Thursday 18 January 2018

My Big Idea: Baking's in my DNA says entrepreneur who found a niche in gluten-free granola from helping out a friend

Maria Betts with Maria Lucia Bakes
Maria Betts with Maria Lucia Bakes
Sarah McCabe

Sarah McCabe

Maria Betts, originally from Wicklow and now living in Rathfarnham, Dublin, runs gluten-free granola business Maria Lucia Bakes.

"I worked in executive coaching for many years before this, working with CEOs and senior executives on leadership skills and career development. I ran my own company, so Maria Lucia Bakes isn't my first foray into entrepreneurship. But it is the first time I have had a tangible product to sell, which I love.

I have always adored cooking and baking. It is in my DNA. My family ran a tearooms and guest house in Glendalough when I was small and my mother made all the food from scratch. She was an intuitive cook, the kind that never needed a recipe. I'm not quite that advanced but it is definitely a passion.

I came up with the idea for a gluten-free granola business in June 2013, when a friend of mine who is coeliac (intolerant to gluten) came to stay. I made her up a big batch of gluten-free granola, which is an oat-based dried cereal, to make sure she had plenty to eat for breakfast.

She took a bag home and shared it with another coeliac friend, who liked it so much she asked to buy it. Suddenly I saw a business opportunity. I went to my local enterprise board and then to Bord Bia, who had great research on gluten-free products in other markets.

The research showed that demand for gluten-free goods is growing around the world as the middle classes swell and people are increasingly concerned about their health. In Italy, for example, the number of people diagnosed as coeliac has doubled since 2007. Saudi Arabia has a huge number and Ireland would be quite high too.

By November 2013 I was ready to go, having developed a range of recipes and gotten my packaging right. All of my granolas are wheat-free, dairy-free, high in fibre and relatively low in sugar; honey is used sparingly as a sweetener.

I started out selling at farmers' markets in Dublin, which was a great way to get feedback. Then I started selling to a few specialist food shops. Next I joined the SuperValu Food Academy programme run in conjunction with Bord Bia and the Local Enterprise Office network. That has been fantastic.

My products are now stocked in 150 SuperValu stores and more than 100 health food shops and independent retailers, plus I recently got a listing with Dunnes. I have also recently started exporting to my first overseas market, Norway. I have outsourced all my production to a gluten-free bakery. I knew from the beginning that I couldn't make the product and build the business at the same time. Getting my own commercial premises wasn't for me. Almost everything is outsourced, in fact, from the company's social media management to accounting.

This model allows me to grow in a lean way and expand using my own funds, rather than relying on loans or grants. However I did recently take on my first employee. AIB also gave the business an overdraft which was great.

Next on the agenda is to expand the Maria Lucia Bakes product range. I brought out a sugar-free version this January that is proving very popular.

This year I plan to roll out a paleo granola, a toasted muesli and pour-in pots which people can eat on the go. After that the focus will be on brand building and expanding the exporting side. I am attending the Free From Expo in Amsterdam this summer with that in mind.

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