Food for thought as couple turns adversity into success

Paul and Siobhan Lawless started an artisan food firm when their daughter became sick, writes Oliver Moore

GALWAY couple Paul and Siobhan Lawless have had a rollercoaster ride through the world of artisan food production this last decade. I spoke to Siobhan about their time together and their company, The Foods of Athenry.

“Paul is from a family farm in Athenry, and I’m from Oranmore. Even though it’s not the city, I still did not consider myself a country woman back then.

“He stayed at home after his Inter Cert, the lads before him didn’t want the farm. We met when he was 18, and even then he was a career farmer. We got married in 1983 when I was 21. I was working, but gave it up and moved onto the farm, having never seen the back end of a cow before, really.

“Farming is a vocation. Paul worked tirelessly, against the odds. The 100 acres were very fragmented and low lying. So it flooded in winter. We were doing intensive dairy, but had limited access to pasture. We built the highest spec sheds and milking parlour.

“Paul won awards for what was one of the first fully automated and computerised milking parlours. We had one of the first 3,000-gallon cows in Ireland. But then, we were victims of ‘pretend quota’.”

Suddenly, their quota dropped from 100,000 gallons to 60,000 gallons, when the interpretation of the rules was tightened on what farmers were allowed to call their own quota.

So, with a 10,000-gallon tank and state-of-the art milking parlour, the new lower quota inhibited growth in their milk business, and they suddenly found it impossible to make a proper living from the land.

Meanwhile, Siobhan had begun to bake a small amount of bread and apple tarts to sell to local restaurants. Demand was growing for the bread. The couple had two businesses — and five children — by 2004. The milk was being hindered by rules, the bread by the size of the milk business. And then, the first of two major moments in their lives, moments that caused changes in both perspective and direction.

“Our daughter Maedhbh got sick in 2004. I wasn’t able to work and go to the doctor’s appointments”.

Something had to give. “Paul was fighting the good fight, but not winning. We sat down, and I said I can’t continue to bake without his help. I was ready to stop baking, but it was one or the other. We made our decision. The cows were sold that year, we dismantled our very expensive milking parlour. And I moved my business from the bike shed to the dairy.”

Suddenly, Siobhan had 10 times more space than she had previously. “Business picked up so quickly that, within a few months we were knocking out the wall to the milking parlour.”

They increased the range of products, started to employ people, and kept growing. “Our USP was that we make everything from scratch on the farm, with fresh apples, in small batches.”

This and future growth were defined by what Siobhan calls “unhealthyish children”. Her daughter’s illness really made Siobhan look at what she was feeding her children. And what she fed her children was what she wanted her business to become — a maker and purveyor of healthy and wholesome foods. “If I wasn’t going to feed my kids, I wasn’t going to feed anyone,” she says.

Geography also played its part. “When we moved to the farm I was dropped in the country, miles from the nearest shop. So if you wanted jam, you made it, if you wanted bread, you baked it. We had our own fruit, veg and animals anyway, so it just made sense.”

Her daughter being sick convinced her to go down the healthier route. “We never wanted to put artificial colours in foods aimed at children. We couldn’t stand over something that could make kids hyperactive. We looked at ingredients differently. We started to add in health advantages to our products, like non-hydrogenated margarine.” With this in mind, they developed a barm brack boiled in apple juice, and spelt breads, to add to their range.

Selling in 30-odd shops, and employing a few people, was fine. But then the brack won a gold medal at the inaugural Blás na hÉireann Irish Food Awards. “We went down for the weekend, me in my hiking boots, and there’s people there dressed to the nines. It woke us up a bit! By 2009, we realised, or had it confirmed, that we were good at this.”

“The awards raised my confidence and brought us to the attention of people who might want to buy our products,” says Siobhan.

They approached Bord Bia and also buyers from supermarkets who they met at Blás na hÉireann, to upscale their business.

Bord Bia recommended four areas for the business to focus on — fresh local, extended shelf life, indulgent Christmas, and gluten-free.

This accompanied an increase in product range, to include a granola that’s been scientifically tested as higher in Omega 3. It contains milled flax from an Irish company, no wheat, no processed sugar, and berries that are not sugar-infused. The latter was especially difficult to achieve, because so many of the European berries available are actually sugar-infused. Instead, they had to import from the US.

Gluten-free products were developed, and done to a very high level. Some of these changes were easy. “The Christmas-style cake is soaked in cider rather than stout,” says Siobhan. “The legislation is due to change in 2012 for gluten-free claims. So we segregated our bakery into regular and gluten-free. This was partly because the parts per million allowable will drop from 200 to 20. And that’s not possible to achieve in a single unit.”

Hearteningly, the gluten-free products win top taste awards, so there is no compromise in flavour.

Over 10 years they had developed 25 products, and had another 25 ready to go to market this summer. The segregated bakery was constructed, and tens of thousands of euro worth of new equipment, packaging, computers and more was ordered, and was sitting in the bakery. Supermarkets were lined up to take on products that were about to roll out. And then, there was a fire.

“It was the 29th of June, the day after Paul’s 50th birthday. At 9.30am we were, unusually, sipping tea rather than working, as we’d been away for his birthday. The fire started in a gas cooker, it went up so fast. We heard it before we saw it, as the house is so close to the bakery. Paul went out with our son, but they couldn’t put it out with extinguishers. When the fire brigade came out, they couldn’t stop it either. We thought about taking stuff out, but the fire brigade said that if we opened the back doors we’d create a backdraft and make the fire worse. So we watched it burn.”

Complete life-changing disaster. But from this point on, they have started to grow again.

While they were just three weeks away from updating and upscaling their insurance to match the new purchases, they were nonetheless happy with how their insurer FBD behaved. “FBD were great. The assessor was out that evening. Within five days they had advanced a €60,000 cheque, so we could start buying again. We were never going to give up and retire, we wanted to get back up and going.

“I’m back where I started, in the garden shed. Only for it! We’ve started to rebuild. And we’ve just returned to the shops. We’re coming from nothing now. The multiples have been very understanding, they are waiting for our products. For example, Superquinn are waiting for some of our products for the Christmas market. Normally, they’d have themselves completely sorted by now, but they trust us to be fully operational in October.”

So Foods of Athenry are back in 10 stores, and re-entering Blás na hÉireann once again.

“We’ve new designs for our packaging now. These new designs are more fun, and with a contemporary element. It’s brighter, more colourful, there’s nothing shy or retiring about it.” Even this has been put on hold because of the fire, as much of the design work was stored on computers that were burned.

“We’re back in local stores, and are in the Independent Irish Health Foods wholesalers’ monthly catalogue, which is great. The Foods of Athenry hope to launch their new updated website, including an on-line store.”

Through it all, Siobhan has remained philosophical. “When Maedhbh got sick we made a choice, and changed the direction of our business. Sometimes when you ask a question it’s answered in strange ways. You just need to be receptive to the answer. Some people might have seen our trials and tribulations as a curse, but it has also been a blessing; it changed our life for the better. Maybe the fire will be the same.”

She does add: “It still feels like a curse though! But who knows, maybe I’ll look back on it as a blessing in the future”.

Foods of Athenry’s website is 091-848152.

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