Food firm set to serve up a gluten-free Christmas

Paul and Siobhan Lawless, owners of the Foods of Athenry, Oldcastle, Athenry, Co Galway. The food firm has clocked up  33 food awards in the last five years — 14 Blás na hÉireann awards and 19 Great Taste awards. Pic: Andrew Downes

In the run-up to offering a happy gluten-free Christmas, The Foods of Athenry has clocked up four UK Great Taste awards, three new product launches, two Blás na hÉireann medals and a sales launch in the UK.

And in the 12 baking days left before Christmas, the Galway-based company will be producing many thousand mince pies, several hundred Christmas cakes and a large quantity of puddings. Celebrating its second gluten-free Christmas, the Foods of Athenry has now overcome the adversity of having its factory burnt to the ground in 2011.

Originally set up in 2004 as an on-farm baking enterprise making traditional cakes, bread and Christmas products, it re-launched with a range of gluten-free products a year-and-a-half ago.

Company director and co-founder Siobhan Lawless says it has already reached its pre-fire sales level and is now targeting 20% to 25% growth this year.

In Ireland The Foods of Athenry sells gluten-free products to Dunnes, Tesco, SuperValu, Spar and Londis, as well as independent retailers. In recent months, it has begun exporting to the UK, selling to three distributors supplying health food, and independent stores. The company has also begun producing own-brand biscuits and ingredients for a chocolate company.

While the company also continues to manufacture baked goods containing gluten, the Foods of Athenry has identified the biggest opportunities in the gluten-free sector, especially the Christmas market.

“In 2010 the UK had gluten-free sales of £120m, this went up to £160m in 2012 and has increased by 30% in the last three years. In the same period, gluten-free sales in the US have gone up by 44%,” reveals Ms Lawless.

It was the arrival of the recession which made Ms Lawless and her husband Paul first start researching the gluten-free market back in 2010. Sales of traditional cakes and bread had become difficult when more small bakeries came into existence and competition intensified.

“We saw a gap for premium quality gluten-free products. We researched the market and found that growth was being driven not solely by diagnosed coeliacs but by people who are choosing to eat gluten-free because they believe it is healthier. These are people with high taste expectations’’ says Ms Lawless

She set out to create a range of new products for the premium end of the market. By early 2011, the company had built a second bakery on the farm especially for the new products and was ready for market, having secured a contract with Tesco.

The fire in June 2011 delayed the launch of the products until mid-2012. But, since then, the Lawlesses have recovered lost ground.

Having got into the main multiples in Ireland last year, Ms Lawless and her husband used ads on national radio to raise the company profile this year.

“It’s one thing to get products on shelves, it’s another to get them off shelves. We ran radio ads from January to December, and went to consumer shows all over the country to get people to taste our products.”

Deciding to go after exports, the company took gluten-free products to two international food shows in the UK.

“We had a lot of interest in our Christmas products and got contracts with distributors Suma, the Health Store and Tree of Life.”

The Foods of Athenry has also sent small orders to Dubai, Singapore and Malaysia and expects exports will account for 15% to 20% of sales this year.

Gluten-free products now account for 50% of sales. Ms Lawless says that by next year this figure will increase to 70%.

Foods of Athenry employs a full-time staff of 12, as well as an extra 12 seasonal workers at the busiest time of the year — Christmas.

“We started making Christmas products in September and will be working flat out until Dec 21,” says Ms Lawless, explaining that 45% of revenue is earned in the last three months of the year.

Winning a Great Taste medal in 2013 for its gluten-free mince pies, Christmas pudding and cranberry and hazelnut crackers has been a boost for sales, and according to Ms Lawless, sales are already up 20% on last Christmas.

“We have won 33 food awards in the last five years, 14 Blás na hÉireann awards and 19 Great Taste awards — these are very well recognised in the UK as well as here and have opened doors for us”

The company added to its Christmas range this year by producing gluten-free mini puddings and cake slices for the food service industry. Other new products launched this year include a range of gluten-free cereals which won two Blás na hÉireann awards.

The company is targeting 25% growth next year. “We plan to continue to refine our packaging and branding to get our message across more clearly and also to launch new gluten-free products.

“We want to increase sales to existing customers in Ireland, to develop sales to the food service industry and also grow exports — we would like to target one of the smaller retail chains in the UK,’’


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