Limerick pair cash in on the coolness of healthy living with icepop range
Startup catches consumer wave with snacks made from cold-pressed fruit and veg
Any small company or startup with a new food product will tell you that it can take years to muscle your way onto the shelves of shops and supermarkets. For Limerick-based entrepreneurs BJ Broderick and Trin O'Brien, an extra dimension to this challenge is that they are selling a new type of product, a range of ice pops made exclusively from cold-pressed vegetable and fruits.
But while they've been working on the products since 2015, the official launch exactly a year ago of Wellnice Pops looks to have been timed perfectly to catch a consumer trend that has been building over the same period: the growth of vegetarianism and veganism alongside a greater awareness of the health and environmental benefits of plant-based foods.
There are currently four varieties in the ice pop range - All Hail Kale, Lemon Sucker, Two Carat Diamond and Frost Beet - each with its own set of nutrients and micro-nutrients from Vitamin C to Vitamin A to zinc.
They are entirely plant-based, dairy-free and free from additives.
"In 2015 we were probably a little bit ahead of it, but this year we're seeing a lot of it now in that it's just ticking a lot of boxes for customers in terms the health benefits and being a plant-based product," said BJ. "Everyone wants to be plant-based and even if they're not vegan or vegetarian, they're flexitarian; they're trying to think about the environmental impact."
If they had been launched a few years ago they might only have been found in specialist health stores. But in the year since June 2017, Wellnice Pops have become available at independent retailers in every county in Ireland, and the firm recently signed its first UK customer. "At last count we are now in 150 stores in Ireland and 50 in the UK, and if we continue on this trajectory, our turnover will grow three-fold on last year," said Trin.
The idea for the business came out of BJ's past experience as a nutritionist and health coach, but also from owning and running a cafe and then a health food shop, both in Listowel, Co Kerry. For her next entrepreneurial adventure, she wanted to broaden her horizons. "I knew that I didn't want to be limited by location or the size of the building or by the number of tables I had."
She spent time watching consumer trends in food, and had noticed the craze for protein but her training as a nutritionist pointed her more strongly in the direction of vegetable products. "With vegetables, it doesn't matter what dietary protocol you're following, we all need to eat more vegetables but we really struggle to do that. But there was very little happening with vegetables apart from cold-pressed juice. Healthy and treat don't often go together and having a sweet snack is often associated to feelings of guilt or self-criticism, but I wanted to create a product that would give today's consumers permission to enjoy something treat-like and feel good about it."
That was when she got her best friend Trin involved. A mechanical engineer by trade, she was working in the shipping industry in the UK when BJ approached her. They had met 15 years ago as colleagues working at one of Limerick's best live music venues, Dolan's.
"Once I had cracked the basic idea, I knew she would be integral to bringing it to life," said BJ. "As an engineer, Trin is incredibly practical and a vertical-thinker and so quite gifted when it comes to the operational side of establishing and running a business."
Trin said: "I've always been up for doing things that are a bit different, and when BJ came to me with the idea, I thought, 'that's just genius', and so I was like, 'let's give it a go'." Their first step was to the Local Enterprise Office in Limerick, which worked with them to develop a business plan. They joined the Food Academy Start programme, which is designed to support and mentor folks looking to develop small-scale food and drink businesses.
With the help of that programme, they did a trial of a product not unlike Mr Freeze koolpops but with cold-pressed fruit and veg juices. It worked at festivals but not in stores, so they decided to change tack and look for a way to produce the ice pops on a stick.
It took a while to establish that there was no one in Ireland who could do this for them, so they bought an ice pop machine from England in January 2017 and brought it back to their base in Tournafulla, Co Limerick, and by June 2017 they were back on track with the launch of Wellnice Pops. Throughout this time, Trin says there's been a lot to learn, "everything from the legal responsibilities of being a food producer to how to partner with retailers and distributors. This was a challenge but at the same time it's been exciting to develop these new skills in such a tactile way."
Their produce supplier, Keelings, comes in for special praise. "We couldn't have the flavours we have now if it weren't for their expertise in navigating vegetable seasonality and cost. It is really important to us to be able to produce and package here in Ireland."
Another challenge common to almost every startup is the funding side.
"We are self-funded for the moment, with a bit of help from the Local Enterprise Office, and working with Enterprise Ireland to invest in the company, but it's just trying to balance out that cash-flow and trying to manage it, because we struggle with 'small-companyitis': nobody wants to give you credit, and everyone is trying to make a buck on startups.
"It can be a little disheartening because you feel like you're getting dragged in a 101 different directions. If I don't do this or that am I missing out, so it's trying to navigate that."
Achieving the investment from Enterprise Ireland was a big win. "It's a boost in funding but also in credibility in terms of having strong export potential," said BJ. "Since day one our approach was always that as a niche company with a niche product in a small country, we would test it here and then export, because it's a numbers game - it's all about volume."
Facebook and Instagram have been crucial in getting them up close to customers.
"As a company, we're very customer-centric and being active on these platforms has enabled us to bring them along on the journey with us," said BJ. The firm is part of Facebook's Irish SME Client Council.
Among the pair's next steps is to hire their first full-time employee, launch multi-packs specifically for supermarket multiples, and secure a listing with a multiple in the UK before looking to other territories. After that it's back into product development to come up with a kids range. To date, the Wellnice Pops target market was squarely focused on folks in the 25-45 age bracket, but their experience at food festivals made it clear that their customers' kids loved them too.
Sunday Indo Business