Milking idea of ice cream with health benefits

Paganini was founded on a Co Waterford farm more than 20 years ago as a way of adding value to dairy output. Now, it is marketing its innovative and award-winning products to the UK, writes Trish Dromey.

Creating ice creams which blend nourishment with indulgence has helped Co Wexford desert company Paganini scoop the Innovation Award at this year’s Bord Bia Food and Drink awards.

The company has gone to market with a functional ice cream enriched with protein called FitFuel Nourish, which is designed for use by recuperating hospital patients.

Earlier this year, it released a second product, called FitFuel Perform, a protein-enriched ice cream developed for use by fitness enthusiasts and athletes.

Company managing director Barry Murphy says there is a growing demand for functional foods and has identified good potential both here and abroad for functional ice cream products “which taste like real ice cream but are enriched with protein”.

Nourish is being used in close to 30 hospitals and nursing homes around the country, while Perform has been listed in 30 stores since its launch in August.

“Pettit’s Supervalu in Wexford was one of our first customers and we have also sold to some Spar stores, independent health food stores and gyms,’’ says Mr Murphy.

Functional ice cream has been an innovative departure for Paganini, which became one of the first ice cream-making on-farm enterprises back in 1990.

Mr Murphy’s father, Tomás, saw it as a way of adding value to the milk and set up a small factory on the farm and an ice cream shop on the quay in Wexford. “It was an Italian-style gelateria with an Italian name, Paganini,’’ says Mr Murphy

Demand came not from retail but from hotels and restaurants, and Paganini built up a customer base in the south-east. By 1995, the company had moved off the farm to Kerlogue industrial estate.

“My father added a bakery, making cheesecakes and chocolate cake, and it became the only Irish dessert company making both ice cream and cakes,” says Mr Murphy.

In 2004, Mr Murphy, who had worked as a physiotherapist in the US, returned to Ireland and took the management reins.

“Business at that stage was growing by around 20% a year,” he says. “We added new products, pushed sales and took on new customers.’’

The recession meant sales levelled off. Looking for a means of growing the business in this difficult environment, Mr Murphy began experimenting with functional ice cream.

“As a physiotherapist, I had an interest in functional food,” he says “I had seen patients in hospitals struggle to get enough calories to maximise the benefit of the exercise they needed to recover”

Given that ice cream popular with hospital patients, he saw good potential for a product with enriched protein.

Researching the products available on the market, Mr Murphy found there were no ice cream products with enriched protein in the healthcare market.

“I saw a big opportunity to provide a real dairy ice cream product for both hospital patients and also for gym users,’’ he says, adding that many of the protein enriched products currently available do not taste like real food.

Three years ago the company set to work on the product for hospital patients, consulting dieticians in hospitals and testing it on patients. “The research took two to three years, adding the protein and keeping the taste was very difficult,” says Mr Murphy.

In May 2012, Paganini was ready for market and launched individual tubs of both strawberry and vanilla functional ice creams, each containing 10g of protein. Initially, the brand name was Natural Fit, but this has now been changed to FitFuel Nourish.

Working with existing distributors, Paganini began selling to hospitals and nursing homes, and continued developing a product for athletes, which was harder to create because it had to contain double the amount of protein.

Since the launch in the summer, Mr Murphy has, with the help of Bord Bia, been exploring the UK market and has had talks with hospitals, health food stores, and retailers there.

“Our focus at present is mainly on hospitals,” he says. “There are no real dairy ice cream products like this in the healthcare market there.’’

Marketing is now key to the strategy and Mr Murphy welcomes the Bord Bia Innovation Award and the recognition it brings.

The expectation is that sales at Paganini will grow by 10% this year and increase by 20% next year when it starts selling in the UK.

At present, the food service industry accounts for 95% of company sales, but Mr Murphy predicts strong retail growth over the next few years. Paganini has extended its facility and increased its production capacity by 500% in order to develop exports.

Mr Murphy believes that FitFuel could outsell existing Paganini products within a few years.

“We have a lot of innovative products in the pipeline for both,” he says. “We are working to develop the Paganini brand and will be launching new retail products next year.”

Fact file

* Company: Paganini.

* Location: Wexford.

* Managing director: Barry Murphy.

* Business: Dessert company producing ice-cream, cakes and functional icecream.

* Staff: 33.

* Website: www.paganini.ie fitfuel.ie


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