They were radio presenters, actors and building society staff before they started making biscuits at home. Now they are selling to one of the UK’s biggest supermarkets. So how did the Lismore Food Company do it, asks Roz Crowley.
FOR a company started just 11 months ago, an order from Marks & Spencer for 300 of their 400 UK stores comes close to a lottery win. For The Lismore Food Company their winning ticket, worth over a quarter of a million euros, had the magic numbers: a good idea, well developed and executed and plenty of business experience.
Multinationals often seduce with large orders, but insist on their own labels, absorbing products which lose producers’ identity, but this order is for the Lismore Food Company brand, complete with its original, elegant packaging.
Established by chef Beth-Ann Smith and brothers Owen and Ken Madden who have a family history of baking, there are plenty of reasons why the company should be successful.
Their experience starts with the Madden family’s bakery in Lismore in the 1800s where the biscuits are now baked, the bakery having gone through a number of manifestations – bakery/pub, pub/grocery, gastro pub, and café and homestore currently called The Summerhouse.
Biscuit baking is done by Beth-Ann and Owen in the kitchen on Sundays and Mondays when it’s all systems go to fill orders and package immediately – Ken’s task.
Most pressing is Beth-Ann’s job as Head Chef at Lismore Castle where typically guests are helicoptered in to stay and eat extensive, leisurely breakfasts, lunches, afternoon teas and dinners. She drafts in Ken to help when she needs cakes and pastries – that’s his forte and he is glad to help out.
With a BESS degree from Trinity college, Beth-Ann worked in stockbroking, radio presenting and as a photographer, but they didn’t hold her interest. It wasn’t until she trained in Ballymaloe cookery school that she found what she really enjoyed. It should not have surprised her, coming from the Smith’s Stores Cork food retail family.
“The course was a fantastic springboard for me. I loved cookbooks and being a vegetarian at the time I felt vegetables should be allowed to sing.”
She is still amazed at her good fortune in eight years ago being offered the opportunity to be Head Chef and use the bounty of the vast gardens of Lismore Castle, supplementing it with fresh produce from local suppliers and the River Blackwater’s wild salmon. She clearly loves it there as much as the challenge of the new biscuit business.
The Madden brothers had been part of the fabric of Lismore since they were born. Ken had worked in the bakery’s many manifestations and having studied theatre production at London’s RADA and working in the West End, came back for a stage production of The Glass Menagerie in the Everyman Palace in Cork.
He stayed on and saw a gap in the market for an auctioneering business in Lismore which went well until the recession set in. He closed the business before it went downhill and thought about what to do next.
Owen Madden had worked in a building society and drummed in a band called Birds & Ghosts, before training in Ballymaloe. He did a season as a private chef in the Alps and then at The Inn at Whitewell in England.
Like his brother, Lismore was a draw and he returned to put the family premises to new use and with his wife Gael whose interest in interior design led them to open The Summerhouse.
The three getting together was a meeting of minds and the biscuit idea appealed to all of them. Having established themselves just before last Christmas, quickly supplying 50 top end food retailers and luxury market outlets such as Brown Thomas, Fallon & Byrne and Avoca, their investment in stylish packaging paid off.
“We wanted a good biscuit, well packaged, so it was worth it”, says Ken who drives the business. They now supply over 130 Irish stores and 17 stores of the Globus group in Switzerland – it seems the country produces good chocolate, but are not as good at baking.
Their miniscule initial investment of €15,000, thanks to having an established kitchen available to them, was used in the most part for their distinctive packaging – orange tubes with rectangular labels and gold discs.
Between the three of them there is enough financial savvy to keep costs to a minimum, while their creativity feeds into a collective pot.
Their best selling Irish butter shortbread, which Marks & Spencer have ordered, is followed by lemon polenta, dark chocolate and cardamom; hazelnut, cinnamon and raisin; golden ginger and cacao nibs.
Thrilled that our fine biscuits have made it from Lismore to the finest food halls in Switzerland Thank you Globus! pic.twitter.com/MsVouovtep— The Lismore Food Co. (@lismorefoodco) September 7, 2015
“To me as a chef,” says Beth-Ann, “it’s amazing that as a tiny island, influences on our food come from everywhere. Irish food is global fusion, and we embrace it”.
They have plenty of capacity for the Marks & Spencer order, outsourcing to a West Cork bakery when necessary. There is no panic when large orders arrive. Future plans include exporting to high-end stores in USA.
New product development is ongoing. Due to be launched in November are two savoury biscuits, one with a little seaweed. “I like the idea of hints of Irish, without playing on it too much”, says Beth-Ann. “We will have another chocolate biscuit in the spring”.
The Lismore Food Company has taken off. Its talented trio understands food and is fast becoming the source of a valuable export.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved