The accidental entrepreneur
In this month’s Meet the Makers profile, in partnership with Love Irish Food, Maev Martin talks to The Foods of Athenry founder and managing director Siobhan Lawless about developing a business that is famed for its wholesome products and blazing a trail in the Irish free-from market
When you are producing a food and drink product it is all about great taste, but a clever name doesn’t hurt either. Siobhan Lawless tells me that when she and her husband Paul incorporated the business in 2004, they were struggling to come up with a name. Their daughter Meadhbh, who was 11 years old at the time, came into the kitchen and suggested that they call their new venture The Foods of Athenry.
That is when their pathway to success began, but it was by no means plain sailing before they reached this point. Paul Lawless was a farmer but like many farmers in the late 1990s he found it increasingly difficult to earn a living from agriculture.
“Our children were between 5 and 12 years of age and I wasn’t working for money at that stage,” says Siobhan. “Paul was a very capable farmer but market and weather conditions were too challenging so I decided to do something at home to supplement the farm income. I baked bread and made cakes and I have a motto in life called ‘how hard can it be,’ so I set up a very small farmhouse business where I was doing traditional Irish baking.
“Moran’s Oyster Cottage restaurant in Kilcolgan was our first client and the business grew from there. We baked things in the way we liked to eat them, creating clean label products with minimal ingredients and great taste. I would describe myself as an accidental entrepreneur – I never had a burning ambition to run my own food business and my training was in IT. However, as the business grew, we decided to make the big leap in 2003. We sold the cows on our farm and we refurbished some of the agricultural buildings into a larger working bakery. Once Paul and I were in the business together, it was about expanding the product range.”
According to Siobhan, the guiding principles of food production at The Foods of Athenry are ‘if we wouldn’t eat this ourselves, or feed it to our own children, then we wouldn’t sell it to someone else’.
“While we operate in the ‘free-from’ space, many of our lines are indulgent, so we make a wide variety of products to suit many diets,” says Siobhan. “Our cereals/granolas are healthy and wholesome in terms of ingredient selection and nutritional balance. Our very popular Gourmet Sodabread Toasts and our Cookie Shots are part of our mindful eating range, where they are portioned into smaller pieces and the consumer can choose for themselves how few or how many to eat. For example, one Chocolate Brownie Cookie Shot and one slice of Sodabread Toast have only 18 calories each. When it comes to the chocolate biscuit bars, granola bars and cookies, these are indulgent lines, and regardless of whether we eat a dietary specific or restricted diet, or have no special dietary needs, we all like to treat ourselves, and aspire to do so in moderation. A high carb granola bar will see you through a game of golf or mountain climb, so there is a time and a place for everything.”
Getting listed with retailers
A major milestone for the company came when Pat Joyce of the former Joyce Supermarkets Group, whose stores have now been subsumed into Tesco Ireland, decided to build a large supermarket in Athenry. “He had seen our products and contacted us about stocking them in his new store, so that was a huge boost for the business,” she says.
“Then one of the Dunnes Stores’ managers who was living in Athenry spotted us in Joyce’s and a listing with Dunnes Stores followed in 2005 and the business grew organically year on year until 2010. By then, we had five or six employees, and during that time we repurposed more agricultural sheds, including the milking parlour, dairy, and cow collecting yards, so by 2010 we started looking forward to the next five years. Up to that point, we had operated in the traditional baking space, producing soda breads made in a wheat bakery. By 2010 we decided to continue doing what we were doing, but to target the free-from market. Paul set about converting a sizeable chunk of empty buildings to create a separate bakery on site to make a range of free-from products. I worked on some of our recipes to convert them into free-from alternatives.”
Rising from the ashes
However, in the summer of 2011, disaster struck for The Foods of Athenry business when the bakery burned down. “It was a small fire that didn’t go out and the entire bakery burned down,” says Siobhan. “There was only one operational bakery at the time, but we had brought in the packaging and completed a deal with Dunnes for the free-from products, so not only were the contents of the operational bakery destroyed, but the new bakery contents were destroyed as well. The business was closed for 12 months and it felt like the world had ended. However, our older son said that we had done it before, so we could do it again.
“It was very hard, but we built the business from the ground up again. By 2012, when we re-started the business, we launched our new gluten-free range into Dunnes Stores. Fast forward to now, and we have 30 employees in the bakery
on our farm in east Galway who are working in a BRC Grade A 30,000 square foot facility.”
Relationships with retailers
Apart from Dunnes Stores, The Foods of Athenry product range is also available in SuperValu, Centra, BWG Foods and Tesco Ireland, as well as independent and specialty retailers. “I am not just saying this because I’m talking to Checkout magazine, but our relationship with our retailers is like a good marriage – it started off full of hope and joy, but has developed into something much deeper that is built on trust and mutual respect,” says Siobhan.
“In terms of suppliers, when we started, we bought as we could afford and as sales demanded. In 2011, when we had the fire that closed us for 12 months and nearly broke us, many suppliers went above and beyond for us at that difficult time. In particular, a special mention goes to Valeo Foods (now Odlums ) and our rep at the time Gerry. That sort of kindness is not easily forgotten. Other key suppliers in 2023 are Glanbia, who supply our Irish gluten-free oats, Healy Honey, and Strathroy Milk.”
The company has a good balance of work between private label and its own branded Foods of Athenry range. “We do private label products out of the wheat-based bakery, mostly Simply Better cereals for Dunnes Stores and private label cereals for Aldi and SuperValu,” she says. “We also produce Simply Better mince pies for Dunnes Stores. Our foodservice business was hit hard during the pandemic but we picked up some extra private label business at that time which helped us through that period. Small brands like ours rely on browsing customers, but during Covid people shopped differently – they didn’t browse or they shopped online – and that had a big impact on us. We found that our private label work and branded Foods of Athenry range really complemented each other, so when foodservice came back, we started thriving again.”
The Foods of Athenry produce cakes, crackers, cookies, flapjacks, cereals, snack bars, and a wheat and spelt range. According to Siobhan, their focus over the past few years has been on introducing some add-ons to existing ranges, such as dairy-free or vegan. “Over the past few years we have been looking at what we do well and then adding extra lines to pad out a specific family, so we have multiple families of products,” she says.
“For example, we introduced a Honeycomb Rocky Road bar to go with the Caramel Bar,” she says. “We upgraded our packaging to a new format and then we added different format cereals to go with the cereals we have. You can buy our cereals as a retail pack or in bulk for food service, and we also sell them as a single-serve sachets for the hotel market.
“We sell into retail, foodservice and gifting companies. We added a butter shortbread to the range last year that is aimed at the gifting market and/or speciality retailer. 2024 is out 20-year anniversary, so there is work underway in preparation for new launches next year. They will be over two different categories and one will be a celebration range. There is nothing like it on the market already so we are very excited!”
The Foods of Athenry are Bord Bia Origin Green Gold members. “Sustainability is at the core of what we do,” says Siobhan. “We invested heavily in solar energy for the bakery, with the new bakery extension completely clad in solar panels. We have almost moved all packaging to recyclable ahead of schedule, and we have implemented an ERP system throughout the business.”
Over 100 awards
The Foods of Athenry has won over 100 prestigious awards over the years, including Great Taste Awards, Blas na hEireann, the Irish Quality Food and Drink Awards, and the Free-From Food Awards.
“We entered the Irish FreeFrom Food Awards last year and came away with seven awards, including the FreeFrom Food Champion Award, which acknowledged our dedication to making free-from products available in Ireland,” she says.
“This year I entered five products in the Great Taste Awards in the UK and we came away with five awards and that was hugely gratifying and humbling for me. We also won gold in the Irish Quality Food and Drink Awards for two of our products this year.”
Highlights and objectives
2023 has been a good year for the business. “Sales are strong and growing year on year after the last few difficult years,” says Siobhan. “We won multiple food awards this year, which has been a great boost and an endorsement of what we are doing in the market.
“However, because we are a family business, work and family life go hand in hand, and business success was eclipsed this year by our daughter Aisling getting married, the birth of our fourth granddaughter to our son Eoin and his wife Laura, our son Cian coming back from Asia after working abroad for five years, and Paul and I celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary!
“Our key objectives for 2024 are to stay doing what we are doing – to continue giving our consumers the choices they are looking for – to grow the business and provide additional employment, to launch a new website with features such as a trade portal, and to launch new products to mark our 20th year in business.
Love Irish Food
The Foods of Athenry joined Love Irish Food this year. “We had been thinking about it for a while, and once we did it, we knew that we had made the right choice,” says Siobhan. “Our business has already benefitted from Love Irish Food membership in a myriad of ways such as peer group support and access to some of the amazing business supports that Love Irish Food has to offer. These include the benefit of being part of an umbrella group that signifies and proudly displays its Irishness, and the confidence that this gives consumers in your brand. Having the Love Irish Food logo on our products reinforces the sustainability and provenance message that is so important to us.”