Gweedore-based Laura Murphy of SynerChi Kombucha talks about the local food economy emerging in Donegal and key lessons from starting a business.

SynerChi Kombucha is certified organic, naturally free from dairy, gluten and soy, with only 59 kCals per bottle and entirely guilt-free.

The business was started by Laura Murphy and is based in Gweedore, Co Donegal.

“Consumers are moving away from traditional soft drinks and there is also a greater understanding of the importance of having a healthy gut”

Murphy started the company in 2012 as the first traditional kombucha tea microbrewery or “Kombrewery” in Ireland.

SynerChi is made using a traditional fermentation method so that the live cultures and naturally occurring raw enzymes are preserved. Over millennia, people have used live cultured foods and drinks to improve health holistically and promote longevity. Kombucha is unique in that it is a craft-brewed soft drink; healthy, delicious and naturally effervescent.

The company was one of 15 firms from all over Ireland that were selected to join the SuperValu Food Academy.

Now in its seventh year, the SuperValu Food Academy is a unique food business development programme between SuperValu, Bord Bia and the Local Enterprise Offices (LEOs). Participants in the programme receive training in market research and branding, food safety, marketing, finance and business development.

What is the food opportunity you are addressing and why does it matter to consumers?

When I set up SynerChi Kombucha, there was no authentic kombucha drink available on the Irish market. I had spent time working in and travelling across the US, and I saw that kombucha drinks had exploded in popularity there. Kombucha is a really tasty, refreshing drink and contains live cultures, so it has considerable health benefits. Kombucha is a few thousand years old and can be traced back to ancient China, while historical records show that it was also available in Russia during the same period.

From a consumer perspective, over the past few five years there has been a steady migration towards people making healthier diet choices, and as part of that movement there is now a real focus on products that strengthen the immune system. As SynerChi is a really healthy and tasty drink, it is growing in  popularity right across the spectrum, from millennials to older people.”

What is your core product and service all about?

SynerChi is all about producing tasty and refreshing live-culture beverages that are accessible to consumers. Our core product is SynerChi Kombucha, which is certified organic, 100pc natural, vegan friendly and gluten free. It’s made using a traditional fermentation method so that the live cultures and naturally occurring raw enzymes are preserved, resulting in a tasty drink that delivers great health benefits. I felt that it was very important to create an authentic product – there had been kombucha drinks on the market before, but they were pasteurised and made with kombucha syrup. SynerChi uses traditional fermentation methods using organic teas with a live culture of yeast and bacteria (SCOBY) to produce authentic Kombucha.

Consumers are moving away from traditional soft drinks and there is also a greater understanding of the importance of having a healthy gut, and SynerChi Kombucha addresses both of these needs. In terms of the product range, we have innovated further, based on customer feedback. We now offer a sugar-free unpasteurised kombucha in a 250ml can For this variant, we have let the culture consume all of the sugar (rather that most of it) during the fermentation process, and then we blend it with only natural sweeteners and flavours, which means that we can offer a sugar-free live culture kombucha in a convenient and recyclable can format.”

“What really impressed me was SuperValu’s commitment to creating tailored displays in-store to showcase and create attention for Food Academy participants”

Who are the founders of the company and what are the experiences that encouraged you to become a food/beverage products business?

“I started SynerChi as a one-person business at the end of 2012. I saw that kombucha had grown steadily in popularity in the US and that it wasn’t available to buy in Ireland at that time. Setting up the business was a leap of faith because I was an actress, working in theatre and on TV, and had also worked in the music business. I also didn’t have a traditional food background, but my grandfather Joe ‘Spud’ Murphy was the founder of Tayto Crisps, and his story was always very inspiring in our family. It gave me a sense of what I could achieve and it encouraged me to start the business. Some family members were still involved in the food business, so I could lean on them for advice. More recently, an investor has come on board and we have upscaled production, but at the start it was a very steep learning curve.”

“The quality of what we produce in Ireland is also reflected by our food exports, which are no longer the preserve of big brands”

What was the product development journey like and how do platforms like the SuperValu Food Academy help?

“In our case, the core product range was already developed and ready for consumers. We had recently scaled our production capacity significantly so we were ready for the next step in our growth. Our SuperValu Food Academy experience was all about learning how to grow the business from being more focused on independent and health food retailers and foodservice to listing our products in a supermarket.

Some food start-ups are at the very start of their journey when they join SuperValu Food Academy, so it is different for each participant, but no matter where you are, the support the programme provides to participants is second to none.  All of the modules are very informative and I found the ones about finance hugely beneficial in terms of being prepared to avoid what can be potential pitfalls of fast growth.

What really impressed me was SuperValu’s commitment to creating tailored displays in-store to showcase and create attention for Food Academy participants. This really puts your products on consumers’ radars and more than ever, consumers want to buy Irish and support their local economies. Showcasing local Irish food producers in this way has real, tangible results and supports job creation in local communities. From our perspective, we also did a lot of in-store tastings which helped us to generate feedback from customers and was instrumental in developing a sugar-free kombucha drink.”

“My grandfather used to say ‘everything takes twice as long and costs twice as much’ – in other words, if you have a great idea that you think will take five years, the reality is it’s pretty good going if you achieve it in seven years, and be prepared that it might take you 10”

What are your impressions of the food products ecosystem in your region and in Ireland in general and what can be done to boost the overall industry?

There’s a growing local food economy in Donegal where SynerChi is based and nationally, the sector is very healthy. The quality of what we produce in Ireland is also reflected by our food exports, which are no longer the preserve of big brands. Programmes like SuperValu Food Academy are providing a platform for new, innovative Irish food producers, which help smaller producers reach the wider public and hopefully exist shoulder-to-shoulder with big brand players. SuperValu’s support for local producers and the consumer response has a genuine positive impact in communities across Ireland.”

What are the biggest mistakes or lessons you have learned so far?

“My grandfather used to say ‘everything takes twice as long and costs twice as much’ – in other words, if you have a great idea that you think will take five years, the reality is it’s pretty good going if you achieve it in seven years, and be prepared that it might take you 10. This approach helped to guide me in terms of managing my own expectations when I was starting the business. We are also fortunate to have an amazing team in Donegal with a technical focus and strong systems, so the right experience and expertise are central to avoiding mistakes.”

What advice do you have for others entering the food business?

“It’s an exciting sector with huge growth potential, but it’s not easy, so be prepared for hard work. I also recommend that anyone starting a food business makes sure they have all of the necessary certifications in place from the start. I would also advise food start-ups to apply to SuperValu Food Academy. It offers so much advice around design and marketing and also gives participants a thorough understanding of financial forecasting and cashflow – which will be as important as delivering the product itself. It also delivers a structured approach to growth through listings in SuperValu stores and it has helped SynerChi Kombucha get to where it is now as a brand.”

Written by John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 28 August, 2020

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