THE man in the uniform said: “Mr Keogh, why don’t you cook your potato? If you cook them, you don’t have to talk to us.”
From this unlikely conversation with a US customs officer, an Irish food business, Keogh’s Crisps, was born.
“I wanted to export fresh potatoes into the US, but while trying to do that, it became apparent that in animal health terms, potatoes are a banned product,” says Tom Keogh. Hence his conversation with said customs officer, some five years back. “Crisps are light, easy to transport, with a long shelf life, so I saw it as an opportunity,” says Tom, whose company have been in operation since 2011.
The context of this chat with the customs officer was the historical decline of potato sales, and a young potato farmer looking for other ways to sell his potatoes.
In 1980, Irish farmers planted 41,600 hectares; by 2000, this was done to 13,900. Granted, productivity per hectare had risen over that period, from 23.7 tonnes to 34 tonnes per acre, but the overall tonnage of potatoes produced halved from almost one million in 1980 to just under half a million tonnes by 2000. And since 2000 the decline has continued.
Ireland’s total production area in 2012 was just 8,700 hectares. While consumers spend about €162m on potatoes now, this figure was closer to €300 in 2000.
So enter kettle crisps — a higher end, more gourmet crisp, one that’s made in small, hand stirred batches, cooked at a low temperature.
Tom Keogh’s family has been involved in horticulture in Oldtown, Co Dublin, for over 200 years. “My father and grandfather grew fresh produce and brought it into corporation and Smithfield markets over the years. Now, we only do potatoes.”
Two generations of five men, the Keoghs have 400 acres of their own potato fields, some coastal, and others scattered around Co Dublin and east Meath. To deal with the need for new land to grow potatoes on each year, Keogh’s rotate with other horticulturalists, swooping or renting land accordingly.
“All our crisp potatoes are grown on our farm, we have eight crisping varieties; we trial new ones all the time.”
What’s unique about Keogh’s crisps? “We’re the only company in Ireland that cooks crisps on our farm. We use a very old kettle I bought in Amish Pennsylvania. All the potatoes in the crisps come direct from our farm — in summer they are harvested in the morning, and cooked in the afternoon”.
Making the transition from the tractor to the food business was not easy. “It took four years of travel and research, with help from Bord Bia. We saw that there was a gap for a genuine Irish farm-cooked crisp.”
The market leader in this new type of Irish crisp is without doubt O’Donnell’s. The O’Donnell’s Seskin farm in south Tipperary supplies potatoes for the crisps, made by Tayto/Largo.
With the loss of the sugar beet industry in Ireland, Ed O’Donnell decided to launch O’Donnell’s Crisps in 2010.
“Our farm is mostly tillage with potatoes in rotation, we have dry stock with animals brought to finish, and a dairy farm,” says Ed O’Donnell.
Of the overall farm, 200 acres is arable, 50 of which go into potatoes. “It’s ideal land for arable, we have a clay soil, so we don’t get too much waterlogging,” he says.
O’Donnell’s started a little earlier than Keogh’s, when there were only imported kettle crisps in the country. Ed O’Donnell did his own market research — getting into his car and driving around Ireland, to meet over 200 shop owners, to see if they were interested in selling this new Irish product.
Following a crisp making course in the US in 2008, and focus groups in Ireland and the UK, the company launched in 2010. Sales were exclusive for three months with Musgraves.
Now O’Donnell’s crisps can be found in most shops nationwide, and increasingly in the UK and US.
Both Keogh’s and O’Donnell’s use Irish producers, often close to the farms, to supply their flavourings. Keogh’s use David Llewellyn’s cider vinegar, from the Llewellyn farm in Co Dublin. “We use a very gentle, natural process to make it into a crisp vinegar. A lot of companies use acids to give a salt and vinegar flavour to their crisps. We don’t. We use a blend that’s over 90% David’s vinegar,” Tom Keogh tells me.
O’Donnell’s do similarly, using cider vinegar from local apple grower Con Traas at The Apple Farm in south Tipperary, and Mount Callan Farmhouse Cheese from Clare.
Quirky crisp varieties keep emerging, like Keogh’s Roast Turkey and Secret Stuffing, or their Shamrock and Sour Cream. And that’s real shamrock, from Living Shamrock, the Ballinskelligs farm that supplies the US president in the White House for St Patrick’s Day.
Launched for the March market, it’s proving so popular that Keogh’s aim to keep it available year round, including US export sales.
The UK market is tough to crack for Irish crisp companies. “The market is swamped in the UK, and finding distribution is difficult. There are opportunities for Irish premium crisps though. We have the expats, and a lot of people have emigrated recently. They can keep in touch more with home now, with facebook and twitter, and they’ve only left recently, so their bond is maybe stronger with Ireland,” says O’Donnell.
“When we did focus groups in London, we found that people could readily identify the potato with the Irish,” he adds. He found that the name O’Donnell, and the connection with the Seskin farm, were “marketing gold”.
This year’s weather has posed a massive challenge to the crisp industry. Potato yields are down in the UK, southern Europe, Russia and elsewhere. In Ireland, they are down as much as 35%, and the acreage planted was down 12% to begin with.
After last year’s bumper harvest, there was something of an oversupply. Some chose to grow less, and in a context of generally declining fresh potato sales, supplies are now tight and prices high. Supplies are likely to tighten in the months ahead. And with fields in bad condition, the signs aren’t good for the quality or quantity of the potato harvest.
Ed O’Donnell said: “It rained for two months solid once the potatoes went into the ground in April. It’s been a wet harvest, soil conditions were tough; we were spraying for blight regularly.”
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