By Pádraig Hoare
In any business that is scaling up nationally and internationally, the boardroom is vital — but for Keogh’s Crisps, the kitchen table with all the family is still king.
In existence for 200 years in north County Dublin, the Keogh farm has reinvented itself more times than fellow Dubliners U2.
The Keogh family has been farming potatoes, tomatoes and other veg for generations. The crisp business began life eight years ago as the traditional potato sales industry declined.
In April this year, Keogh’s Crisps struck a deal with airline Emirates to supply one million bags annually to first-class passengers.
Last year saw Keogh’s secure 8% of the overall Irish crisp market, while exports are now set to grow substantially from the 400-acre farm.
Managing director Tom Keogh said: “If you look back over the years, diversification is in the blood. My grandfather got his first lucky break in the 1960s when he started growing tomatoes here in the greenhouse.
"He had to reinvent himself when the fuel crisis forced him out of business. He couldn’t heat his glasshouse to grow tomatoes in the early 1980s.
"That changed to outdoor vegetables — we were in cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli.
“Then cheap imports started arriving in Ireland in the early 1990s, and that drove us out of that business. So the potatoes were always part of what we did in the background, and Dad really started to focus on them in the early 1990s.
"Unfortunately, it was the consumption issue that was driving the long-term potential out of that market, so there we were faced with a dilemma — where do we go from here? That’s where the crisps idea came from.”
It remains a family-led business, fused with input from local suppliers, Mr Keogh said.
“My mother has a cookery school here in the farmhouse. That’s where I started cooking and trying products. For many years, all the flavour development was done around the kitchen table at home.
"The way the business has grown, we have a fantastic team of people looking after quality and product development.
“But the final decision is still done around the kitchen table. If it doesn’t pass the Keogh family test, then it doesn’t go to market.
"We’ve been very lucky, working with so many incredibly talented artisan Irish suppliers for our flavours, getting some unique flavour profiles from them. That, in turn, allows us to produce really good quality crisps.
“The days are long, a day off is a late breakfast. But we’ve never worked a day in our life because we love it so much. To grow up in a family business, and then, in turn, bring that on — you really feel like you’ve achieved something.”
Keogh’s Crisp flavours selected by Emirates include Irish Mature Cheddar, Shamrock and Sour Cream, and Lightly Salted with seasonal variations such as Roast Turkey and Stuffing being introduced onboard for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“The Emirates deal is the biggest overseas business we have ever won. It took us about three years to get across the line. The most recent tendering round went to a blind tasting, they told us they took in 15 different brands and we came out on top.
"They gave us the nod for first class — it was fantastic, we were very surprised at the volumes, I thought being first class there wouldn’t be huge volumes in it but they gave a forecast of over a million bags a year, which is amazing,” Mr Keogh said.
The work being done by agencies and bodies like Bord Bia across the world cannot be understated when it comes to exporting Irish food and drink, Mr Keogh said.
“We first met Emirates at the Bord Bia Marketplace event three years ago. Bord Bia would have invited them into Ireland at their showcase of Irish products.
"That is where the initial contact was made, and the overseas accounts do take a long time to come to fruition. But when they do, it ends up happening quite quickly. We’re delighted.
“From a brand exposure point of view, you couldn’t ask for better — our product is put in the hands of first-class passengers all over the world in every country, which is quite amazing exposure.”
Markets across the world are in Keogh’s sights, but the US can be a big one for them, Mr Keogh said.
“We’re currently exporting to about 40 markets. None of them are huge markets for us but together overall, they make up about 16% plus of our business.
"It is an area of the business that is growing rapidly. We’re going to see 100% growth in the next four to six years and we’re on track to deliver that.
“Markets of focus are the US where we have very good feedback on our products. The consumers over there seem to buy into the provenance behind the product.
“The flavours available to consumers in the US are very basic. When we sell a shamrock crisp or a chorizo crisp, it gives them something that is really new.
“We have a lot of new products in the pipeline. We pretty much have two to three years worth of product development.
"It’s exciting but most of it will be focused on the healthier aspect of snacking, which is where the growth seems to be coming from,” he said.