Sunday 22 April 2018

People: Meet a businesswoman who has the complete package

From selling fresh eggs at the tender age of eight to delivering delicious food to the A-listers, Jennifer Irvine personifies the word entrepreneur

FRESH THINKING: Jennifer Irvine founded her company in 2003 while still in her early twenties. It is now a multi-million pound, award-winning business. Her parents, the Steeles, are well-known among foodies for making Milleens cheese
FRESH THINKING: Jennifer Irvine founded her company in 2003 while still in her early twenties. It is now a multi-million pound, award-winning business. Her parents, the Steeles, are well-known among foodies for making Milleens cheese

Anne Marie Scanlon

Entrepreneur is a much devalued word, bandied around by contestants on The Apprentice, reality TV stars and other eejits to the point where it is more as a badge of shame rather than a mark of pride. If anyone can reclaim the word and return it to its original meaning, Jennifer Irvine can. Jennifer, who has just published her second recipe book, The Balance Diet, grew up on a farm in Eyeries in Beara, west Cork. One of four children, Jennifer's interest in food started young and her earliest memory is of churning butter when she was three.

Despite her roots in farming, neither of Jennifer's parents comes from an agricultural background. Jennifer's mother, Veronica, is originally from Dublin and studied at UCD where she met her future husband Norman Steele, who is from Worthing in Sussex. Norman was a lecturer in Philosophy at Trinity but was in UCD to deliver a guest lecture. After they married the couple moved to west Cork to pursue a life of self-sufficiency. "Self-sufficiency sounds very romantic," Irvine says, "but it's very, very hard work. It does teach you a lot, how to milk a cow, churn butter, make yogurt and cheese. I learnt how to make a sausage before I learnt how to drive."

The Steeles are well-known among foodies for making Milleens cheese – a tradition now carried on by their only son, Quinlan.

Jennifer's entrepreneurial career began at the age of eight when she started her first business. "It was a business," she says, "I did proper accounts and everything." Her parents had such a surplus of eggs on the farm that there was a constant worry they'd eat a bad egg by mistake. Jennifer remedied this by getting on her bike and selling fresh eggs to local restaurants. Jennifer never let an opportunity to turn food into money pass her by. After going to Newtown Senior School in Waterford as a boarder Jennifer would sell biscuits for 5p each to her dorm-mates at night. "That's some profit margin," she laughs. In no time Jennifer was running the school tuck shop.

Not content with her various food-based enterprises, Jennifer purchased a street traders licence and hitched from town to town selling "whatever I could". This was prior to the Celtic Tiger and there were no jobs "and you had to be very innovative to raise the extra money needed to go to the pub". she says. "I used to collect flowers from hedgerows, press them, buy three frames for a £1 from the Pound Shop, frame the flowers with their Latin name inscribed beneath them and sell them for £5 at markets."

After studying food marketing and economics at Reading University, Jennifer began working for Neal's Yard Dairy in London. While working full time she started her own business, The Pure Package, in 2003 while still in her early twenties. Pure Package is a food delivery service providing clients with three meals and two snacks on a daily basis, what Jennifer calls "convenience with a conscience". It began with one employee, Jennifer herself, doing everything – cooking, delivering and answering the phone. "I'd answer, pretending I was a receptionist and say 'Hold on, I'll just transfer you' and then I'd switch the receiver to my other ear and say 'Hello'." It is now a multi-million pound, award-winning business with a roster of A-List clients including Julien Macdonald, Anya Hindmarch, Erin O'Connor and Hugh Jackman.

Soon after starting her own business, Jennifer married her Scottish husband Stephen Irvine and very quickly had three daughters, (the couple are currently expecting their fourth child). "At one point I had three under three," Jennifer says. Despite being busy with her new family, Jennifer won the Shell Livewire Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2005 and Harper's Bazaar Entrepreneur of the Year 2007. She is quick to attribute the success of her business to the fact that she genuinely loves food. "I'm obsessed by food, I love food, I wake up in the morning and wonder what I will have for my dinner. As a woman I also think about how I can eat delicious food and look good at the same time." (She is blonde, slim and pretty, so she's managing that part very well). "I never like to feel guilty about eating and thought a whole load of other people would feel the same."

Because The Pure Package is based on fresh healthy food it is only available in a limited area. In response to increasing demands for recipes, Jennifer wrote The Diet for Food Lovers in 2011 and the current book The Balance Diet, which extols Jennifer's prime food philosophy that "flavour is fulfilment". Since the publication of her first book Jennifer has been inundated with correspondence thanking her for sharing her love of good food.

"I love the fact that my philosophy of food is helping people around the world," she says sounding genuinely thrilled.

  • The Balance Diet, Jennifer Irvine, Hardback Weidenfeld & Nicolson €28.99. For more information see www.purepackage.com, www.milleenscheese.com

Irish Independent

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life