack of funds, but they have benefited hugely from genuine, unprompted celebrity endorsements on Instagram recently from the Crown Prince of Dubai, Elly Goulding and John Cleese.
"There is a certain amount of serendipity to it, you have to admit."
Sunday Indo Business