Chicken soup for the soul and spicy lentil for all else
What started as a hobby has grown into a thriving organic food business, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan
JUST before Christmas, I wandered into Hurley's Supervalu in Midleton, Co Cork, a beautiful shop with an amazing range of produce. There, the eponymous John Hurley, with the aid of the gregarious Finin O'Sullivan of Finin's Gastropub in Midleton, was hosting his annual 'Christmas Party' for customers, lavishly plying them with sandwiches, smoked salmon, Irish coffees, wine and so on. I can't say I have ever seen this happening anywhere else.
Anyway, while walking the aisles I spotted a row of organic soups by the Just Food Company and succumbed to the sweet potato and lemongrass, which proved delicious. The Just Food Company is the enterprise of Deirdre Hilliard and husband Kevin, accountants by profession. Kevin is from Co Meath, while Deirdre is a native of Cobh where the company is based.
When they met, the couple first moved to Hilversum in Holland where they worked for six years in telecommunications. (Hilversum is a big TV centre from where the Dutch Eurovision verdict "calling from Hilversum" comes.)
Kevin and Deirdre were impressed by the organic movement in Holland where, as far back as 1993, every town had organic butchers and farmers as a matter of form, with no elitist pretensions.
On returning to Cork, Kevin worked for Musgrave's and Deirdre resumed an accounting role but also did a 10-week course in Ballymaloe, just to improve the standard of cooking in her home. A baby arrived, and in 2002 Deirdre packed in her job and started making soup, purely as a hobby, selling it in Midleton market "in a tiny bit of a stall". In summer, soup sales would fall off so she added hummus, pesto and salads to her repertoire, eventually working up to her own stall, but it was still a hobby up to the end of 2006. She was selling then into six shops and the business was outgrowing its 'hobby' status. She was already using organic produce, but to be certified organic they had to have a commercial kitchen so it was "either grow the company. . ."
They got a grant from the Cork Enterprise Board and also did a food programme. Kevin and Deirdre's aim was to provide fresh-tasting and 'just-made' quality organic produce to health-conscious and sometimes 'time-poor' customers at an affordable price.
While they operate from a commercial kitchen, the food is prepared by hand. It is cooked in small batches by head chef Stephen Farley, chef Clare Allen, and four assistants, "using big pots and long-handled wooden spoons because it cooks faster and the flavour tastes better". Most of their food is cooked on the day it leaves their kitchen and is in stores within 18 to 24 hours. They now have more than a dozen varieties.
Soups include Moroccan Chickpea, Sweet Potato and Lemongrass, Spicy Lentil, Corn & Red Pepper Chowder, Summer Minestrone, and their latest addition to the range, Potato, Fennel and Parmesan, which is lovely. A 670ml tub is €3.75 and generously feeds two people.
They also do delicious wholesome salads, including curried couscous, a chunky three-bean, cucumber pickle, tomato salsa, marinated peppers and feta, and a delicious puy lentil salad.
Their efforts have not been going unnoticed for, at the Blas na hEireann Awards in Dingle, they won gold medals for their cucumber pickle and Brazil and raisin muesli, and silver medals for their delicious organic chicken liver pate. The latter has proved so popular that they use all the organic chicken livers available in Ireland, Deirdre says.
They use distributors purely to deliver and merchandise orders to individual stores, while they manage the orders and maintain a direct relationship with the stores themselves. Deirdre says they cannot emphasise enough how vital this relationship is, especially to small producers. By doing this they are able to offer better value and spend more on their ingredients, as there is no middle man.
Their weekly stall at Midleton farmers' market is vital for product research. They started selling their now best-selling soup, Spicy Lentil, at the market about five years ago, and it was an instant hit. However, it took a very long time to take off in the supermarkets. "If it was a person, one would wax lyrical about its personality but avoid all mention of appearances," says Deirdre. "We would definitely have dropped it, were it not for the enthusiasm of our regular market customers."
Just Food is selling now into about 75 shops, including Morton's of Ranelagh, Wilde & Green of Milltown, lots of Supervalus, the Organic Shop in Blackrock, Get Fresh Rathfarnham, Select Stores in Dalkey and Field & Vine Rathmines. However, in a couple of weeks' time Just Food's muesli will be in more than 500 shops around the country, so it just goes to show what you can start, if your produce is right, from a market stall.
Check it out on www.justfood.ie.
With the recession, sales of hummus have slowed, as it is viewed as a luxury, but all is not lost as sales of chocolate, lipstick and soup are up!