Sunday 17 November 2019

Bringing home the bacon

Creators of Ireland's favourite rasher aiming to become a household name, writes Simon Bourke

Mary and Pat O’Neill with their four sons
Mary and Pat O’Neill with their four sons

Starting your own business is always a risk, the vast majority of new ventures don't make it past the first year, and many of those that do struggle to eke out a profit.

But every once in a while a budding entrepreneur taps into a market in need of something new, a market just waiting to be conquered.

Pat O'Neill is one such person. In 2004 he had a steady job, a degree, a career with prospects. However, he'd always wanted to work for himself, and in one market, one particularly crowded market, he saw an opening where perhaps others might not have.

Pat's wife, Mary, explains: 'Pat's background is in food quality, he did a food quality degree. He worked in meat processing plants from college, and he saw an opening; because the industry had started adding phosphates into bacon.'

In the bacon industry phosphate works as a binding agent, enabling manufacturers to add water to a rasher, thus allowing them to sell the consumer less meat at the same price.

'You'll have pork loin and they'll add 20% water to it, and they add phosphates to hold in the water, so you're buying 80% meat and 20% water. You cooked your rasher and it shrivelled up in the pan, it spat out all that white gunk at you,' Mary says. 'This was industry standard and the very big players were making a lot of money out of doing this. So the traditional dry cure is what Pat went back to then. He decided there was a market for the old-traditional rasher, cured by hand, nothing pumped in, no phosphates.'

Moving to a four-day week, Pat, and his production manager, Sean, took a step back in time, reverting to the old methods of curing bacon, the old, often painstaking, ways.

'The cure is mainly sea-salt, and you apply it by hand to the outside of the pork loin, and leave it for about 10 days. Halfway through you turn it over and rub it into the other side to give it a nice even cure,' Mary says.

Having started off with approximately 300kg of bacon, Pat's first batch of rashers were ready two weeks later. And, after a night spent labelling and packaging his new product, he knew exactly where to go to sell them.

'He went to Enniscorthy Farmer's Market the next morning and started selling it,' says Mary. 'He started off with a traditional pound pack of rashers and - this was 15 years ago - said "it's €5", which was fairly expensive. But he went and he met his customers and said, "here it is, try it. Come back next week if it doesn't work for you." And they came back and bought again. To this day he still does the Farmer's Market on a Saturday and the pound pack of rashers is still €5.'

With business increasing and the rashers selling well, Pat quit his nine-to-five and went full-time. But even then a considerable amount of toil and effort was required to ensure the business flourished. However, one seismic economic event did not impact upon this nascent company as it did others. According to Mary good bacon can survive even the biggest recession in a generation.

'It's a bit like chippers, and bread, they survive it. If you can't afford luxuries and you won't go to a restaurant, you're going to stay at home and you will do breakfast. I have a brother-in-law who would have worked in retail in Wales, and he said when it (the recession) came around, bread, bacon and eggs were unaffected. You just always have rashers. You can throw it up for breakfast, lunch or dinner.'

With no economic downturn to worry about, Pat and Sean continued to grow the business, curing, slicing, packing, labelling, delivering by themselves for the first six years. And during these early years, while the pair worked to find the feet, they were helped every step of the way by those from within their community.

'The local stores are brilliant, and the hotels, cafés - if you haven't got it in your own county there's no point in going to Donegal. The support is fantastic, it always has been, from the time when they just kept coming back to the Farmer's Market for the rashers. And we sell more in Dunnes Stores in Enniscorthy than almost anywhere in the country; it's huge, the local support,' Mary says.

However, you can't keep a good thing down and, in the interests of fairness, Pat decided to share his creation with the rest of country. To great effect.

'Adare Manor is one of our top food service customers; we got that this year. It's wonderful to have someone like that, someone who is going to host the Ryder Cup has our bacon on their menu. We also supply Neven Maguire's restaurant up in Cavan. We have some good customers, but we have a good product,' says Mary.

Of course you can't have Rory McIlroy or Tiger Woods eating any old rasher, you must ensure their svelte frames are fed only the very best of Irish bacon. So it's just as well the O'Neill's rasher was named the best in the country at the recent Blas na hÉireann Irish Food Awards then - an accolade the now thriving business also received in 2017. In addition, the rasher was also named the nation's best in the Georgina Campbell awards that same year.

'We've won awards because we never compromise on the quality and we stand over what we do,' asserts Mary. 'We still apply by hand, we're still doing what we did when we started and everything is 100% Irish pork.'

Now operating out of their own plant in Enniscorthy where they employ 15 staff and have three vans on the road every day, O'Neills Dry Cure Bacon is an established player on the national scene, a staple purchase in homes across the country.

But for Mary the pursuit of excellence never ends. "The ambition is to be the first name rasher in Ireland. If you think of black pudding who do you think of? Clonakilty is the usual one. So if Clonakilty became a household name, quite well-earned by the Twomey family for their pudding, there's a go-to product in every category and we want to be the go-to rasher.'


Diversification the name of the game as O'Neills increase sustainability

Protecting the environment is important to the O'Neills. To this end they have begun looking at ways to decrease their carbon footprint, to maximise their energy efficiency and ensure nothing goes to waste.

'We're part of the Bord Bia Quality Assurance Scheme,' says Mary. 'Under that you have a raw material target, you have a manufacturing target, and a sustainability target.'

And the company has met each target set out for them: By using 100% Irish pork it has ensured it matches the required raw material targets, and by following stringent hygiene and production processes it has also maintained its manufacturing targets. Furthermore, the O'Neills have taken every measure to increase their sustainability.

'We monitor our use of electricity and water and our production of waste,' says Mary. 'One of our biggest things was; we had all these pork loins and when we sliced them into rashers, we had all these ends, and we were sending them off for waste. So we said "let's diversify". So now we trim off the ends and we make lardons which we sell. It's a by-product instead of putting it into waste.'

Additionally, the energy produced by running the cold rooms and the freezers inside the factory is used to run the hot water system, and all the lighting within the building comes from special energy efficient LED bulbs.

And, in the past two months, Pat and Mary have installed solar panels on the roof of the plant to reduce their energy usage.

Gorey Guardian