Entrepreneur Florrie relishing her success after years of work
A love born in a Tipperary farm kitchen has resulted in a growing international food business for Florrie Purcell but the road has been far from smooth
Lidl customers in Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic have recently been able to enjoy the Deluxe range of Irish relishes that Florrie Purcell has been producing for the chain since 2010. America is her next target. Fortnum and Mason stock her brandy butter and thousands of people have been enjoying The Scullery's plum puddings for decades. But the success, the very survival of the business, is testimony not just to Florrie's skill and love of food, but to resilience, adaptation and enormous hard work.
"I love to eat," says Florrie, describing her childhood on a farm in Nenagh, Co Tipperary. "As a child I was always in the kitchen with mum. She was a fabulous cook and coming from a farming background the door was always open and there were always people at the table. I loved what food did - it brings people together."
Of all the dishes they prepared together there was one that held real magic, her mother's plum pudding. "It started in September and the preparation went on for weeks. Dad would be away in England buying and selling cattle and when he'd come home the pudding was taken out once a week and it was like peekaboo, you looked at it, you stared it, and we all made wishes, there was such a ritual about it."
Florrie's love of food took her to Cathal Brugha Street where she studied Hotel and Catering. From a 1980s Ireland where pasta still meant spaghetti in a tin she travelled extensively, working in kitchens and gaining knowledge that she brought back to Ireland in the early 1990s. Disaster struck when, in her mid-twenties, she was badly burned in a work accident. With 33pc burns to her body she narrowly escaped the amputation of one hand and a leg from the knee down. While her physical recuperation progressed, her mental and emotional state was fragile. "I was in shock for a year and a half. My confidence was shattered, my self-esteem was shattered. My love was food and I had to get back into a kitchen but I was terrified of seeing gas or anything and of seeing people in uniforms let alone me getting into a uniform."
"I went down to Ballymaloe, down to Darina [Allen] to get my confidence back, that was my therapy and it was the best thing I ever did." She headed off again, to the US where she worked three jobs starting at a level she was comfortable with and working her way up.
In Tullamore, Co Offaly, she opened The Scullery, a deli, where she began her plan "to feed the whole of Ireland with plum puddings".. One particularly-impressed customer was a director of O'Brien's Sandwich Bar who asked Florrie to provide sandwich dressings to the chain and her career in food services began. For some years she ran both businesses, the deli in Tullamore, whilst also getting up every morning at 4.30 to drive to Carrick-on-Suir where she was doing R&D on her relishes. Her plum pudding world domination plan was also working well as she was up to 1,000 handmade puddings a year.
In January 2006, at the age of 42, Florrie gave birth to her son David. She sold the restaurant in 2007 to focus on food services. Then the recession hit, hard. "I'll never forget it. From having 78pc of my sales on food services, now I was down to 2pc."
This was followed by a further blow when the pork crisis in late 2009 devastated sales of a pork product she had developed. "I was selling 1.8 tons every four days to Kerry Foods, the next thing that was gone. It wiped me out. I had lost my house, my business and I had a 22-month-old son who hadn't asked for any of this."
Although it crossed her mind briefly "to put David under my arm and run for my life", she didn't. She had a proven product, she needed a different way to make it into a business. "I had €72,000 left from the sale of my house so I put that into rebranding and buying packaging. I took a chance." It was a steep learning curve, she had no connections in retail.
"I really lost so much with the downturn of the economy and I just thought 'Oh God I need a bit of a break."
The first came in 2009 with a phone call from Tesco Ireland asking her to supply her relishes to 50 stores. The next one came only a few months later in March 2010 when she got a call from Lidl Ireland saying that they were interested in developing two products with her. It was a whole new world. "I thought if I sold five dozen a week wouldn't I be doing great? When the first order came in I was driving when I got the call and I had to pull over to ask them to repeat it - and they wanted it by the end of the week."
This was the break she had been praying for although it was in one sense a case of be careful what you wish for. "I was thinking how am I going to do this? How am I going to pay for it? I had no staff from 2008 to 2012. I was working out of a 480 sq ft prefab in back of the garden. There were times I was out there for 24 hours with David's baby monitor or I'd be in and out to him."
She did it and currently has four products in Lidl's Deluxe range (Deluxe Irish Country Tomato Relish, Deluxe Irish Jalapeno Pepper Relish, Deluxe Irish Sweetcorn Relish and Deluxe Irish Chargrilled Red Pepper Relish), she has a bigger premises and since 2012 has five people working plus herself.
Everything is handmade in small batches and entirely in line with Florrie's food principles, containing no additives and no preservatives. Lidl makes unannounced audits of its suppliers annually to ensure that they are following procedure and Florrie has nothing but praise for the German chain.
"I know from those audits that they use the best of the best and it is unbelievable the amount of Irish producers they're supporting. They'll come down and sit with you and ask 'What are we going to do together?' I told them last year 'My pension is gone, my house is gone, there is no nest egg. I have moved into a bigger place I need more production.' So they gave me Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Romania and there's talk of sending me to the US. Now they're on to me to develop more products."
She has plans to expand further and the plum puddings are still being made.
"I'm one of the lucky ones -I'm doing something that I believe in, something I enjoy and following my principles. Yes I'm dealing with the big guys but there is respect. I'm being allowed follow my dream and they're helping me and promoting me."
Florrie's journey has been entirely self-funded, "Anything I make goes back into the business, I'd be the last to get paid and sometimes I don't even get paid." And finally the vision, belief, resilience and hard work is paying off. "This year I signed off my accounts and now I can breathe."
Sunday Indo Business