Winter helps soup firm warm up for expansion

As winter arrives and sales of soup increase, Cobh-based company, Just Food is finding new markets in Europe for winter minestrone, spicy lentil and Moroccan chickpea.

Already selling nationwide in Ireland, the company filled its first export order last month — sending a consignment of chilled soups to nine stores owned by Belgian retailer BioPlanet.

Just Food director Deirdre Hillard is now in negotiations with a multiple in France, one in Germany and one in the UK and is aiming for significant export growth in 2013.

“We are already well into the soup season, which lasts from October to April, and sales are going up,” says Ms Hillard.

In Ireland, Just Food has a national listing with SuperValu and Centra, sells in 85 Tesco stores as well as Superquinn, several independent stores and has, in recent weeks, achieved a listing with Dunnes Stores for 75 stores.

Employing a staff of 13, including three part-time workers, Just Food expects to achieve growth of 30% by the end of its financial year in March and is aiming for a turnover in excess of €1m.

The company came into being in 2004, more as a hobby than as a business, and its first sales occurred at a small corner of Darina Allen’s stand at the Midleton Farmers’ Market.

A qualified accountant with a passion for cooking, Ms Hillard started Just Food when she gave up accountancy to rear her family.

Producing eight varieties of chilled soup, she built up a small business supplying farmers’ markets — mainly in Cork.

Operating from a small commercial kitchen built onto the family home in Cobh, she didn’t start out to develop a serious business.

“We got organic certification in 2004 and in 2005 we started selling in the local SuperValu. By 2007, we were supplying farmers’ markets in Mahon, Douglas, Cobh and Naas, as well as seven or eight shops. By 2007, we had outgrown the commercial kitchen. It wasn’t a hobby any more but was becoming a serious business. I got to the point that I either had to do it more seriously or stop.”

Securing a premises at the old dockyard in Cobh, she invested €150,000 in converting and equipping it for production. By this time, she had begun to counter the lull in soup sales in the summer by making salads.

“With the help of South Cork Enterprise Board, we converted a section of the dockyard called ‘the end of the slipway’, which had 3,500 sq ft of space.”

With a staff of eight — including herself and four part-time workers — Ms Hillard set to work on building up sales. Initially she added customers in the Munster area, employing a driver for deliveries while also taking on a distributor.

She travelled the country building up sales and in 2008, despite the arrival of recession, her husband Kevin, also an accountant, joined her full-time in the business.

Recession had some impact on sales, but didn’t stop growth. “We found that salad sales fell but that soup sales went up. Our soup sells for €2.79 for a 400 gramme tub — it can be seen as a meal option and is not a very expensive item, so sales continued to grow.”

Competing for shelf space in a crowded market, Ms Hillard says the key selling point for her soups is that they are different from the competition, since they are chunky and not smooth and that they make a healthy lunch option.

She adds that the organic status is also a selling point, but not the main one.

The business has grown more rapidly since the opening of the new facility in 2008. At around that time, Just Food won a bursary from The Vard Partnership and got €10,000 worth of brand and packaging design which allowed it to develop a new brand image.

The first export contract came as a result of a Bord Bia trade event at the start of this year. The agreement — with BioPlanet — is expected to be worth €150,000 for the year and the company hopes to develop further sales to BioPlanet’s parent company, the Colruyt Group, which also has stores in Holland and France.

Ms Hillard says that, so far, sales have gone well in BioPlanet and she is making plans to develop further sales in Belgium.

“In Brussels, you have 90 million people living within an hour and a half’s drive from the city. We see an opportunity to capitalise on Ireland’s green image.”

Both Bord Bia and Enterprise Ireland are helping Just Food to develop export sales.

Ms Hillard says that, both in Ireland and Europe, there is particularly good growth in chilled soup sales. In Ireland, the chilled soup market is estimated to be worth €16m a year while the figure is £110m (€137m) in the UK.

Through developing exports, the company expects to employ an additional ten staff over the next three years. Aiming to start selling to France, Germany, Holland and the UK next year, Ms Hillard believes that next year the company can achieve in excess of this year’s planned 30% growth.

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