Business Small Business

Sunday 16 December 2018

School lunch firm packs punch

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

Sean Gallagher with Colm O’Brien, founder of Carambola — the company supplies school lunches to more than 32,500 children. Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher with Colm O’Brien, founder of Carambola — the company supplies school lunches to more than 32,500 children. Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Carambola supplies school lunches to more than 32,500 children in 250 schools across Ireland every day. Set up by Colm O'Brien in 2003 and based in Annacotty in Co Limerick, the business employs 130 staff and has an annual turnover of more than €8.5m.

"It's a labour-intensive business because each lunch is packed by hand," says Colm when I meet him at the IPPN Primary schools education expo in the City West Convention Centre.

"All our sandwiches are made manually every day and we bake the bread rolls, prepare all the salads and then combine these with fruits, drinks and other accompanying snacks," he adds.

"We provide lunches for children from five to 12 years of age and parents can go online and choose from our online menu. For example, they can choose different lunches each day such as a ham sandwich on white bread with an apple, yogurt and a bottle of water on a Monday and a tuna wrap, banana cheese and crackers and a fruit smoothie on a Tuesday," says Colm.

"We have a profile of each child complete with any allergies they might have or any religious preferences that are relevant."

With an average of 2,500 children each day having either have some class of allergy or religious preference, it's important that the company have comprehensive systems in place to manage specific requirements.

"We're also the only school meals provider that can offer a full Halal menu," he adds.

How did he get into the school lunches business, I ask.

"I grew up in Coolock in North Co Dublin and got my first job as a trolley pusher in HW Williams's supermarket when I was just 13 years of age. My father worked in sales for many years for Green Isle Foods and others and I would also help him during my school summer holidays," says Colm.

"I really wanted to be a school teacher but I didn't get the results in Irish that I needed in order to qualify so instead, my father introduced me to the manager of Hallin's restaurant in Clerys Department store on O'Connell Street and it was this that set me on my career in catering," he adds.

From there, he joined Bewley's Cafe's where he worked for the next 10 years eventually becoming general manager of the Grafton Street Cafe and later franchise manager for the company.

"My job was to meet potential franchisees and to assess both them and the location they were proposing to set up in. I was a sort of brand policeman for the company you might say."

Having watched others set up and run their own franchise businesses, Colm decided it was time for him to strike on his own. Determined to prepare himself, he began reading business books, listening to audio tapes by successful business people and immersing himself in all manner of personal development material.

In 1990, he left Dublin to take over the Bewley's franchise cafe in Limerick city. Business was good for the first few years but then the recession took hold. "My rent jumped and when you add rates, utilities and wages on top of that, it just was not sustainable. There was simply no way you could sell enough cups of coffee to make that level of overhead work," says Colm.

In 2005, he surrendered the Bewley's franchise in an attempt to reduce operational costs and changed the name to Cruises Cafe, based on the cafe's location on Cruises Street in the city, but even that wasn't enough.

He instinctively realised that the business wasn't going to work out and so began exploring other potential opportunities. It was a chance meeting with a stranger on a train journey from Limerick to Dublin that would determine his next move.

"I exchanged business cards with the man and before long I received a call from his boss who told me that he was launching a pilot project for school lunches in disadvantaged areas of Limerick called DEIS and asked if I'd be interested to supplying individual packed lunches for schoolchildren.

"That's where it all started. The first week we supplied 27 lunches. Today that figure has grown to over 32,500," says Colm. "It was very challenging in the beginning because I had no money left and still trying to manage the wind-down of the cafe. I asked all our suppliers to the cafe to continue to support me in setting up this new business and although a big ask at the time, they all thankfully did. I then closed the cafe, eventually managing to pay off all outstanding debts on it and focused instead on the new school lunches business."

In 2007, Colm moved into a new production facility but eventually outgrew that too and in 2016 moved into his current 14,000 sq ft food unit in Annacotty.

As his reach began to extend, he opened depots in Galway, Sligo, Mullingar and Dublin to where lunches are dispatched and stored in refrigerated conditions overnight before being delivered to schools by 10.30am the following morning.

Committed to giving back, Colm also set up the Carambola Kids Foundation which supports a range of educational projects in client schools and their communities from supplying iPads and books to helping develop libraries and sensory gardens for those with learning challenges.

In order to help other business owners, Colm then began sharing his own journey of how he overcame the demise of his cafe business to set up his new business and in 2015, launched his first book Feeding Johnny - How to Build a Business Despite the Roadblocks.

The experience gave him the desire to take his writing and speaking to the next level and he has now established a growing number of followers to his weekly Sunday morning blog and video 'vlog', Coffee with Colm where he shares inspiring insights about life and business to between 1,000 and 5,000 each week.

In 2016, he set up Colm O'Brien Motivation as a vehicle to deliver more talks and keynotes on the subject of motivation, personal development and business growth. More recently he set up as a vehicle for attract other coaches who can offer advice and support to business owners.


Business: Pre-packed school meals

Set up: 2003

Founder: Colm O’Brien

Turnover: €8.5m

No of Employees: 130

Location: Annacotty Business Park, Dublin Road, Limerick

The Challenge

Going to school without breakfast or not having a nutritious lunch can affect a child’s ability to pay attention and learn. A schools lunch programme is doing much to address the issue in many areas of the country. Supplying lunches has led to the growth of Limerick-based business, Carambola.


Get clear on what success looks like to you

You have to get clear about what you want your life to look like in, say, five years from now. What will you be doing? How will you be feeling? And how can your business become a vehicle that can contribute to making this a reality.

Your business can never outgrow you

To achieve success, you have to be willing to work as much on yourself and your own personal development as you work on the business. This includes attending seminars, having a coach or joining business networking groups.

Read for 10 minutes everyday

Reading 10 minutes or 10 pages every day can be life-changing. Choose books on topics such as personal development, business growth or leadership. Read biographies of leaders who share stories on how they achieved success in their lives and businesses and what lessons you can apply in your own life.

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