Meat mogul owes success to Michelin-starred London eateries
Kildare-born butcher Peter Hannan, who built his business from scratch during the Troubles, tells John Mulgrew about how he told a top chef his steaks were no good, and the pain of losing his beloved mother
Meat mogul Peter Hannan has survived 40 years in the beef business here, much of it during the Troubles, and has overcome terrible tragedy with the sudden death of his mother.
He was a man born into the meat trade, leaving school as a young boy with no aspirations of going on to further education.
But after almost 40 years in the business, the 55-year-old is now making deals with top chefs around the globe, and as far afield as Hong Kong and Australia.
His Meat Merchant business in Moira, Co Down, now turns over around £10m each year. But according to Peter, demand continues to far outweigh supply.
He was one of the pioneers behind using giant Himalayan salt blocks to age his top quality Glenarm beef for anywhere from 35 days, all the way to 220 days.
And that long five-year process has now made his beef some of the most sought after in the world.
“Sales are going to hit about £10m this year, and the Meat Merchant sells about 20 tonnes of meat in the shop a week, with probably another 50 tonnes elsewhere,” Peter said.
The business has now grown to around 35 staff.
Aside from the stream of top-end national accolades, which the company has picked up — including numerous Great Taste Awards — Hannan Meats also walked away with the Excellence in Innovation gong at this year’s Belfast Telegraph Business Awards.
Peter has a 21-year-old son, Richard, from his first marriage, and also has two young girls, Kasia (5) and Grace (7) with his partner, Shirley.
Peter — who now lives in Donaghcloney, Co Down — was one of five boys, growing up on the successful family farm in Celbridge, Co Kildare, his family were reasonably well off.
“I was born and bred in Co Kildare. My father James was from Co Clare, and we farmed.
“He also had a contracting business for stud farm fences,” he said.
“I was one of five boys, and in those days you got out and you had a couple of hours of work to do before school, with horses to be fed.
“You didn’t eat until everything else was fed. It was hard, but it was a good grounding for life.”
After leaving school at 16, he went straight to work for an abattoir close to his Co Kildare home.
Two years later, aged 18, he went to Chicago to work, initially for free, for a major meat producer in order to gain the skills needed to grow in the industry.
He then came home, and began running a series of major meat plants across Ireland.
And he started at the big volume end of the meat business, before setting up Hannan Meats in 1989.
He ran a series of major sites for Irish meat supplier Seamus Purcell, a business which was turning over around 350 million punts a year.
And it was that business which led Peter to Northern Ireland, running Ulster Meats in Lurgan, Co Armagh.
Then, in 1989 he went out on his own.
“I came back to the north of Ireland. I met a girl, and settled down here.
“But I had a lot of contacts in Northern Ireland, and there was a big requirement for Irish beef.
“We were handling, and buying under our own name, and buying off processors. We began selling to food service providers who previously hadn’t bought Irish beef.”
And it was a few years later when Pete began testing the water with ageing beef, before perfecting his Himalayan salt chambers around five years ago.
Peter’s a man who’s had success and triumph throughout his career, but aged 39, he reached “the low point” in his life.
While on a fishing trip with his brother, he was dealt a tragic blow, learning of the sudden death of his loving mother, Helen, aged 64.
“We lived in a beautiful home, away from the farm, beside the K Club golf course,” he said.
“My mother had guests in for lunch, and there was garden furniture in the pool area.
“She had an arm full of mattresses and cushions, and was walking around the pool. She hit her head, and fell in and drowned.
“We were awfully close, and it was her that got me into the meat trade. She was hugely energetic. Myself and my eldest brother were away fishing when we got the call.”
And as with many businesses during the Eighties, Peter said the Troubles were no less kind to his meat trade.
“We had vans hijacked, we had all our meat lifted and stolen,” he said. “The challenges with being in Northern Ireland weren’t happening anywhere else. In the Eighties, it was very difficult.”
But Peter now sells to a host of big name stores, including London’s Fortnum and Mason.
And the store’s meat sales have rocketed 1600% since taking on Hannan Meats’ top end ranges.
His big beef relationship with one of the UK’s top chefs started out after he told the Michelin-starred cook that his steaks simply weren’t up to scratch.
Since then, he has enjoyed a long bond with Mark Hix, a chef after his own heart who runs eight top eateries throughout England.
“I said, you’ve a lovely restaurant, but your steaks aren’t very good.”
Speaking about one of Northern Ireland’s biggest meat firms, Dunbia, which the Belfast Telegraph revealed last week is up for sale, Peter said: “You’ll find the likes of the Ameircans, JBS, Moy Park — all of those will be looking at this billion pound business.
“It would have to be a very attractive proposition.”
And on the issue of agri-businesses often dealing with fine margins — with Dunbia’s huge £800m profits towering over a profit of just over £4m he said: “We are not in as squeaky a margin.
“That far back the line, it’s huge volume and a small percentage.
“We have tried to remove ourselves from that, and I believe the island of Ireland should be taking itself out of that.
“We should be producing something which is sought the world over. “Overall, people are eating less meat, but better meat.
“People are prepared to pay a bit more for quality.”