Set up in 2015 by Michael and Aisling Flanagan, Velvet Cloud produces a range of natural sheep’s milk yogurt and cheese on their farm in Claremorris, Co Mayo.

Like many producers across Ireland, Velvet Cloud was forced to alter its operation to survive the Covid-19 pandemic.

A well-established supplier to the high-end food service sector as a natural alternative to cow dairy, the family business lost half its weekly turnover when the crisis hit our shores.

“Due to restaurant closures and the fact that many people couldn’t venture out to retail stockists, we lost 50 per cent of our sales”

However, with the help of a trading online voucher from Local Enterprise Office Mayo, the entrepreneurial producers were able to offer their product online for the first time.

‘Clawing back’

“Up until the pandemic, Velvet Cloud was on the menus of some of the best establishments in Ireland,” said Aisling Flanagan. “But due to restaurant closures and the fact that many people couldn’t venture out to retail stockists, we lost 50 per cent of our sales.

“But we have managed to pivot and launch an e-commerce platform online and are now clawing back lost sales and finding new markets.”

Aisling, along with Michael and their ‘junior shepherds’ Ciaran (21), Orla (19), Niamh (15) and Liam (13), adapted quickly to the challenge and have now started a new online delivery service.

“It’s amazing how quickly you can learn about online applications and how to set up an e-commerce shop, when your back is up against the wall.

“We’ve been surprised at the uptake as while we’re only up and running a few weeks, sales are steadily increasing and Velvet Cloud sheep’s milk yogurt is now being delivered to homes across Ireland in insulated ice-boxes, within 24 to 48 hours of dispatch.”

“Change is always inevitable in business and sometimes it occurs quicker than any of us might predict, but change, while often uncomfortable, has to be embraced”

The online delivery service has coincided with peak cheese-making season on the farm so it’s all hands-on deck for the Flanagan familt. And while they haven’t recouped all of their lost revenue, the future looks bright for the couple as the new venture online has also opened up a different and increasingly popular market which hadn’t been available to the business.

“The response from customers has been extremely positive. In March 2020, zero per cent of our sales were online, but just two months later, between 30 and 40 per cent of business is to customers online. And in June, started selling our ‘Rockfield by Velvet Cloud’ cheese online too. As a result, we are now looking at the export potential of our products for both consumer and trade.”

While this new venture wasn’t entirely planned, the Mayo entrepreneur says it’s important to be adaptable and try to move with the times.

“Change is always inevitable in business and sometimes it occurs quicker than any of us might predict, but change, while often uncomfortable, has to be embraced,” she advises.

“We are always learning, networking, talking to and learning from the successes and failures of other companies who have embarked on similar journeys.

“And we feel it’s important to keep monitoring trends both globally and locally, because that is where you will spot the opportunities. Talking to your local support agencies, like your Local Enterprise Office, is also vital, because they offer hard supports such as grant aid and also excellent soft supports such as training, online webinars and mentoring,” she concluded.

Photo: Phill Doyle

Published: 14 July, 2020

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