The first Irish Free From Food awards were held last month in the Round Room at the Mansion House in Dublin. With the growing success of the British awards, the move to Ireland was inevitable and The Foods of Athenry went home with an incredible seven awards for products across seven different categories. It is a great achievement for the family owned bakery in Ahascragh, Co. Galway but they are no strangers to awards.
Since setting up the bakery to supplement the income from the family farm in 1998, The Lawless family have created a multi award winning range of baked goods. Siobhan could have inherited her baking skills from her grandmother who had the biggest bakery in the West of Ireland, Twibills, right up to the 1940s. “Maybe it is passed down in the hands. As far back as secondary school I would have been the apple of my home economics teacher’s eye, when I was going to convent school in Oranmore. I suppose I had a natural talent for it, I didn’t find it difficult, it just came easily to me.”
She insists that baking, unlike the art of cooking, is a science and those who understand the concept will be able to adapt their knowledge to different products and recipes. “I think that’s why some people say they struggle or think they struggle with baking, is that they can’t approach it in the same way as you do cooking. So no matter what you put in a salad, it will still probably be nice. But when it comes to baking a cake if you don’t adhere to the simple rules then you’re going to be in trouble from the start.”
After marrying husband Paul and moving out to his family farm, Siobhan found herself pretty removed from convenient shops so she had to increasingly rely on her own skills in the kitchen. Her talent for baking returned with gusto and she spent years developing her skills. When the need arose for some additional income for the family, it was easy for Siobhan to help out. They converted the bicycle shed and a business was born.
Siobhan’s first products would have been wheat and spelt based but always with a clean label philosophy. Some of the children had issues with their health so diet and nutrition was always a top priority for Siobhan. Her ethos for the retail products followed, “if I wouldn’t feed it to my own I could never make it to feed to someone else.”
At the time, this kind of clean eating mentality that is so popular now would have been quite rare, although Siobhan says Darina Allen had it right for years. Most larger companies were totally industrialised in the late 90s, focusing only on quantity, and consumers didn’t question what was in their food.
As they took their products to farmer’s markets the family got the chance to talk with their customers. It quickly became apparent to Siobhan that there was a niche in the market for high quality products that were free from allergens. She started to pay attention to the way that we consume food and started removing allergens that were not essential to certain products.
Throughout the Celtic Tiger period, Siobhan says interest in food grew until there was a huge demand for the Foods of Athenry range. “More and more people were looking at food and looking at the labels and making more sound choices. So for us we grew very organically and it was quite a positive time to be in food production.”
After over ten years in business Siobhan started to look at the clean label movement and how it was progressing. It became clear that the natural next step was to enter the gluten free market but that is a massive undertaking for a small business. “Obviously that was a whole different kettle of fish when it came to manufacturing. You do need a dedicated and separate facility to manufacture gluten free; you can’t mess around with gluten, people’s health really depends on it. We’d been stealing some of the cow sheds over the preceding eight or nine years so we converted yet another one.”
A vital part of the new range for Siobhan was the branding. The free from aisle she says was less than inspiring when compared to something happy and colourful like the cereal aisle. Siobhan decided to up the ante with her packaging to make it less industrial and more appealing to customers. She also started looking at the shelf life of her products and in a move towards an international exportign strategy, she began to develop a longer life product that they could sell to foreign markets.
The range included a lot of ‘dry’ products, biscuits, crackers, cereals etc. and Siobhan has been adding to it ever since in response to market trends and clean eating movement.
You pay attention and you learn a little bit. You see where the market is going and you try to take that on board. As a smaller manufacturer, we have the advantage of being able to respond to market changes quite quickly. Whereas a larger company, they may know all about a food trend but it’s harder for them cause it’s a big machine. Whereas we can wake up on a Monday and go yeah, I think we should do something and we’re well on the way by Friday potentially.
Making business decisions requires confidence not only in your ideas but also in yourself. Siobhan says you can’t be afraid to try out ideas and if it doesn’t work, you have learned from it. She compares the learning curve of business to that of becoming a parent for the first time. “I honest to God think that some of my best learnings for business came from being a parent because you learn patience and tolerance and adaptability and multitasking. You panic at the beginning but then you just get on with it and you learn on the hoof. You don’t know what you’re doing and you wing it and hope for the best and then you learn something new every day and the day you don’t learn something new is the day you should have stayed in bed. So I’m constantly clocking up my new learnings every day to the point where if I turn sideways they will all fall out my ear!”
One aspect Siobhan was always on top of was the administration side of the company. Her background is in IT and she says it was hugely beneficial to her, she took to it ‘like a duck to water’. That made the transition from farmhouse wife to business entrepreneur a lot easier for Siobhan but she believes a lot of women don’t have confidence in their skills when considering a return to work but as she has found, stay at home mums do have a lot to offer a business. “We just have to focus on the positives and you just have to get out there and make a start and start learning and ask questions. I always try and keep a reasonably open door policy so I mean if somebody calls me up asking me for advice id never turn anyone away. Sometimes the simple things are the things that leave you a little bit caught.”
Siobhan still appreciates getting advice from more experienced business people and she praises the work of LEOs and city enterprise boards that are doing a lot of work in helping start ups and entrepreneurs get off the ground. “A lot of those teething problems are now removed for a lot of people because there is somebody to ask. But back when I was doing it there was nobody to ask.”
Having learned a lot about business on her own, Siobhan has embraced and implemented an international strategy for expansion. After a devastating fire in the bakery in 2012, Foods of Athenry came back stronger and after building Irish business back up to pre-fire levels, Siobhan began attending foreign trade shows and meeting with international buyers. “The thing is if I want to sell something to someone in Ireland they don’t live that far away so I can nip to Dublin to meet the Dunnes buyer or nip to cork to meet the SuperValu buyer but it’s a lot harder to get yourself in front of international buyers. Ultimately we don’t have the finances to put a man on the ground in China or Asia or Australia. So we decided to start with England and then move out of that into Europe. It’s a matter of going and getting noticed.”
Getting noticed is much easier when you have the backing of popular celebrities. Last year a single tweet from John Cleese led to a huge upsurge in interest for the Foods of Athenry. Siobhan couldn’t quite believe it. “I was looking at it going it’s probably someone pretending to be John Cleese, you often see a tweet from the Queen but you know well it’s not the Queen. So I’m looking at this going whatever and next thing my Twitter went absolutely mad. Just out of the blue he said the best crispbreads he ever tasted were ours!”
Another endorsement came from pop star Ellie Goulding who Instagrammed about the cookie shots, small bites that are targeting health conscious millenials on the go. Siobhan says awards are another great endorsement for their products, especially those that come from established organisations such as the Food Writers’ Guild (Foods of Athenry won a sustainability award in 2014). After cleaning up at the recent Free From Food Awards, Siobhan responds with grateful humility.
Every time we win something I am humbled and touched because there are different types of awards but you’re being measured against your peers, people are actually going ‘yeah this one is great’. It’s very humbling. You’re walking in the path of greatness because so many people have gone before you who have won similar things and you’re going ‘wow I’m in that club’, that group of people who are considered to be excelling in their field and you go wow, that’s really cool.
As awards are a great endorsement, sometimes the best type of recognition comes straight from the horse’s mouth as it were. Siobhan is always moved when a customer takes the time to send in their feedback via social media, email or best of all, a hand written letter. These personal touches stay with Siobhan for a long time and bring so much meaning to what she does. “Sometimes the nicest things that happen are emails from customers. They stay with you a lot longer where someone goes to the trouble to write you a lovely note.” Siobhan describes one that hangs over her desk from a young lady who had suffered from anorexia. She thanked Siobhan for her products which have allowed her to trust in food again and therefore helped her on her path to recovery.
With rewarding moments like that and awards flocking in, Siobhan and her family have much to be proud of.
For more information on the range of products by The Foods of Athenry such as allergen details and stockists, visit www.foodsofathenry.ie.
Alison has been writing since she could hold a pen, which came in handy for her degree in English, Media and Cultural Studies. She has been working in media since graduating and is the latest features writer for TheTaste.
Writing for TheTaste allows her to combine her passion for the written word with her love of food and drink. Find her on Twitter @AliDalyo