Pre-pack fish reels in sales for Keohanes

A novel packaging idea has paved the way to success for Keohane Seafoods, writes Trish Dromey, with the Cork company hoping to grow exports by between 20%-25% in the next three to four years.

Pre-pack fish reels in sales for Keohanes

Innovative skin-tight packaging has helped Cork company Keohane Seafoods grow a turnover of €11m in four years and scoop the overall Small Firms Association small business award for 2014.

Selling to several multiples in Ireland and to Tesco UK, the company was the first in Ireland to offer pre-packaged skinfilmed fish and the first in Europe to develop microwaveable skin-filmed packs for frozen fish.

“The skintight packaging removes the air from the product and adds an extra two days of shelf life to fresh fish. The value added microwaveable packs with sauces are created for those who are afraid of cooking fish,’’ says managing director Colman Keohane who set up the company with his father Michael and brother Brian in 2010.

The Keohanes observed that fish sales were rising in Ireland and noticed that while pre-packaged meat had become very widely available in supermarkets, pre-packaged fish wasn’t very well supplied. They also identified opportunities for value-added convenience products.

At the time they started working on the project, Michael had retired as manager of Bantry Bay Seafoods while Colman and Brian had also been involved in a company selling fish for several years.

“We had travelled in Europe and seen packaging used for frozen foods which wasn’t being used for fish in Ireland or the UK,’’ reveals Colman

Exploring packaging techniques, they visited a number of companies in Europe, including one in Scotland using microwaveable packaging for haggis. With the assistance of Bord Iascaigh Mhara, (BIM) the Keohanes spent six months in 2010 developing packaging and products

Securing funding from the South Eastern Cork Area Development Programme, the company set up operations at a 2,800sq ft facility on Cork’s Kinsale Rd in late 2010. Enrolling in the SuperValu development course, run with assistance from Enterprise Ireland, the Keohanes began looking for customers.

A nationwide listing with SuperValu was followed by a contract with Dunnes Stores and Tesco. At the end of 2011, the company expanded its production facility to 7,000sq ft with the assistance of BIM and also increased its staff size to 12. The following year it got a contract with Lidl and began negotiations with Tesco UK.

A second BIM-supported expansion at the end of the year increased the facility size to 20,000sq ft.

Shipments of microwaveable fish product to the UK started late last year. “We started selling to 300 stores but increased this to 500 this month and are now planning to increase this further,’’ reveals Colman.

The company has in the region of 30 products including seven microwaveable ones, such as salmon with garlic and cod with chilli, ginger, and lime.

“Our aim is to develop exports of between 20% and 25% over the next three or four years. We are constantly innovating and are looking at new products, new technology, and new markets,” says Colman.

In recent weeks, Keohane Seafoods attended a trade show in France and also visited the US for the Boston Seafood Show. The company is in discussions with a number of potential customers in the UK as well as several supermarket chains in Europe.

“The process can take up to six months as we discuss product, flavours, and sauces. We see good potential in both France and Germany and expect to sign up one or two customers there by the end of the year.”

Further new products are being planned, including an expansion of the micro- waveable fish range, which Colman sees as having a lot of potential. “Some people are afraid of cooking fish, this makes cooking fish easy, quick, and convenient, people don’t have to smell or touch it until it’s fully cooked.”

By last year, the company staff size had grown to 45. It’s now up to 50 and further recruitment is likely later in the year. Last year’s turnover was €11m and this is expected to grow to €15m by 2015.

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