Tag: food

Conor Grimes Spoonful Botanicals New Frontiers programme alumnus

Alumni profiles: An epic journey towards the dream

Conor Grimes Spoonful Botanicals New Frontiers programme alumnus

A big dream can grow from humble roots. It was a trip to India after graduating from college that started it all for Conor Grimes and Jayne Gavin.

While exploring Asia, the young couple visited spice markets and saw locals using fresh herbs and spices as a way to help inflammation. It ignited a new passion that grew into Spoonful Botanical.

“They were really promoting these natural foods and natural ingredients to combat inflammation,” Conor says. He started to think of home and his grandmother who was taking medication for arthritis at the time, which was particularly tough on her stomach. “So we decided to bring back home some of the spices to see if she could get any relief from it. And basically, she started getting great results.”

Having watched how the locals ground the roots into powder, they returned home with some basic ingredients. However, it was while trying to get the spices into their grandmother’s diet that the early stages of their product, Spoonful Botanical, began to unfold.

An avid foodie and Louth footballer, Conor was always interested in nutrition. Growing up, his parents ran a food business. “It was very organic at the start. We were giving it to her in jam jars and a few of our friends started taking the product,” he says.

They developed their own fermentation process which saw them mixing and blending the roots of the ingredients and then fermenting the spices with golden raisins. The result was a chutney-like consistency, something Conor’s granny could easily work into her diet. “And it started to slowly escalate from there, we got to the stage where we had 100 people tasting the product on a regular basis,” he says.

As business graduates, the couple were perhaps destined for life as entrepreneurs. “We always wanted to have our own setup but we never really knew if it was achievable. Jayne was working in a marketing company in Dublin, we weren’t 100% sure if it was going to take off,” Conor says. It was an approach to Enterprise Ireland and their acceptance into Phase 2 of the New Frontiers programme that saw things quickly gaining momentum.

“It’s not easy to get the product to the stage where you’re presenting to retailers. But with the help of New Frontiers and that kind of environment, it makes it a lot easier…”

“The hardest part was building up that confidence. With New Frontiers, you are surrounded by people who are in similar situations,” Conor says. For him, the practical nature of the course was instrumental. “It’s not easy to get the product to the stage where you’re presenting to retailers. But with the help of New Frontiers and that kind of environment, it makes it a lot easier, even just contacts around packaging, labelling, all that kind of stuff, those contacts were given to us.”

As a team player, Conor enjoyed being surrounded by other entrepreneurs. “You’re in that kind of environment where everyone wants to help each other but everyone also wants to be the best,” he says. When they completed Phase 2 of the programme, Conor and Jayne felt their product was market-ready and decided to go for it. They now have a team of 12 and are stocked in over 300 independent health food stores and pharmacies.

A food-based product, Spoonful Botanical has become popular amongst some sports stars. “There’s a lot of sports players that take it. To have it in their diets every day, just to have it for recovery after a training session, recovering from an injury, all that kind of stuff,” says Conor.

He believes the contacts and connections made while on the programme made a huge difference. Some of the mentors they met still work with them today and they continue to use a review section on their site that one of the participants created for them while on the programme. The €15,000 stipend also allowed them to fully invest their time in the product.

Overall, Conor believes the programme gave them the opportunity to make the dream a reality. “You’re fully focused and geared up to present your product and put your best foot forward.”

To read more about Spoonful Botanical, visit their website.

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Spilling The Beans event provides great insights for food sector startups New Frontiers

‘Spilling The Beans’ event provides great insights for food sector startups

Spilling The Beans event provides great insights for food sector startups New Frontiers

Dominic Mullan, former New Frontiers Programme Manager at the Institute of Art, Design & Technology (IADT), Dún Laoghaire, recently organised an event called Spilling the Beans, delivered by TU Dublin and IADT for food sector programme participants and alumni from across the country. In this article, he shares some of the insights from the event.

‘Sure, launching a start-up is so much easier these days, with all sorts of tech tools and open-source options drastically reducing upfront costs and time to market,’ or so they say! While that may be true of purely digital plays, the same can’t really be said for food ventures. A chat with any food founder will undoubtedly involve tales of the strife associated with raising investment, establishing an efficient production model and building strong channels for distribution. It was this trio of challenges that the Spilling the Beans event aimed to address for current and past New Frontiers participants with a focus on food.

Programme alumni Shane Ryan of fiid (LIT) and Alison Stroh of Dr Coy’s (IADT/TU Dublin) joined us to share the learning points they have amassed along the road to scale. Providing further valuable insights were Stephen Twaddell, Chair of the Food Investment Syndicate within HBAN; Louis Eivers from the HPSU team at Enterprise Ireland; and Jacquie Marsh, the driving force behind the growth of the Butler’s Pantry up to its sale in 2018.

Stephen Twaddell, Chair of the Food Investment Syndicate within HBAN
Jacquie Marsh, former Director of Butler’s Pantry
Jacquie Marsh, former Director of Butler’s Pantry
Louis Eivers, HPSU team at Enterprise Ireland

Investment: When, and how, to raise money?

On quite when is the right time to raise money, both Alison Stroh and Shane Ryan would recommend holding off as long as you can before completing a seed round. Instead, make the most of supports like Local Enterprise Office (LEO) funding, Foodworks Ireland and Enterprise Ireland’s Competitive Start Fund (CSF) to build a more investable proposition. For Shane, this allows you to demonstrate to potential investors just what you have been able to achieve with a small team and limited resources. Clearly, as Louis Eivers of Enterprise Ireland pointed out, be careful not to stretch things too far before taking investment and possibly missing out on the commercial opportunity or running out of cash entirely.

Assessing your investment proposition

Jacquie Marsh shared her checklist for assessing a food sector investment proposition:

Product: Does it address a problem or a need experienced by a lot of people on a frequent and repeat basis? What is its unique point of difference? Crucially, is the consumer prepared to pay a proper price that will avoid the need for discounts and offers that erode margin?

Strategy: Is there clarity in terms of the short-term and long-term strategy? Is the focus on growing a family-owned business, for example, or on the type of dynamic growth that could lead to a trade sale?

Founder: Is the founder ambitious and passionate, as well as bringing expertise in the product area or in sales and marketing? Do other team members and key hires offer strong complementary skills? Are the founders well equipped to network proactively and positively with possible advisors and investors?

Synergy: Is there a strong sense of culture and values within the team? Are these aligned with the founder’s own values and outlook?

Customers & Sales: Is there evidence of significant sales and an ability to generate sales? Have the founders been able to build good relationships with their early customers?

Finance: What have the team achieved so far with their limited start-up resources? How far will the immediate investment requirement carry the venture before focus needs to return to the hugely time-consuming process of raising more money?

Adding to this, Stephen Twaddell encouraged founders to remember that they themselves are the core element of any investor proposition. He said, “You can change and influence most things in a project, but it’s hard to change people.” So don’t be shy about telling of your passion and your story so far.

Stephen also flagged a positive development in the food ecosystem recently which saw Hilliard Lombard (ex-CEO of Valeo Foods) and David McKernan (ex-Java Republic) launch Biavest – Ireland’s only dedicated food investment vehicle – with their first investments being with Nobó and Offbeat Doughnuts. For Shane Ryan, this type of smart sector-informed money trumps non-specialist investors every time.

The production dilemma

Alison Stroh

While the question of in-house or outsourced production seems to offer only two possible answers, the third and resounding response from our panellists was that, while your production model is important, it pales into insignificance against the potential power of your brand. This, for investor Stephen Twaddell, is where the magic lies and where the most value can be created. Generally, your customers will not know and will probably not overly care if you produce in-house or through production partners. It is your brand and the quality of your product that will influence their buying behaviour.

The possible exception to that is where your brand story specifically ties in with a method or place of production. Take by way of example the Wicklow Wolf Brewing Company, of which Stephen is Chair and whose brand story includes messaging such as Independent by Nature and beer brewed the Wicklow Way.

In the case of fiid and Dr Coy’s, both notably offering ambient products, specific technical requirements meant outsourcing production to partners in the Netherlands and Belgium respectively was the only realistic option, and the model has worked well for both. Louis Eivers of Enterprise Ireland clarified that outsourcing production within the EU presents no obstacles to High Potential Startup (HPSU) investment, provided the venture is still likely to create 10 jobs in Ireland. Bord Bia support on the other hand is typically predicated on production being within the Republic of Ireland.

For Jacquie Marsh, who built a business focused on short-shelf-life products, The Butler’s Pantry’s in-house production model was underpinned by two key strategic considerations: firstly, achieving a margin that would not have been possible otherwise; and, secondly, being nimble and adaptable in terms of offering quality and variety to the customer.

As for any entrepreneur, the risk of seeing outsourced partners effectively stealing your product ideas was on the mind of a number of our New Frontiers participants. Shane Ryan was quick to point out that, yes, they probably will copy your ideas, as will other companies and quite possibly your retailers too, which brings us back (once again!) to the key role of brand, brand, brand! As Jacquie Marsh pointed out, the big players are afraid of emerging, nimble players with brands that are so much more engaging and relatable for the consumer.

The distribution challenge

Shane Ryan

The “biggest challenge for food start-ups in Ireland” and “a total nightmare” was how Alison Stroh and Shane Ryan characterised the whole area of distribution, and both had lots of helpful perspectives for food founders who are looking to establish strong distribution channels.

Both companies deliberately managed their own distribution for extended periods before securing central listings or significant distribution agreements. The donkeywork of supporting dozens of stores across Ireland yielded huge value in terms of learning about the marketplace and building relationships with store managers.

On the question of central listings with retail chains, Alison sounded a note of caution: yes, central listings mean that store personnel can order in your products from their hand-held devices, but “if only they did!” It is more than likely that you will still need to engage a merchandising team to visit stores and encourage managers to place orders.

For Shane of fiid, relationships built with store managers in the early days have proven to be the foundation of major in-store campaigns which might not have been feasible or affordable otherwise.

Both fiid and Dr Coy’s now work with major distributors, which allows them to focus less on logistics and more on brand, which is all the more important when you are likely to be competing with the likes of Unilever for your distributor’s attention.

For Jacquie Marsh, it’s crucial to focus on retailers that really fit your brand and customer profile, while Stephen Twaddell would encourage any food start-up to focus initially on developing quality growth with one retailer before spreading yourself thinly across multiple retailers or geographies.

Key conclusions for food startups

So a conversation that was intended to focus on three aspects – investment, production and distribution – kept coming back to the same theme time and time again: brand, brand, brand!

About the author


New Frontiers Dominic MullanDominic Mullan

Dominic was the Innovation, Commercialisation & Development Manager at IADT – Institute of Art, Design & Technology in Dún Laoghaire – and the New Frontiers Programme Manager at the Media Cube. Dominic has worked closely with startups since 2000, and his expertise spans both the public and private sectors… [Read Dominic’s profile]

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New Frontiers - the food business when is a trend not a trend

The food business: when is a trend not a trend?

New Frontiers - the food business when is a trend not a trend

Understanding and using trends to develop sound business opportunities can be a complex area. In the food sector, for example, there are numerous macro and micro trend reports published every year, but what does a start-up food company really need to consider, when determining whether an idea is actually commercially viable?

Trends can mean different things to different people. It’s a much bandied about term, mainly used to describe things that are currently popular or that are predicted to become popular. Essentially, broad shifts in consumer behaviours, attitudes and values drive changes which become identifiable, marketable trends.

Typically, trends are (or should be) the starting point for a good business idea. A way of quickly and inexpensively road-testing your idea is to assess it against the key trend indicators for your sector. Your idea should meet a clear and defined need, solve a problem and align with at least one trend.

The 7 real trends shaping the food industry

Without fail, at the start of every year, a deluge of lists emanates from a myriad of sources, telling us what we ate last year, what we will be eating this year and, of course, what we should be eating. These lists are fun to read, but are linked in many ways to what is being sold by the source, whether it is a data house looking to sell more reports; food delivery companies promoting their businesses; or chefs/food gurus/influencers looking to build their profile.

The question is, how can you discern the wheat from the chaff? What’s a real trend versus a fun fad? It’s clear that a focus on health, community and the environment have taken centre stage of late in the food sector, along with a keen focus on “management of self” in a frantic, always-on, digital era.

Below is my take (please note, far from exhaustive!) on some key trends that a food start-up needs to consider before taking the plunge, along with a few examples of products that meet the trend test.

Food industry trend #1: Changing Meal Patterns

What some commentators describe as the “Fourth Meal”, this trend reflects the growing fragmentation of eating occasions. In our topsy-turvy and less structured world, with mobile and flexible working becoming the norm, breakfast has morphed into lunch and snacks have become mini-meals. Also, the final meal of the day is often a treat more than sustenance, which brings its own challenges. Products such as nutritional bars – a substantial and relatively healthy snack – have been trailblazers in this trend, with Fulfil at the forefront (followed by a long tail of competitors).
Food industry trends - Orla Donohoe - New Frontiers

Food industry trend #2: Health is Wealth

Food & Beverage products in the health space cover a vast spectrum of interest areas and preferences, including disease prevention and holistic well-being all the way through to practical health management tools. Products that claim to aid sleep are a new phenomenon as people find it increasingly difficult to unwind, digitally detox and prepare for rest in the evening. Hot beverage brands such as House of Tea have capitalised on this trend by promoting the features and benefits of variants such as their “Sleep Well” product which has very specific (relaxing) ingredients.

Food industry trend #3: Nutritional Nurturing

It can be very difficult to communicate positive health messages to children that aren’t boring for them and at times it feels that a constant battle is being waged against sugar, which the parent is doomed to lose. I have therefore been eagerly awaiting the arrival of newly launched Hidden Heroes in my nearest Dunnes, and am hoping that my young son will no longer refer to vegetables as the “emeny”. The brainchild of Aileen Cox Blundell, these are junk-free vegetable snacks with 100% natural ingredients which tick all the boxes. Convenient (frozen), guilt-free (quality product) and with a razor focus on a child’s nutritional needs.

Food industry trend #4: Real People, Real Food

The artisan movement is no longer niche and there is huge interest now in knowing where your products come from and who has made them. On social media platforms, posts relating to product provenance generate strong engagement and empathy and add significantly to the user experience. Earlier this year, a small company in the west of Ireland garnered huge publicity following an appearance on a business makeover programme. Aran Islands Seaweed Pesto, an authentic product produced by likeable, relatable people, charmed the public as their journey from idea to product on a plate was shared. Catnip for Millennials.
The 7 real trends shaping the food industry - New Frontiers

Food industry trend #5: Kits are King

Meal kits are one of the fastest-growing segments in the market and have extended in all sorts of directions. Not just focused on meals any more, there are now kits for bread, cakes, biscuits, condiments, cheese and even beer. My absolute favourite is the recently launched Gin Fusion Kit from the Dublin company Drink Botanicals, which aims to enhance the gin experience. Interestingly, in the US, Amazon has introduced a new range of meal kits in Wholefoods, which link with Alexa-enabled devices to provide recipes and cooking instructions – appealing to gadget lovers who also seek convenience.

Food industry trend #6: Plant Protection

Interest in plant-based proteins is at an all-time high. Even children in their early teens (and sometimes younger) are choosing to follow meat-free diets. My own locality of Stoneybatter on Dublin’s north side could well be a candidate for vegan capital of Ireland (three vegan restaurants opening in the last few months). And it is becoming mainstream. California-based vegetarian burger company Beyond Meat has been the best-performing public offering in the US this year, currently holding a market capitalisation of $11.2bn, above Macy’s and Trip Advisor. Definitely not niche.

Food industry trend #7: Green Me

Now more than ever, there is a strong and growing sense of personal responsibility to effect positive changes and address the world’s increasingly pressing and worrying environmental issues. Reducing usage of packaging (especially plastics), commitments to green causes, effective management of food waste – consumers now demand and expect that food (and other) businesses will take their concerns more seriously. There are many great examples here however I particularly like Insomnia’s Mission Compostable campaign, which aims to replace all single-use items with either reusable or compostable alternatives by 2020. Clear, time-bound and accountable.

When you are sure your service or product meets at least one clearly identified trend, the first and most pertinent piece of advice you will receive on New Frontiers and elsewhere is to validate it. Be aware that research can be maddening! Just when you are sure your proposition is fully birthed and ready for launch, someone will throw a curveball. When this happens, take a deep breath. Embrace the feedback. Make any necessary changes, taking advantage of the many resources that are available. And above all, enjoy the experience, as I did.

About the author

Orla DonohoeOrla Donohoe

Orla Donohoe is a trends analyst, food sector advisor, and content writer. She has a background in international business development, and a career spanning over 20 years in market and client facing roles in Bord Bia’s Dublin, London and Madrid offices… [Read Orla’s profile]

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