Savouring success: Producers who found a winning recipe

The quality of Irish food is celebrated the world over. In day one of a two-part series, Grainne McGuinness meets some of the local food heroes who have turned their passion, vision and sense of community into successful businesses
Savouring success: Producers who found a winning recipe

LISMORE FOOD COMPANY

Biography: Formed in 2014, the Waterford-based company has found a niche in the market selling luxury biscuits, both sweet and savoury.

When ‘three biscuiteers’ Beth-Ann Smith and brothers Owen and Ken Madden came together to create a new product, they were determined to aim to be the top-end of the market.

“We thought there was a great opportunity for a premium Irish biscuit, made with great ingredients but driven by pure Irish butter,” Ken says. “We were interested in unique, interesting flavours that weren’t on the market already. When we launched Lismore Food Company we started with five sweet flavours.”

These included Golden Ginger and Cacao Nibs and Dark Chocolate and Cardamom, as well as the more traditional shortbread.

“When you’re making biscuits, unless you’re mass-producing, it’s very hard to compete at the lower or mid-level,” says Ken. “See, we thought: ‘Let’s go premium, let’s package them beautifully and maybe people will be willing to pay a little more for that,’ which they were.”

They were slightly taken aback by their early success. When they first started making enquiries in autumn 2014, they had a wishlist of a dozen or so stores they hoped would take their product, but by Christmas that year, were in 50 outlets. After that initial success, they were led in their next direction by customer demand.

“We were doing tastings and met a lot of people who said sweet flavours weren’t their thing and looked for something savoury.”

The result was an Irish digestive with wild Atlantic sea salt and a caraway and seaweed Irish biscuit.

And their next move?

“Our family has a great connection with Fred Astaire, who spent summers in Lismore Castle, where his sister lived,” says Ken.

He was a regular visitor to the Madden family pub and became close to Ken and Owen’s father so they have decided to pay tribute in their range. “We’re tipping our hat to him with a wonderful biscuit.”

AYLE FOODS

Biography: Based in Oola, Co Tipperary, Ayle Foods is a farm run by Peter and Lorraine Randall, producing artisan chutneys, juices, relishes, cooking sauces, and preserves.

Peter and Lorraine’s adventures in food brought them on a winding path before a enormous crop of tomatoes resulted in their current business making award-winning chutneys and sauces.

First came a restaurant in Doon village on the Limerick-Tipperary border. It closed, but their next move evolved from it.

“I was making school lunches out of the restaurant,” Peter explains. “When we left and came to the farm we converted one of the outbuildings into a kitchen and proceeded to make school lunches there for several years.”

The recession put paid to that business but installing a polytunnel on the farm helped lay the groundwork for their current venture.

“I ended up with about 70 kilos of tomatoes and I thought, ‘what on earth am I going to do with this lot?’ So I made a load of chutney, we did our first Christmas fair and there seemed to be an appetite. So I started experimenting.”

His expanding range won awards in Blas na hÉireann in 2013 and 2014 and a place in the Supervalu/Enterprise Board venture food academy brought the business to the next level commercially.

The range has now expanded to include jams, chutneys, juices, and cooking sauces. Peter focuses on quality ingredients; what he can’t grow himself he buys locally wherever possible.

“The plans are to grow more ourselves next year,” says Peter. “I buy apples in Tipperary and juice my own veg which I then mix to make my own recipe; I want to grow more of my own produce for that. I noticed lots of people are doing fruit juices but very few vegetable-based juices.”

Their commitment to natural ingredients and no additives in Ayle Foods has attracted both the gluten intolerant and also those watching their weight.

“The people at Slimming World love them because they’re virtually fat-free.”

HODGINS SAUSAGES

Biography: Hodgins Sausages is run by craft butcher Mervin and his wife, Monica, who produce their speciality ranges of sausages and puddings in Mitchelstown, Co Cork.

Like all businesses, Hodgins Sausages saw sales affected by the economic downturn but have weathered the storm by maintaining quality and widening their market appeal.Owner

Mervin worked as a butcher in Mitchelstown before making the move in 1996 to selling his own sausages.

They initially worked from a traditional recipe, but in recent years have seen their product make the leap from the breakfast plate to the dinner table.

“We found that the market slipped in the food service end [during the recession] but the retail end increased,” says Mervin.

“People have changed. With traditional sausages you just had them for breakfast, whereas now they can be a dinner option too. We do premium sausages with all different flavours and that’s becoming very popular.

“We’re trying to tap into the dinner market. It’s a nice option and it’s quick for people coming home in the evenings — sausage, mash, and beans, it couldn’t be easier.”

The other area of growth for Hodgins Sausages has been the gluten-free market. They recognise that busy families would rather not have to cook separate meals and have worked to offer products that are not just edible to those with intolerance but appealing to the whole household.

“Over the years we’ve seen consistent growth in the gluten-free market. People are getting diagnosed much earlier,” says Mervin.

“We’re finding that if there’s one coeliac in the house, everyone will eat those foods — if they get the right quality product.

“We’re finding more and more, that’s where the sales are coming from.”

They supply gluten-free black and white puddings in addition to sausages and also catered to coeliacs over the festive period.

“What is very big for us around Christmas is sausage meat for stuffing the turkey and we do traditional sausage meat and a gluten-free option,” Mervin adds.

STONEWELL CIDER

Biography: A family-run craft cidery, located in Nohoval, Co Cork.

Daniel and Geraldine Emerson, owners of Stonewell Cider, found success in the market by being creative and applying the principles of wine-making to his craft cider.

“My wife comes from a family of wine-growers in France and my father-in-law bought me a press,” Daniel explains.

He and his family had moved back to his. family home, in Nohoval in Cork, although he travelled frequently for work. “We had a few apple trees so I started making cider.

“My cider at the time wasn’t particularly polished but it was around the time my son was born and I took some time off.”

With time away from his consultancy work he researched cider and found that Ireland was one of the highest per capita consumers of cider in the world.

“I thought, ‘right, maybe I can turn this hobby into a viable business and spend more time with my young family’,” Daniel says.

Daniel went to Gloucester, the heart of cider country in England for training in the craft.

They started with a medium cider, then added a dry and have also developed a number of niche products, including a low-alcohol version and a cider port.

Production started on their own property a few miles from Kinsale. But as the business grew, they moved production to a larger premises in nearby Carrigaline. The company will need all the space available to it in 2017, with a recent distribution deal keeping them busier than ever.

“We had been ticking away with small importers in a number of countries but we signed a deal with a subsidiary of Carlsberg France earlier this year and that is a real game-changer.

“We are the only cider in their portfolio. We’re delighted with that and we’re really keen to see if we can grow the business and replicate our success overseas,” Daniel says.

TOONS BRIDGE DAIRY

Biography: Based outside Macroom, Co Cork, Toons Bridge Dairy is bringing the art of Italian cheesemaking to west Cork.

Jenny Rose Clarke and partner Toby Simmonds have made the leap from selling imported cheeses to making their own.

As co-owners of The Real Olive Company, based in the the English Market in Cork for more than 20 years, they sold Italian cheese alongside other products.

With cheesemakers in Ireland tending to produce very different types to those they were selling, they saw a gap in the market and Toons Bridge Dairy was born. Situated in a townland of the same name outside Macroom, the dairy now produces a range of cheeses, the majority Italian.

Jenny explains: “The way it came about was that we knew we had a market and we both also loved Italian cheese, plus, we knew it was a very different style to existing cheeses being made in Ireland.

“We use milk from local farmers, cows mostly, with some sheep milk, and we make seven different cheeses.”

They have maintained the Italian influence in their choice of workers in the business.

“The head cheesemaker is Italian and we have two other Italians working in the dairy, as well as an Irish guy,” she says.

Their range includes mozzarella, an award-winning smoked scamorza, and ricotta, as well as a non-Italian cheese, halloumi.

The couple had already expanded their English Market stall to include a cafe and have now done the same at the dairy.

“We have a shop and a cafe open at Toons Bridge at weekends and we do wood-fired pizzas. It’s about the ingredients: We only use cheeses made in the dairy and we have all the toppings from The Real Olive Company. Pizzas seem the best way to show off everything that we have.”

People from further afield also get the chance to try out their product range, as they have stalls at markets nationwide.

MILSEÁN

Biography: Based in Bandon, Co Cork, Milseán has grown from humble beginnings during the recession to producing a range of award-winning chocolate sold throughout the country.

Ian Graham made a career move from planning and design in the construction industry to confectionery, thanks to a combination of the economic downturn and a lifelong sweet tooth.

Like so many others in the building industry, he saw his jobs and income fall away as the recession bit deep in 2007 and 2008.

He had recently met a confectioner through his work, and Ian, who has always loved sweet treats, saw a mutual opportunity. Ian learned about the art of chocolate while developing the business at farmer’s markets, trade shows, and with independent shops.

“We got some bags and printed off some labels and tried to give it a go,” he says. “Looking back on it, we were so green. It wasn’t a very successful beginning but it gave us an awful lot of learning experience.”

Eventually, his former client moved on to other opportunities and Ian was close to doing the same when fate intervened.

A last-minute dropout led to him being offered a place at a showcase for Musgrave/SuperValu buyers. A confectionery buyer was so taken with Ian’s products and branding, he was offered a store listing within weeks. It happened so fast that initially Ian knew he would struggle to make enough product.

“Then I was able to make about 50 bars of chocolate at a time,” says Ian. “Three years later, thanks to a combination of help from the SuperValu Food Academy, investment and Local Enterprise assistance, we’re making about a 1,000 bars a day.”

The increased production has led to Milseán being stocked in about 60 SuperValu shops and 140 Centras, in addition to independent shops and spreading from a base in Cork to almost nationwide.

The accolades have grown alongside production, with Ian’s chocolate products winning multiple Blas na hÉireann and Great Taste awards in the intervening years.

MOONRIVER CHOCOLATE

Biography: Specialist chocolatiers, based in Limerick, which has built up a nationwide clientele since starting out in 2012.

In 2012, Louise O’Brien took a chance and decided to see if she could turn a lifelong passion for baking and sweet treats into a career. Four years later, her company, Moonriver Chocolate, is supplying high-end, custom-made treats to shops and hotels around the country.

In the early days, Louise went to learn from the best.

“I always loved baking and cooking, especially sweet things, so I decided to get in the business of making chocolate,” she says. “I went to Belgium, to a chocolate academy, and learned to be a chocolatier.”

When she returned to Ireland, she dipped a toe into the waters in her native Limerick, to see if there was a market for her products.

“I developed my own recipes and initially started in the Milk Market in Limerick, to test the market and see how it went,” she says.

Louise’s enthusiasm for her craft is evident: “It’s all about taste. With fresh chocolate you get that burst of flavour.

“Every year I develop new products and I will always aim to win an award with the recipes. It’s both a business and a hobby because I have great passion for the whole process.”

This hobby has helped drive Moonriver Chocolate to national and international attention, winning both Blas na hÉireann and Great Taste Awards.

A place in the SuperValu Food Academy helped her bring her products to market all around Munster and now Louise operates from a small factory outside Limerick. There she employs two workers and between them they make all their products by hand.

“As an artisan producer, you can only make so much,” says Louise. “Everything is hand done, it’s not a fast process so we concentrate on producing bespoke products for our customers.”

In addition to SuperValu, she sells to specialist shops around the country and also makes custom products for hotels.

HORGAN FOODS

Biography: A family-owned company based in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, supplying meats, cheeses, and deli products nationwide.

From humble beginnings almost 100 years ago, Horgan Foods has grown into a thriving business, supplying nearly 900 products to shops nationwide.

Michael Horgan’s grandfather started a butcher’s in 1921. Following the illness and death of his father, Michael found himself at the helm aged just 15.

“I was thrown in at the deep end early,” says Michael. “Then in 1977 we started a wholesale business, manufacturing some products and representing other companies by distributing their products.”

The business flourished and eventually outgrew the original premises.

“By 1986, we were bursting at the seams.”

They built a new premises on their own land on the outskirts of Mitchelstown, where Horgan Foods remains to this day. Its range has expanded to include not just meats but a wide range of cheeses, paté, dips, and antipasti.

“Back in the early days, a delicatessen had a block of cheese, one ham, and a corned beef,” says Michael.

Michael believes that the advent of travel is a big factor in the change, with many more Irish people going abroad and finding new foods that they then looked for back home.

He also sees certain areas of the country as being particularly eager to have access to a wide range of foods, with West Cork a clear example.

“Many continental people have lived there over the years and with the artisan food industry in the area, it makes it a marvellous place to see speciality foods,” he says.

Despite growing to a business with 46 full-time employees and more at peak times, Horgans Foods is still very much a family concern. Michael’s sister, two sons, and a daughter-in-law all work with him; the next generation, his grandchildren, are learning the ropes.

More in this section

Lifestyle
Newsletter

The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up