Once the preserve of athletes, protein bars are going mainstream and Kerry-based Origin Bars are capturing market share, says Trish Dromey.
WITH the launch of a handmade, high protein, high fibre snack bar, Kerry entrepreneur Niall Harty is aiming to take a bite out of Ireland’s fast growing sports nutrition market.
“The protein bar market in Ireland had been growing by 200% year on year since 2015, but many of the bars on sale are highly processed and contain artificial sweeteners. We believe there is an opportunity to target health conscious millennials with high protein bars that are 100% natural,” he said.
Identifying this niche opportunity prompted him to set up Origin Bars in 2016 and launch a range of three products. Now a finalist in this year’s Ireland’s Best Young Entrepreneur (IBYE) competition, the company has a staff of three and is currently listed in 41 SuperValu stores in Cork and Kerry while also selling in some health food stores, Spars and Centras.
“This month we signed an agreement with a wholesale distributor which will distribute our products to health food stores around the country,” said Mr Harty, who aims to see Origin Bars on sale in 100 outlets by the end of this year.
With €15,000 Best Kerry Start winnings in the IBYE competition and support from both Enterprise Ireland and the Kerry Local Enterprise Office, the company is preparing for a move into a 6,500 sq ft facility next month which will allow it to ramp up production and develop sales.
A graduate with a BSc in manufacturing engineering management, Mr Harty embraced a lifestyle change in 2013 which resulted in him obtaining a MSc in Food Science, Nutrition and Health from UCD.
“In 2016, I researched protein bars and the healthy snack market and developed several bars,” says Mr Harty, who used a priming grant from his local LEO and a small bank loan to establish his new company at a 1,000 sq ft unit at The Kerry Food Hub in Firies last year.
In February, the SuperValu Food Academy agreed to trial his bars in four Kerry stores.
“We launched our bars in Tralee, Dingle, Castleisland and Listowel in February last year and in January this year SuperValu agreed to take them into an additional 32 stores in Cork. We expect to be in all of them within a few months,” he said.
During 2017, the company secured €50,000 in Competitive Start Funding from Enterprise Ireland and was also selected to take part in Food Works — an accelerator programme which helps food companies to scale up and prepare to export.
By the end of last year, Origin had a staff of three, including one for production. Ross McDowell, who previously founded Stript Snacks, became a director.
Because the bars are hand made, production at Origin is a labour-intensive process.
“Our products are hand rolled, hand cut and packed by hand — we will continue with this until we build up the business, but plan to seek investment for equipment in the future, possibly next summer,” said Mr Harty.
He says that although protein bars have been around since the 1980s, it is only over the last five years that they have gone from being products eaten by athletes and bodybuilders to mainstream food items, which consumers see as a healthier option than confectionery bars.
In an increasingly crowded market, Mr Harty says Origin aims to differentiate itself as a producer of “clean protein bars”.
“Our product have real ingredients, almond butter, premium grass-fed whey protein and no artificial ingredients — they are not glorified chocolate bars filled with palm oil and artificial sweeteners,” he said.
The Origin Bars, which come in three flavours, sell for €2.99, which Mr Harty says is competitive given that protein bars typically sell for between €2.50 and €3.50.
The company’s plans to move into a larger unit at the Farranfore Industrial Estate where it will have the capacity to make several hundred thousand bars. The goal for 2019 is a central listing with SuperValu and by 2020, he says Origin expects to be ready for export.