CHECKOUT: Meet the Makers: Noreen Gallagher: Plant-It – Love Irish Food

CHECKOUT: Meet the Makers: Noreen Gallagher: Plant-It

2022 will be a big year for Plant-It as the company secures listings with major retailers in the US, the UK, Finland and Ireland and has its sights set on entering new markets in Germany and the Middle East. The company’s chief executive officer, NOREEN GALLAGHER, formerly of Unilever, McCain, Nike and Glanbia, talks to Maev Martin about the plantbased opportunity.

Plant-It launched its American business at the Plant-Based World Conference and Expo in New York in December. “We had an overwhelmingly positive response to our brand and product range at the show, and we are currently expanding our US team to manage the business over there,” says Noreen. The Plant-Based World Conference and Expo is the first of six international shows that the company will have a presence at over the next six months. Plant-It’s first launch in the US is due on shelf later this month. “In the UK, we are recently stocked in Morrisons and our products are available in approximately 480 of their stores, with more to follow throughout 2022,” she says.

The priority markets for Plant-It in 2022 are the US and the UK, and they are also launching in mainland Europe, Asia and the Middle East over the coming months. Noreen says that, by this time next year, they hope to have the PlantIt range selling in 15 markets worldwide. In early 2021, Plant-It launched with one retailer in Scandinavia and now have a national listing with them. “We did tastings in that market towards the end of last year and we cleared the shelves,” she says. “To be able to taste and trial products was something we missed out on in Ireland during Covid-19, so it
was great to be able to do it in the Nordics. Hopefully, we will get back to doing in store tastings in Ireland and the UK by the middle of next year.”

The Irish market remains a focus and priority for Plant-It this year, as they launch a variety of exciting new products across multiple meal occasions, as well as debuting new cardboard box packaging, pictured above. “In Ireland, as is the case in our other markets, the strategy for 2022 is all about having sufficient market distribution coverage and making our marketing spend work harder,” she says.

“Distribution is the priority, followed by brand awareness and then getting a wider range of our products listed with retailers. We are delighted to announce that we will launch with Dunnes Stores later this month and we are already listed with several key retailers in the
Irish market such as Tesco, SuperValu, Spar, Avoca and Fresh, as well as Sysco and Musgrave on the foodservice side where we
supply restaurants, cafes and schools. We have also just launched a chicken-free fillet roll in Applegreen stores nationwide. Sustainability targets and credentials are a key part of major retailers’ strategies. By supporting a brand like us they are supporting one of their own strategic pillars, so it is a win-win for us as the supplier, and for the retailer.”

A visionary team
Plant-It was founded by Declan Gallagher of Promise Gluten-Free and Gallagher’s Bakery. The business was incorporated in 2019 when Declan invited his sister, Noreen Gallagher, and Irish food entrepreneur, Tadhg Geary, to join him on the journey to make plant-based foods mainstream. Tadgh Geary and his family built Co-Limerick-based Pallas Foods before the business was acquired by Sysco

Corporation in 2009.
Plant-It have recruited a number of experienced individuals from their networks to lead out the key functions in Plant-It. Their marketing director Mark Ryan is the former marketing director of Optimum Nutrition for EMEA with Glanbia, while Plant-It commercial director Eoin Kennedy was regional director for Sysco. “And we continue to build the team out further,” says Noreen. “Most of our team members are based in Ireland with some in the US and we will be recruiting to serve our growing international ambitions during 2022.”

A career in FMCG
During her extensive and highly successful career, Plant-It CEO Noreen Gallagher has worked at senior level with some of the best
known companies in the FMCG and sporting goods industries. “I joined Unilever out of college in 1992, working in sales, marketing andcategory management roles on the personal care products side before joining McCain Foods in 1999, where I ran the Irish business,” she says.
“After three years, I joined Nike and ran their Irish business before moving to the UK with Nike and then to their European HQ in Amsterdam for a four-year stint.

I moved back to London where I worked for Nike for a further three years before joining Triumph Lingerie. I spent nearly three years there before
coming home to join Glanbia where I ran their Performance Nutrition business for Europe, the Middle East and Africa until the end of 2019. Declan and Tadhg had been talking to me about getting involved in Plant-It for some time and there was a restructuring going on in Glanbia which meant my role was moved to London, so the timing was perfect for me. Also, the opportunity in the plant-based category globally is huge, so it was too good an opportunity to miss.”

In August 2019, Declan invited Noreen to a plant-based meat replacement tasting session. “They had all their competitor products there and when I saw that the Plant-It plates were the only ones that were wiped clean I knew they were onto a winner,” she says.

Targeting the flexitarian
The market for vegan food in Ireland is growing, but Plant-It isn’t just targeting vegans. “Rather than focusing on promoting veganism, we want to bring more consumers into theplant-based category,” she says. “We know that 75% of the Irish adult population are open to meat-free once a week (Plant-It survey, January 2021) and we want to cater to that audienceand help make going plant-based more mainstream. We are targeting the growing group of flexitarian eaters and encouraging consumers to join their ranks by switching from eating meat every day to substituting one or two of their meals a week for a plant-based option.

If that happens, the growth in the plant-based food market will be phenomenal. The appetite for our product is there, but the problem in the category has been that plantbased food hasn’t tasted great, so that is why, at Plant-It, we are focused on making great-tastingfood that just happens to be plant-based. When consumers aren’t compromising on taste and quality, the world is your oyster.”

Shopping the category
Noreen points out that the category has been called ‘vegan’ or ‘vegetarian’ and Plant-It recognise that there is a movement to be more inclusive and more focused on consumers who want to get more plant-based foods into their diets. “Our products are available in supermarket freezers and during the pandemic people have spent more time in the frozen foods section in-store,” she says.

“We know that the frozen food category is in strong growth, but space is a real barrier to entry for frozen food products. As a result, we’ve installed branded ‘treezers’ in a number of stores and that has helped drive brand awareness and has added a bit of theatre to the frozen food category. Dwell time in the freezer area is low because it is so cold, so we are trying to make it a more fun and engaging space.”
While Plant-It wants to see the consumption of plant-based foods became mainstream, Noreen says that the current profile of the plant-based consumer tends to be young families and single people who are shopping for one or two people. “This is where we are seeing a lot of sales because sustainability is very importantto young children and to young adults with families,” she says.

Recent innovations
Noreen says consumers are looking for vegan or plant-based options for all meals. “In the breakfast category the demand is still around
cereals,” she says. “There aren’t many hot food options that are vegan, so we have launched our egg-free vegan omelette, which is a fantastic breakfast or brunch option. Our chicken-free product is resonating really well globally. We have just launched salt and chilli chicken strips, which are a variation on chicken goujons and nuggets, but are still a family favourite food that happens to be plant-based. “We have our burgers and we have also recently launched a fish-free goujon. Key retailers and foodservice providers in the US have told us that our fish-free goujon is the best tasting of its kind in the sector, and we got orders for it straight away from the important retailers in this space when we attended the Plant-Based World Conference & Expo in New York.”

According to Noreen, Plant-It can turn around innovations and new products very quickly at its R&D and production facility in west Dublin. “Consumers are looking for more choices, so it is important that we have that level of capability and flexibility,” she says. “We are also looking at developing product for different consumer taste profiles and expectations for Asia and the Middle East. Plant-It has carried out independent research on all its products and, based on the findings of that research, we have further improved and developed each product. For example, our chicken-free products scored very highly and our fish-free goujons and eggfree omelettes have received phenomenal responses from clients. The egg-free omelette is winning hands down as it is a completely
unique proposition.”

Brand building
Plant-It launched an outdoor campaign to promote the brand in Ireland in early 2021 and the company also works with key influencers, including Plant-It brand ambassador, model Thalia Heffernan. “Social media is hugely important for us and we spend a lot of time and energy on recipes and
suggestions on how to consume our products,” she says.

This month, Plant-It is moving to 100% recyclable cardboard packaging, which will feature a QR code on the side of the pack to allow consumers to scan and download recipes and serving suggestions from the Plant-It website. In addition, Plant-It partners with Trees on the Land to dedicate a portion of the sales from every Plant-It product to tree-planting initiatives in Ireland and the UK. To date, they have planted a whopping 20,000 native trees spread across eight locations in Ireland.

Paying a premium
Are shoppers prepared to pay a premium for plant-based? “Yes, they are because theyunderstand the benefits to their health and the sustainability aspects, but we will see this category mainstreaming as volumes increase, so the price will reduce over time and become less of a premium,” says Noreen.

“Over the past two months, we have brought our prices down in an effort to ensure that they are more in line with the meat and chicken
alternatives, as our objective is to ensure that our products are an affordable everyday eat, allowing consumers to easily swap meat for meat-free. This is making our products, and the category, more accessible to all consumers. “Apart from price, taste has been a barrier to entry for many consumers. At our production facility in Dublin, where all Plant-It products are made, we developed our own in-house texture technology, a breakthrough proprietary process that allows us to mirror the taste and texture experience of meat whilst being reassuringly plant-based.

“The third big barrier to entry for many consumers in moving to a plant-based diet has been the nutritional aspect, as there is a concern about the nutritional quality of plant-based meats. To address this, Plant-It fortify their entire range with vitamin B12, iron and calcium, and we ensure that each product is as high in protein as possible to ensure that there is no compromise on nutritionals for consumers coming into the category.”

Becoming mainstream
Retailers see the opportunity in plant-based and have been giving it more space in-store.
“The trade has been very supportive of us in terms of opening up shelf space,” says Noreen. “The fact that we are produced in Ireland,
are creating jobs and are trying to create a global business out of Ireland has impressed retailers and they give us constant feedback, which is really helpful. Retailers are giving plant-based products that extra push because they see the category growth and most of theretailers I know are very focused on growth.

They have embraced Veganuary and are promoting the category this month, but we also want to see promotional activity and innovation throughout the year. “The movement to mainstream is happening, but I think it will really take off over the next two years. By then, shopping plant-based will be a commonplace activity and consumers will see brand recognition driving category traffic.” ■

Noreen Gallagher believes that Plant-It’s membership of Love Irish Food has helped the company to establish its quality credentials and to make its sales pitch to the trade, not just in Ireland but overseas. “Love Irish Food is such a positive story and Irish consumers have always been very loyal to Irish brands that they know and trust,” she says. “Those consumers have become even more loyal to Irish businesses and to supporting local during the pandemic. When you see the

Love Irish Food logo it really resonates with the consumer and helps our product to stand out on shelf.
“We joined Love Irish Food in early 2021 and they are a great partner to work with. We were involved in an extremely innovative and successful Love Irish Food campaign with Tesco this year and there is more
lined up for 2022.” Would Noreen recommend membership of the Love Irish Food organisation to brands
looking to establish a foothold in the market? “Most definitely,” she says. “Irish food resonates globally
and our food credentials, our heritage of producing fine food, is a great selling point on the global market,
and I think consumers will continue to support Irish businesses here at home.”