They dreamed of setting up a small food-business ... and then did it!

Brothers Kieran and Sean Murphy, of Murphy's Ice Cream

Colette Sheridan talks to enterpreneurs who took the plunge and put their own smoked foods, ice cream, and kitchen rentals on the market.

DO you dream of setting up a small food-business, of bringing your skills in the kitchen to homes all over the country?

Despite the economic downturn, the number of food businesses established in Ireland over the last five years has increased 5%, says the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI).

There are 47, 000 food businesses in Ireland, supported by shoppers interested in the origins of their food and keen to support local producers of everything from jam to bread to cheeses at farmers’ markets. But beware, it can be hard to make money.

Oonagh Monahan, author of Money for Jam: The Essential Guide to Starting Your Own Small Food Business mentors people hoping to break into the food business. “My job is always to act a bit like an honest broker. I help people to work their way through the legislation and determine what is relevant for them,” she says.

With the growth in farmers’ markets, she says it’s important for producers to choose goods that have not become run-of-the mill. “See what gap you can fill; there’s no point in producing more cupcakes, as they’ve had their day.”

The FSAI is holding a free ‘Small Food Business Start-up’ seminar in Cork tomorrow, to support small food-businesses and to advise anyone thinking of setting up. The seminar, at the Silver Springs Moran Hotel, will bring together experts from the FSAI, the HSE and Teagasc, and will include advice on compliance with food-safety legislation.

Here, three food entrepreneurs tell their story:

SMOKING HOT

Ummera Smoked Products, based in Timoleague, in West Cork, is run by Anthony Creswell. His father, a keen fisherman, set it up in the early 1970s, smoking the salmon he and his friends were catching in local rivers. Today, the company, which employs five people, produces smoked organic salmon, organic gravadlax, smoked eel, smoked chicken, smoked duck and smoked, dry-cured bacon. The business started in a shed, until Creswell built a smoke house in Inchybridge. Regarding competition, “you have to shut your eyes and pretend there’s no-one else out there doing what you’re doing. There are varying degrees of quality out there. We tend to be expensive. I would rather do ten units really well and charge a high price for them, rather than do 1,000 units pretty miserably and very cheaply,” he says.

Despite supplying outlets such as Avoca and Cork’s English Market, Creswell says the business “is a constant struggle, seven days a week. But we’re doing okay. We’ve gone to some supermarket shelves. We didn’t fall during the recession. I read somewhere that rather than get bigger, the aim of a business such as ours should be to get better. Our target market is specialist food shops.”

A TASTY LITTLE BUSINESS

Brothers Kieran and Sean Murphy, of Murphy’s Ice Cream, set out to make the best ice cream, when they started their business in Dingle, County Kerry, in 2000. The brothers were born and raised in the US. Their father was born in Ireland.

Kieran took a career break (he was a marketing director for a software company in Boston) to spend time in Ireland. He and Sean, who worked in sales in California, liked Ireland and set up here.

“The timing was good for artisan food,” says Kieran. “We decided to make ice cream, because we both love it. We had made ice cream at home, as a hobby. Making ice cream today is very simple. You take a bucket of ingredients and put them into a machine. But we still do it the old-fashioned way. We break eggs and our milk is delivered from a farm. It’s a two-day process for us to make 300 litres of ice cream. We have 16 different flavours.”

Kieran says sales of their ice cream “have grown every year, through the recession. I think when times are tough people need to feel better.”

During the high season, Murphy’s Ice Cream, which also has outlets in Killarney and Dublin, employs 35 people. Twenty people are employed off-season. USA Today newspaper ranked Murphy’s as one of the top-ten ice-cream parlours in the world.

Kieran says that while there is a high cost base in Ireland, “the country is generally business-friendly. We’re not rich, but the business has kept us going. It’s fantastic that we’re doing something we both love.”

A SWEET OUTCOME

A desire to make home-made sweets led Eileen and Ray McClure to set up Kitchen Incubators Kerry, in October last year. “It’s similar to a business incubator, where people rent an office desk and equipment for business purposes,” says Eileen. “We have built state-of-the-art commercial kitchens in Farranfore. People can walk in the door and rent a kitchen to make their own products. The kitchens have been approved and certified by environmental health officers. As well as the confectionery kitchen, we have a chef’s kitchen and a full-sized bakery.”

Eileen, from Dublin, spent 20 years in the US, where she met her American husband. “Ray was in corporate IT, but was ready to cave-in, as it’s seriously heavy work in the ‘States. He needed to pull back and smell the coffee.” So the couple and their three children relocated to Killarney, with Ray intent on making sweets for a living. “But there was no commercial kitchen in Ireland that you could rent. I floated the idea of setting one up. Everyone I was dealing with in Tralee IT thought it was a great idea,” said Eileen. “I got funding from LEADER and we set up Kitchen Incubators Kerry. We’re getting enquiries from all over the country. We rent by the hour and we’re so proud: five of the small businesses based here won gold at the recent Blas food awards.”

Six tips on setting up your own food business

1. Do your research – check out the competition.

2. Try to fill a gap by making something that isn’t available locally.

3. Work out your profit margins, finding out what ingredients cost and how much time is involved to make the product.

4. Ensure the kitchen can handle your new food business. Ask you local environmental health officer to have a look at the facilities.

5. Contact your local county enterprise board or rural development company and ask for a mentor.

6. If you’re starting a small food business from home, schedule time for when you will be ‘at work.’ During that time, no other household chores should distract you.

Useful information 

Money for Jam by Oonagh Monahan is published by Oak Tree Press at €14.95. www.oaktreepress.com.

Booking is required for the ‘Small Food Business Start-Up’ seminar. www.fsai.ie/events. Advice line: 1890 33 66 77.


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