HOLIDAY memories of eating freshly caught fish served with just-dug potatoes would later inspire Erica Sheehan to set up her own successful food business.
She says those formative experiences in Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry, gave her a lifelong love of natural food and nutrition.
“Also, my mother was a French teacher and was very interested in France and in good food. She cooked everything from scratch. I don’t think I went out to dinner [in a restaurant] until I was about 16,” she recalls.
Those positive early influences also meant that was never interested in diets, or fads, or processed food. For her, good food meant natural, whole foods.
She didn’t make a career out of it until much later, although her work as a journalist and later in corporate PR at Coca-Cola taught her a lot about retail and marketing.
“I have a bit of an entrepreneurial instinct and it was a beat that became louder and louder,” she tells Feelgood.
She began to do market research and monitor food trends. She used quinoa a lot in her own cooking and noticed while there were a lot of recipes that used the protein-rich grain, there weren’t many products.
Then she read The China Study by Colin Campbell, a book she describes as a gamechanger as it convinced her of the health benefits of eating a plant-based diet. The book, based on one of the largest studies of human nutrition ever conducted, found that people who ate a plant-based diet lived longer and had stronger immunity from disease than those who did not.
Based on its findings, Erica started to limit her intake of animal protein and get her protein from other sources (quinoa, chia seeds and buckwheat, for example). She noticed big changes to her health. Her eczema disappeared.
“But, I am by no means fanatical,” she says. She eats lean poultry and will occasionally have meat, but her regular diet is full of leafy greens, sweet potatoes and legumes.
Her lightbulb moment came when she and her husband Michael were honeymooning in California four years ago. She saw that everyone was eating quinoa and it confirmed her decision to embrace healthy eating as a career and, as she puts it, “to be part of something positive”.
She didn’t leave her steady job straight away, though. She spent her days working in the corporate world and her nights experimenting in her kitchen in Blackrock, Co Dublin.
She developed Quinoa Crunch, a twist on granola that blends quinoa pops, seeds, nuts and berries. It is gluten-, wheat- and dairy-free, high in vitamin E and a source of iron, folic acid and potassium.
When Quinoa Crunch went down well at the Honest 2 Goodness market in Glasnevin, Dublin, it gave her the impetus to leave the day job and set up Homespun Foods. She was also a new mother at the time — Katie was born in July, 2015.
A year after that, Quinoa Crunch was launched and it went on to win gold and silver at the Irish ‘Free From’ Food Awards. Now, it is stocked in more than 230 SuperValu shops around Ireland, in several other Irish outlets and in Harrod’s in London.
Its maker also found herself on TV. She features on the advert for SuperValu’s Food Academy along with the Happy Pear, David and Stephen Flynn, and Unionhall Smoked Fish.
It’s a bit of coup, given that there were 700 producers who might have been chosen.
The force behind Homespun Foods — it’s still a one-woman show — is chuffed. She can’t say enough for the Food Academy, a joint initiative between SuperValu, Bord Bia and the Local Enterprise Office Network that nurtures small food businesses from start-up to supermarket shelf.
“It is such a great support to people like me who need a helping hand. It’s great to meet others who are in the same boat and learn about how to grow the business,” she says.
For starters though, there is nothing better than the incubator of a farmer’s market. If you are thinking of developing your own product, that is the best place to start, says Erica: “You’ll get raw and unfiltered feedback from people and that is best kind of market research that there is.”
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