Sunday 18 August 2019

Family firm finds winning recipe with ready meals for GAA and rugby stars

FeedthePulse's healthy approach won All-Ireland hurling victory tribute, writes Gabrielle Monaghan

Helen McArdle with one of the ready meals she and husband Owen and sons Glen and Dan provide for players in the Galway GAA and Connacht rugby teams and other customers. Photo: Andrew Downes
Helen McArdle with one of the ready meals she and husband Owen and sons Glen and Dan provide for players in the Galway GAA and Connacht rugby teams and other customers. Photo: Andrew Downes

Gabrielle Monaghan

When Galway defeated Tipperary in the semi-final of the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship in 2015, Owen McArdle and daughter Amy were cheering on the victors in Croke Park while wife Helen was watching with daughter Leanne from their Claregalway home.

During the family's own post-match analysis, they described how the atmosphere was so electric that they could almost "feel the pulse". That phrase proved to be the eureka moment for the McArdles, who had been squabbling over what to christen their new business, which specialises in making healthy ready meals for athletes. FeedthePulse was born.

Owen, a chef with 30 years' experience, and Helen had already been running their own catering business, McArdle Catering, when the idea for FeedthePulse came about. By 2016, the fledgling business was providing nutritious meals for the Galway GAA and Connacht rugby teams. Dan and Glen, Helen and Owen's sports-mad chef sons were soon drafted into the business. When 2017 rolled around, FeedthePulse was providing all the meals for the Galway GAA hurling and football county teams.

The food company's prowess and dedication to Galway GAA did not go unnoticed. When captain David Burke lifted the Liam McCarthy Cup in September after Galway's first All-Ireland hurling win since 1988, he name-checked FeedthePulse in his victory speech.

It's been a long road to success for Owen and Helen, who live just a five-minute drive from Galway GAA's training grounds in Loughgeorge. The couple first met in 1987, when Helen was studying electronics in Carlow, Owen's home county. In search of better-paying work, they moved to London in 1989, where Helen got an office job at a recruitment agency. When she became pregnant with their first child, the couple decided to relocate to Ireland.

"I had done a start-your-own business course in London and Owen did one when we came home," says Helen. "We came up the plan that the first person to get work would hold down a steady job and the other person would start a business."

After Owen landed a job as a chef in 1992, Helen set about creating a furniture business in Claregalway. She would buy second-hand furniture from charity shops or markets, reupholster it, and sell it on for a profit. By the peak of the boom, Helen's main bread and butter was selling imported flatpack furniture to landlords furnishing buy-to-let properties. But by 2008, Helen knew the writing was on the wall.

"We had a simple business model: people would come in and order furniture, pay a deposit and then pay the balance when they picked it up," she says. "During the boom time, customers would be back with the balance within a week. But suddenly the amount of time between getting the deposit and getting the balance began to stretch. Things began to deteriorate quickly."

Before the implosion of the property market, Helen had approached banks for a loan to lease a 5,000 sq ft-warehouse in Claregalway Corporate Park for five years, but never got approval. The disappointment turned out to be a blessing in disguise: the business was wound down in 2010 without any cumbersome loans.

"It was a relatively painless transition," Helen says. "In fact, we were genuinely relieved we hadn't got the lease when we looked around and saw other businesses that had scaled up and gotten into really difficult situations."

By 2010, it was Owen's turn to become the entrepreneur with McArdle Catering, based out of Crowe's bar and restaurant in Bohermore.

"We did catering for communions, confirmations, concerts and weddings," Helen says. "The last wedding we did was for 300 people on an island. It was a gorgeous wedding, but the weather was terrible, the refrigerated van had to be lifted by crane to a tiny little boat, and we all got sea-sick on the way over."

Owen then picked up work catering for the Galway football team two nights a week. One night, he came home on a dark, wet night and mentioned how the players had little or no time to cook their own meals because of the long time they spent on the road.

Helen says: "One player had driven from Dublin to Galway after work and driven back to Dublin again after training. Owen said: 'I really want to make sure the food they are getting is working for them performance-wise - I don't want to be feeding someone who has a big drive ahead of them with meals that would make them sleepy. Will you help me find a way of us doing this consistently?'"

The pair set about researching diets for elite athletes. They sought advice from Croí, a non-profit dedicated to fighting heart disease and stroke in the West of Ireland. Croí explained the dietary requirement, namely food that is low in salt, sugar and fat and but rich in fibre and protein.

"We have two computer nutritional analysis packages designed by a food technologist," says Helen. "We can run every ingredient for one of Owen's recipes through the analysis package, so if a yoghurt is showing up as unsuitable, we would look in the shops for another yoghurt with a better nutritional profile or replace some ingredients with herbs or spices."

Feedthepulse, which started trading in April 2016, is based in a pilot kitchen the McArdles built beside their home. Their delivery van follows the teams around so it can serve players in locations like a dressing room - "like a pop-up restaurant".

Other Galway customers started requesting the same take-home ready-meals as the players, and FeedthePulse now delivers 600 meals to them every week, with prices at €6 a meal.

FeedthePulse has had its share of challenges, though. After succeeding in getting its ready meals stocked by SuperValu, the McArdles realised the shelf life of the meals was too short for a supermarket and that they were getting too many returns. Instead, the entrepreneurs extracted three sauces from the meals and opted to sell them individually.

The McArdles' hard work has paid off so far. In its first nine months, FeedthePulse generated some €80,000 in turnover and will likely more than double that this year and again in 2018, Helen says. The business is currently working on extending the shelf-life of its meals to 28 days, without any artificial colours or flavours, so they can export them. The biggest hurdle, though, is scaling the business without expanding too fast.

At present, the company only delivers within a five-mile radius of Claregalway, with orders coming in through social media, by text or by email. To streamline this process, FeedthePulse is developing an e-commerce website, using the Shopify platform, to sell its meals and sauces online. To do this properly, FeedthePulse must ensure it doesn't lose the personal touch it enjoys with existing customers, Helen says.

"People request orders on Facebook, Instagram, etc and we know them," she says. "When our business model is right and our ecommerce site is ready, we can go to the local area and into export properly."

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