Foods of Athenry owners Siobhan and Paul Lawless make baked products from scratch in-house for the premium, gluten free/free-from market. Building the business back after a fire and pivoting it to meet the challenges of our time has kept their family business relevant, says Siobhan.
“We had a fire in 2011 and the whole business burned to the ground, and we were closed for a year. When we came back, we decided that the best way forward was to focus on products with naturally extended shelf-life that would allow us to sell to anywhere, both home and abroad”
Why did you set up The Foods of Athenry?
I set up as a sole trader back in 1999, due to a mixture of opportunity and necessity, as well as a love of food. I didn’t have a foodie background but rather an IT one. I was married to a dairy farmer and for the first 16 years we were married, I helped on the farm and looked after our five children. By 1999, I was thinking about what to do next and decided to do something to supplement the farm income. I was always good at baking. My grandmother had one of the biggest bakeries in the country during World War 2. She was like the Irish Pride of her time; baking was it in my blood. I decided to make soda breads in a small, converted shed on the farm. By 2004, with sales and demand strong, we decided to sell the cows and convert the milking parlour into a full-time bakery. It was a time when people were becoming more interested in their health and what ingredients went into products and didn’t mind spending a bit more for something better. We were in the right place at the right time.
What makes The Foods of Athenry stand out?
What sets us apart firstly is our depth of range. Over the years, we’ve added many different types of products. For the first six years as The Foods of Athenry, we sold a lot of short shelf-life products such as breads, pies and scones. By 2010, we decided to build on a dedicated gluten-free space, repurposing some more farm sheds for the new space, while developing a whole new range of free-from products.
“In the last number of years, we’ve won up to 70 Taste awards. We recently won eight food awards in the Irish FreeFrom Food Awards, winning gold, silver, and bronze in the Christmas category”
We had a fire in 2011 and the whole business burned to the ground, both the existing bakery and the partially finished gluten free one, and we were closed for a year. When we came back, we decided that the best way forward for us was to focus on products with naturally extended shelf-life that would allow us to sell to anywhere, both home and abroad. From that grew a depth of range that encompasses gluten free bars, cereals, crackers, fruitcakes, and a very strong Christmas range.
The second thing that makes us stand out is that we don’t outsource anything, we make everything from scratch to original recipes in-house. We don’t buy in any premixes, which makes our products harder to copy; and we use only premium ingredients.
The third thing is the taste. We develop and manufacture clean label, great tasting products for the premium, gluten free/free-from market, which covers many lines that are dairy free and vegan. In the last number of years, we’ve won up to 70 taste awards. We recently won eight food awards in the Irish FreeFrom Food Awards, winning gold, silver, and bronze in the Christmas category. I also had the honour of being awarded the FreeFrom Food Champion for 2022, which is given to somebody who has made an essential contribution to free-from food in Ireland.
I believe in guilt-free eating. If you want to indulge, own it and don’t regret it. We make a lot of products in small sizes, like our cookie shots. These are packaged in a resealable bag, which allows them to be kept fresh and customers can choose to eat one, or all 30. Each little cookie shot is only four grammes and low in calories. It’s a food choice.
What challenges did you meet and how did you overcome them?
As challenges come up, you do your best to figure out how to navigate them. In the early days, there was a real lack of available information, like how to conduct a good business meeting, what buyers expected, where to buy the best ingredients. That’s not the case anymore but when I was starting out, I didn’t even know how to get a barcode on a package, and I had no one to ask.
“When you’re more established, it’s about getting peer to peer information and upskilling because every day is a learning day. You can learn from many people and get inspiration from so many different areas”
Having to be moderately expert at everything because I was self-employed was challenging – navigating HR, accounts, buying and selling, and financing. There’s a lot of learning on the job. We got great support over the early years from Bord Bia, in terms of training courses. And in the last few years, from Enterprise Ireland too.
When you’re more established, it’s about getting peer to peer information and upskilling because every day is a learning day. You can learn from many people and get inspiration from so many different areas. I ended up doing a postgraduate course in sales, called the International Selling Programme in TUD. It was amazing because selling was my biggest deficit, in terms of focusing on the next stage of the business, navigating the sales pipeline, or knowing where to look for new business.
Our biggest overall challenge was in 2011 when the business burned down. We got through that with hard work and the support of family and friends. If I had to name something positive that came out of the fire, it was seeing how amazing my kids were, in terms of the help and support they provided in getting the place cleaned up and rebuilt. It was a humbling experience.
What is the support for entrepreneurs in Ireland like and how could it be improved?
Support has come a long way since I started out in business. We live in the countryside just outside Athenry, which now has the BIA Innovation Campus; set up to support food businesses from start-up concept to fully commercialised and is a tremendous asset to food manufacturers in Ireland. What would be great is peer to peer groups within the county, or even regionally, where people can get together in person and discuss challenges and learn from each other.
“Our biggest overall challenge was in 2011 when the business burned down. We got through that with hard work and the support of family and friends. If I had to name something positive that came out of the fire, it was seeing how amazing my kids were, in terms of the help and support they provided in getting the place cleaned up and rebuilt”
What lessons have your learnt and what would you pass on to other businesses?
Whatever your business is, it has the potential to be successful. Ask for help; don’t suffer alone. If things are feeling or looking difficult, reach out. I wasn’t good at asking for help until the time of the fire, when we had to. People love to help other people and the positivity of that action is as powerful as the physical help.
Don’t say yes to every opportunity, it might not be the opportunity for you. When you’re starting out, you feel you should say yes to everything but no is also a good answer. Never over promise and under deliver, that’s the kiss of death. If you find it difficult to say no to something, defer the decision and think about it. It becomes easier to say no when you step away from something.
“Whatever your business is, it has the potential to be successful. Ask for help; don’t suffer alone. If things are feeling or looking difficult, reach out”
What is your proudest moment?
The times I feel most blessed are when we win new awards and when we get positive communication from customers. To have an external group acknowledge that we’re making a difference to free-from in Ireland at their awards recently was huge. The other times when I feel really good about myself is positive customer interaction. We’ve had messages from people who have struggled with anorexia for example, thanking us for making food that has helped them in their recovery, or from people diagnosed with coeliac who need gluten free foods and have struggled to find a treat and were miserable. Then they try our treats and feel they can manage it. Those sorts of interactions make me feel very blessed and fulfilled.
What are your plans for the future?
When you’re learning every day, plans can change. The last couple of years have been very challenging. We’ve had the pandemic, Brexit, and the war in Ukraine. This year has been the strangest one yet because some ingredients were so hard to get, I had to buy them whatever the price. It was either that or going without. The cost-of-living crisis hasn’t set in yet and I’m nervous for consumers going into 2023. Cash strapped consumers are moving over to private label products because they feel they are getting the same quality at a slightly lower price. Next year, I plan to see where there may be opportunities for some private label business. Other plans are to keep developing new and innovative products and increase our exports. And to continue doing what we love.