Sunday 26 May 2019

Couple shake up the snack sector

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

Sean Gallagher with John and Noreen Doyle of Irish Biltong. Photo David Conachy
Sean Gallagher with John and Noreen Doyle of Irish Biltong. Photo David Conachy
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Set up in 2015 and located in Toughers Business Park, Naas, Co Kildare, Irish Biltong is the brainchild of husband and wife duo John and Noreen Doyle. Already employing six full-time and four part-time staff, their healthy snack food business is on target to hit annual revenues of more than €1.1m.

"We produce and distribute Irish Biltong, which is an air-dried, 100pc Irish, nutritious beef snack," explain Noreen and John as they show me around their modern production and packing unit.

"Slightly spiced and thinly cut and with a 69pc protein content, the product is low in sugar (3pc) and low in fat (3.9pc). It is also a source of minerals such as zinc, iron, magnesium and vitamin B12, and because it comes in a resealable pouch, it's a perfect solution for those looking for a convenient, prep free and ready to eat healthy snack food.

"Initially targeted as the go-to snack for the elite sports market and gym fans, the product's appeal now reaches way beyond that to the wider market where customers are increasingly seeing it as a valuable snacking solution as part of a busy and active lifestyle," adds John.

Down on the production floor, I get to see the process. Staff take strips of Irish beef, add spices to give them a slightly spiced flavour and then hang them in specially-designed airing cabinets.

The beef will remain here for up to one week where approximately 80pc of the moisture will be extracted from it.

Once air-dried, the meat is then thinly sliced before being hand packed, sealed and then boxed for distribution to their almost 1,000 customers across the country, including Applegreen, Gala, Daybreak and SuperValu, as well as independent stores, gyms and butcher shops. In addition to a growing Irish customer base, it has also recently began exporting to the German market where the response has been equally impressive.

"Consumers both at home and abroad understand the quality value of Irish grass fed beef - and that has been key to our success to date. And because we complete every aspect of the process in-house ourselves, we have full controllability of the product," insists John.

Both John and Noreen come from farming backgrounds, Noreen from a dairy farm in Kanturk, north Cork, while John's family were cattle breeders from Haynestown near Naas. Their backgrounds have provided them with strong work ethics and a grounding for their business.

Having worked part time during her teenage years in fashion retail, Noreen went on to study at the College of Marketing and Design in Mountjoy Square before landing her dream job as a buyer in the ladies' fashion department of Penney's. From there she moved to Thomas Pink, the men's shirt company. Having helped launch their first outlet in Ireland, she spent the next few years travelling the world with the company and opening new stores.

"The experience I gained throughout those years in buying, retail management and marketing has been a big help to us in building our own brand," explains Noreen.

A qualified butcher, John had already established a successful meat wholesale and distribution business supplying hotels and restaurants around Leinster by the time the pair met in 2000.

"We were always on the lookout for opportunities to expand the business and to diversify so when we discovered Biltong a number of years ago we realised that it would be a perfect fit with our existing meat business," says Noreen.

"At the time, some elite athletes in this country were using Biltong as a complementary healthy snack, but they were importing it. That gave us the idea that we could fill that gap ourselves with an Irish beef-based product," adds John. They spent the next two years working with UCC's Food & Research Department to come up with a high quality product.

Noreen then joined the Bord Bia supported Food Academy programme with SuperValu, took part in a number of courses through her Local Enterprise Office on everything from lean manufacturing to business development and completed the New Frontiers National Entrepreneur Development Programme through Carlow IT.

"I believe that everything I learned through these programmes, as well as the contacts I made, has really helped accelerate the growth of the business," insists Noreen. So much so that in 2017 the company won a Quality Food Award for Savoury Snack Food and earlier this year won the All Stars Business Award for Food at the All Star Business Summit.

They also appeared on Dragons' Den and although offered €100,000 they decided against giving up the equity sought by the Dragons. However, while the exposure proved beneficial in building brand recognition it also brought an offer of investment from a different private investor who continues to work with them to grow and scale the business.

"Our big break though came in 2016 when we participated at a pitching competition at the Food & Retail Hospitality Expo at Citywest.

"And while winning first prize was a huge achievement for us at that stage, the big win was that, on the panel that day was Joe Barrett, CEO for Applegreen. He offered us immediate listing in all Applegreen stores that day," says Noreen.

"That changed things for us immediately and within a short time through our newly-appointed distributor, Ampersand, we launched into all Applegreen stores nationwide,"

"As a family-run business, we have a very close team which has been a critical part of our development and success to date," says John.

"While John and I may have big dreams, it is only by working with our team that we can realise these goals. Always open to multi-tasking and wearing multiple hats, as the situation demands, our team allow John and myself focus on the larger goal and steer the ship in the right direction," adds Noreen.

Having only recently moved into a state-of-the-art new premises, the pair are now gearing up to increase capacity in line with growth in sales.

"Our focus for the next two years is on growing our export business and turning Irish Biltong into an international success," says Noreen.

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