talks to four people who turned their passion for food and health into a thriving enterprise.
The word ‘snack’ — “to have a mere bite or morsel” — goes back to 1807 but the way we snack has changed utterly since then.
And it continues to evolve as snacking and health become two of the buzz words in the Irish food industry. Some 70% of consumers say they snack regularly but, more and more, they are looking for healthy options.
Here, Joanne Davey of Absolute Nutrition, and Niall McGrath and Tom Gannon of Cali Cali Foods, tell Feelgood how they left their day jobs and went about satisfying that demand.
Health is also the keyword at ÍON herbs. Its founder, Dr Aoife Kelly, turned her back on engineering to take on a new mission: To tell everyone about the incredible but often overlooked health benefits of herbs.
From kitchen counter top to award-winning business
Life can take interesting twists and turns. For Joanne Davey, a hitch in getting a visa to Australia turned into an unexpected business opportunity.
She and her family planned to emigrate in 2014 but when they were forced to put off their travel plans because of paperwork, she found herself cooking up a new business idea — making healthy snacks — in her mother’s galley kitchen.
The mother of four first began making the paleo, high-energy balls because she was looking for something to fill a gap after the gym or when she was out and about.
She didn’t want a bar or a cake but found there was nothing available to give her a healthy energy boost between meals.
She started to make her own treats using wholefood ingredients and keeping them free ofrefined sugar, gluten, and other artificial additives.
“My love of food goes back to when I was a kid growing up in the Dublin Mountains with my parents and two younger brothers.
We had some space so my mam planted apple trees, fruit bushes, potatoes, veg, tomatoes, and we had our own hens. We would gorge on fresh peas, apples and gooseberries until our tummies ached.
She also learned about flavour and cooking from her mum and used those skills to make treats which she gave to friends who didn’t have time to make their own. Soon, she was supplying her own gym and, before long, four others.
Now, Dublin-based Absolute Nutrition has a 3,500 sq ft bakery and a staff of nine local people, including Davey’s husband James and her mother, Bridget Burnett.
It’s been quite a journey from Joanne’s former workplace — the National Forensic Mental Health Service in the HSE — to award-winning holistic nutritionist and businesswoman.
She was advised not to leave her job in the HSE. She’d been there for 14 years and loved it, although she felt it was time to move on.
“It was considered a sin to leave the HSE,” she says, laughing.
Yet her time there gave her a deep understanding of the importance of looking after your own physical and mental health.
She went on to train in dietetics and nutrition, but she says she learned most about healthy eating from being a mother of four and trying to keep her charges (agedeight to 14) healthy.
Initially, the four balls in each container were designed to feed her children. Now the range — which includes chocolate protein balls, chia energy bomb, caffe mocha bliss balls, peanut butter bomb, and Jo’s power slice — are stocked in a growing number of outlets, including SuperValu, selected Circle K stores, and Daybeak.
To others out there thinking of turning their passion into a business, Joanne Davey has this simple advice: “Keep going. Come in again tomorrow and get through another day.”
To order and for other stockists, see absolutenutritionstore.ie
Herbs as a modern health solution
In 2014, Dr Aoife Kelly left her job in engineering to set up ÍON herbs because she wanted to put herbs — “nature’s wondrous tools” — back in the spotlight.
She wanted to bring the lasting benefits of herbs to a wider audience and bring their image up to date. As she puts it, she was determined to take the cobwebs off herbs and their lingering association with old wives’ tales.
“Herbs are superbly effective at boosting our health, nourishing our organs, and preventing illnesses from developing, but we tend to dismiss the simple solutions,” she tells Feelgood.
Kelly, who has a PhD in material science from Oxford, went on to train in herbal medicine and, in 2015, was accepted on an Enterprise Ireland programme New Frontiers where she learned about business.
The following year, she launched ÍON herbal shots at Bluefin Payment Systems as part of a corporate wellness programme.
Other corporate customers followed and, in 2017, she launched her herbal shots in some retail outlets. Now, they are available in a number of SuperValus and interest is growing: “It’s really encouraging that herbs are making waves in the mainstream,” she says.
Herbs, she says, are nature’s ready-made medicine and are our best health allies, although we often ignore what is simple and easily available.
Her most popular shot, ginger herbal tonic, also contains ginseng root and it is a 100% natural energy boost.
She advises people to drink it the moment they are feeling the afternoon slump or when they are craving something sweet.
And it works. At least that’s what her customers tell her. A survey of her clients found that some 87% said that taking one shot of the natural drink daily helped boost their energy by week two or three.
Now, more than ever, Kelly finds that people are open to trying something new and they are embracing the idea of moderation rather than the restrictive nature of the so-called clean eating trend of a few years ago.
There is also a growing concern about the source of our food and for the Dublin-based ÍON herbs, ethics and transparency are key.
At ÍON, we’re all about using premium high-quality herbs and everything is made from scratch (no using pre-made ‘herbal extracts’ like other companies do). I create a decoction, which is the herbalist term for a brew that extracts the health benefits from the herbs.
“It’s a critical activity that requires careful artistry combined with science to capture the healing properties of the herbs.”
Kelly is developing new herbal drinks, working with nettle, dandelion leaf, and elderflower.
Her long-term dream is to make sure everyone is aware of the health-boosting qualities of herbs.
A 20-day supply of ÍON herbs costs €60 (shipping free).
Snackifaction – the healthy way
For Niall McGrath and Tom Gannon, their new food adventure began in the summer of 2018 with what they describe as a meeting of minds and a single statement — “that bland food leads to boredom and boredom leads to take-out”.
Two years before that, they left their jobs in sales (Tom) and marketing (Niall) to set up Fulfil Nutrition as they were convinced there was a gap in the market for a protein bar “between confectionery and traditional gym-focused protein bars which tended, until then, to be quite tough in texture and medicinal looking in packaging”.
They developed a protein bar with a focus on taste and put their combined sales and marketing skills to work.
In 2018, they sold their shareholdings in Fulfil and were looking for a new venture. They got in touch with LA-based food writer and TV cook Donal Skehan and began to develop a range ofguilt-free crisps and healthy sauces inspired by Californian street food flavours.
It was a journey that took them from northern San Francisco to the tip of Baja California in Mexico seeking out family hot sauce recipes and the secrets of the local street markets.
The result is Cali Cali, a range of healthier crisps — cooked without oil frying — and six different sauces developed by Donal using, as he puts it, “only real food ingredients, without any of the bad stuff”.
The name echoes the inspiration take from California and the fact that the crisps and sauces are low in calories.
Both Tom and Niall think people’s attitude to food has changed beyond recognition in the last number of years.
They quote the research body Euromonitor, which predicts that healthy snacking will continue to grow until 2030.
That’s a finding echoed by Bord Bia, which found that people are snacking more often and are looking for healthier snacks.
Niall continues: “At the same time as healthy snacking growing, you also have a mega-trend around foods/flavours of the world where people’s wider global habits has resulted in a trend towards eating more adventurously, which is evident in the growth of street-food flavours and the popularity of burritos, Thai food, Korean, and so on.”
Looking ahead, they hope their brand will become synonymous with great-tasting healthy food in a snacking sector that can often be confusing.
We hope that when you see the words Cali Cali with its distinctive orange colour with sunset logo in any category from crisps, to sauces, frozen, or whatever comes next, you feel confident picking up the product as you know it’s going to be tasty and also good for you.
The crisp range costs €1.50 a packet, while the sauces cost €3 a jar and are stocked in Circle K and Applegreen.
They are also stocked in Dunnes Stores, SuperValu, BWG supermarkets, and Tesco