Small Business Column: Food start-ups

What are small and successful food businesses up to asks Kehlan Kirwan? And what traits do people who made a success in food start-ups have? 

Most of us love good food, particularly Irish food. In the past decade, Irish food has developed from producing predictable fare to delivering some exceptional produce.

Through my radio show, in this column and from meeting with small business people, I’ve had a great opportunity to hear some of the best stories from food companies. Here are some of the best ideas I’ve heard them in recent times.

It may seem fairly obvious but if the product doesn’t taste the way people expect, then it’s going to be tough going for any venture. Creating something that a lot of people want to eat is hard and it takes a lot of time.

Like any great creation, the formula needs to be right. You’re trying to create the Ambrosia of the Gods, not a type of Frankenstein product. If you don’t get the taste right it makes everything that comes after a disaster.


I had an interesting conversation with Prof John Sheridan from UCD last week. He was talking about some events happening in Ireland for the “Year of Light” – he works in research in optics. He wondered why Barbie dolls have consistently sold well down the years.

“Girls like dolls,” I replied. “No. It’s because everything that goes into making up Barbie doll range – the cars, houses and clothes – has some sort of luminous colour to them. They catch the eye.”

Labelling works in the very same way. It represents the brand and what the product stands for. If the product is simple, keep the label simple. To use that well-worn phrase, it should do exactly what it says on the tin.


It’s great to be able to boast a large range of food products within your business. However, at the start, it’s best to keep your range to a maximum of three products. This allows you to hone recipes and build a market and a reputation as a reliable food brand.

The advice is to be an expert in a few areas, before branching out into many.

The start-up needs people to trust the brand and the taste. When that happens then you can move on offering consumers something new to revamp the range and the consumer’s interest.

Ireland isn’t big enough

One point which rises up time and time again is that fact that Ireland just isn’t a big enough market for food. Eventually the new food firm will need to bring the product overseas. When that time comes, it’s important to do a lot of research.

Countries with large populations don’t necessarily mean increased sales. Last year I spoke to Keogh’s which found great success in the German market for their crisps. While most others were trying to break into the US, the UK or Australia they moved into the German market. So do the research.

Use Your Data

Keeping track of production, whether at a farmers’ market or selling into stores is important. Collecting data allows the small business to track what is selling and which outlets are doing the best. There is no margin for wastage.

Even a single mistake can lead to a big problem. Streamlining production and developing a system to better understand sales is therefore key.

Developing a strong ‘no wastage’ policy will save time, money and stock, and hopefully bring success.

The Irish food market is expanding enormously and many businesses have developed great ways of developing businesses. In each of the past three years, the business has grown by €2bn.

Ireland is showing how to produce great food, and also how to set up great food businesses.


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