Scúp getting its just desserts
Former Wexford hurler Willie Devereux is focusing on the future and creating unique, top quality gelato, writes Simon Bourke
Growing up in a house of self-starters, a house where there was no limits placed on one's ambitions, left an impact on Willie Devereux.
In 2014, having decided that college wasn't for him, he set up Scúp Gelato, an ice-cream company which set out to serve the higher end of the market, to supply top hotels and restaurants with a premium homegrown Irish product.
Working alongside his mother, Siobhan, the 23-year-old rented a unit in the Enterprise Centre in Kerlogue and set up shop, hoping to fill what he describes as a 'gap in the market'.
'I came from a family that was always self-employed, that's something you see and it gets built into you a little bit,' says Willie, now 29. 'I went to college, it didn't work out for me. I did Arts in UCD and then I tried a Business Degree in DIT.
'We were always tossing around ideas at home and we found a unit in town. I was coming out of college and we just saw a gap in the market really for a good, top quality gelato. And it just snowballed quickly, you'd be surprised at how things get going. We started making a good product and people were very interested in it.'
That product is made with the finest, freshest Irish dairy and, most importantly, differs greatly to your run-of-the-mill ice-cream.
'It's the texture, there's less air in a gelato, which means it's softer and has more flavour,' Willie explains. 'We got a gelato master over from Italy to teach us how to make it and he developed a really top quality gelato and sorbet for us.'
Made in small handmade batches, the gelato doesn't come in your standard vanilla, raspberry ripple and neopolitan flavours. A walk round the sixty-odd freezers in the one of the company's storage units reveals a smorgasbord of flavours which even Heston Blumenthal would struggle to replicate.
Lemon and basil, bergamot and campari, gin and champagne, if you can eat it then Willie and his team will have created a flavour for it. But when you're dealing with chefs, food connoisseurs who rarely settle for second best, these are the lengths you must go to.
'If we get a taster we'll generally get a client. That was the path we took, we worked a lot with the chefs we had a relationship with, developing new flavours, because they give me ideas, they're working with clients who are always asking for more, always asking questions.
'That in turn puts the pressure on us to be new, be different. We use local products like Killowen, Jeffares' blackcurrants; we make a frozen yogurt sorbet mix with the blackcurrants, it's unbelievable. The local produce is so fresh.'
Opting to focus entirely on the food service sector, Willie and Siobhan were encouraged by the early feedback they received. And that feedback quickly translated into orders, into partnerships which have endured throughout the company's six years in existence.
'Our first customer was the Marker Hotel in Dublin, Gareth Mullins is the chef there, we've been with him since the start. Since then we've continued on that path, 85% of our business is in Dublin, but we've some great local customers; Kelly's Hotel, The Yard, The Riverbank, The Duck Restaurant in the Marlfield Hotel, Crust in town; Richie in there is fantastic.'
As of March of this year, Scúp Gelato had 158 customers, some a little further afield than others.
'We have a client in Korea, in Seoul. We got that in 2018 through Bord Bia. It's kind of like speed-dating, you've 16 meetings in a day. I met this guy, from Market Kurly, he didn't have much English, very little English, and the interpreter he brought seemed to have less,' smiles Willie.
'I just gave him ice-cream and he kept eating it. I just thought he was eating ice-cream and I thought I'd never hear from him again. But he contacted me after and said he wanted to put me in touch with an agent who brings in a lot of Irish food for him.'
But of course, it's impossible to discuss any business - small, medium or otherwise - right now without mentioning the c word. And like the majority of local companies, Willie has had to make adjustments since the outbreak of the coronavirus.
'On Friday, March 13 we let everyone go,' he says. 'We were having a great year, but it's happened to everyone, you can whinge, you can crib and you can moan but we had a chat and said "look lads, unfortunately we're going to have to take a break here". We didn't panic, we just put it on hold, hit the pause button.
'We're very lucky in that the product is frozen, it's not perishable, as long as the freezers stay on it has a shelf-life of two years. But there's going to be tricky times ahead, we have 158 customers and I don't know how many of them are going to open again.'
A small team, Scúp Gelato employs seven staff, and all but one of those remains at home, waiting to get the go-ahead.
'We have a plan in place as to what we want to do and how we want to get back going. Safety for us is the big one, safety of the staff is most important because we've to go up to Dublin delivering, so we've procedures put in place. I don't want anyone picking up something while working for us and bringing it home to someone who's susceptible,' Willie says.
'The Enterprise Centre here have been unbelievable, Brendan Ennis and the guys on the board have ran everything. We've all felt safe coming in. It's a sealed unit, a self-contained unit, protecting the spread, and the people here.'
At the time of writing 95% of Scúp Gelato's business partners are still closed. To help counter this fallow period Willie has decided to enter the retail market for the first time, producing a 500ml tub which will be sold out of Kelly's Hotel.
And despite the level of uncertainty surrounding the hospitality sector, he is looking to the future and expanding the business.
'The main ambition for the company is centred around export. Export is the main thing because the value on Irish food and Irish dairy at the moment is the golden ticket, countries will pay a premium for Irish dairy.
'I would like to go at the German market. But any market would be good, ice-cream can be sold anywhere in the world. We're for chefs, we're designed for chefs, so they get a top quaity ice cream. We're at the upper end of the scale on quality but we're also on the upper end in terms of price. You get what you pay for, I'm a firm believer of that in anything.'
A talented hurler, Willie was a member of the Wexford senior panel until 2018, choosing to walk away so he could focus on his business. So what provides the bigger thrill, scoring a point for your county or receiving positive reviews for a product you've worked hard to create?
'I didn't score too many points for Wexford,' he laughs. 'I was playing in the backs, scoring a point for me was rare. You can't replicate sport in work. Working is different, you get a sense of self-achievement, especially when you're working for yourself. The pressure is on. It's your baby.'
Mother and son team work in perfect harmony
Working alongside a parent, never mind setting up a business with one, might sound like a daunting prospect for most people, but for Willie and mother Siobhan, life has been relatively harmonious since they created Scúp Gelato six years ago.
Willie is presumably, like every Irish son since the dawn of time, the apple of his mother's eye, but this doesn't impact on their working relationship.
'Neither of us are really the boss. She'd have areas where she's good, I'd have areas where I'm good. Of course we have fall outs, but look it, you can't argue too much when you're working together.
'We've disagreements on a daily basis but we've a very good working relationship. Patience is probably something that I'm not blessed with, but you have to have it. I actually still live at home. We get into conversations but there comes a time where you have to put up the hand and say "relax there".'
Known as the 'ice-cream woman' to the chefs she visits, Siobhan and her son dovetail perfectly, Willie dealing with the meeting and greeting, the front of house affairs, while his mother drives things on from behind the scenes.
And because it's a family business, Willie has an innate appreciation for the sacrifices and commitment of the staff, all of whom have been impacted by the arrival of Covid-19.
'I'm very aware that they have families at home, mortgages to pay and the effect this has had on them,' he says. 'Our team here are great. I've a big value on staff and family. When I was still playing for Wexford, I could be gone for two days and I wouldn't have been able to go and play only for they were here. That's why my appreciation for staff and family is massive.'
Not yet 30 and having already been named County Wexford's Young Entreprenuer of the Year (2019) Willie takes it all in his stride, refusing to get carried away, or be adversely affected by both highs and lows.
'You could find a roofer aged 25 running his own business, so there's no difference. But I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined this is what I'd be doing, processing orders for Seoul in Korea. But it happens, you get introduced to people, next thing you're supplying ten more restaurants in one week. Things happen very quickly both good and bad in business, I learned that early on.'