Handcrafted quality is our driving force .... we're nuts about being healthiest and the best
Aimee Beimers' snack food firm has outgrown her first factory in one year, writes Clare Weir
In just one year, Aimee Beimers has gone from making nut butter in her kitchen to employing seven people in a factory in Bangor, Co Down. And no matter how big her company gets, she has vowed never to make her products by machine, investing instead in people before machinery.
The Canadian-born businesswoman came to Northern Ireland with husband Kevin just over eight years ago for work, after living in London for a while.
As a trained nutrition consultant, her business idea came about when she heard how many unhealthy snacks her clients were consuming.
Keen Nut Butter is the result – made from almonds, hazelnuts, pecans or macadamia nuts but without added sugar, butter, salt or oil.
Ms Beimers is one of a growing number of small independent food companies who are enjoying an increasing interest from consumers in homegrown, natural produce.
"With my one-to-one clients, I found that families were finding it really difficult to make healthy choices in the supermarket," she said. "There were no alternatives to the peanut butter and chocolate spreads which are proving so popular.
"I started out in my kitchen and within four to six weeks I was in my first retail outlet. The market is non-stop growth but I want to do things as healthily as possible."
The entrepreneur said that she wants the business's processes to be as sustainable and natural as possible.
Each batch of nuts is roasted by hand and then blended by staff, known affectionately as "smooshers", in a secret process with some added ingredients like dark chocolate and real vanilla pods.
She started buying almonds from a friend who owned a cafe, before starting to go directly to a distributor. But she hopes to cut out the middle man in time.
"Eventually I would love the company to have a direct relationship with the farmers as we grow and start using more nuts.
"A lot of nuts are grown in Turkey and we know where they are coming from. I've heard rumours that you can grow hazelnuts in Ireland and I would love to find someone who is actually doing that and get involved with them."
The butters are now being sold through 100 independent retailers and are being exported to Great Britain and the Republic with interest also from Europe, including Germany, where food export is particularly lucrative.
Products are sold in places like Sawers, Arcadia Deli and Established Coffee in Belfast as well as other locations including markets in Ballymena and Bangor.
Ms Beimers said that she expects to turn over £250,000 next year, representing around 100,000 jars of product, but will not compromise on quality, no matter how big the company becomes.
"I have explored other ways to automate the process and as soon as we try to automate, the product drops in quality," she said.
"There have been offers of grants and further assistance for automation and to encourage us to grow, but the product is handmade, right down to the labelling and jarring, and that is why it tastes so good.
"I would always rather invest in people rather than machinery.
"The quality is something we will definitely never sacrifice for a bigger factory or more product.
"We have our factory in Bangor, supported by the North Down Development Organisation and we have outgrown the incubation unit already."
Support has also come from Invest Northern Ireland's Propel Programme, which is aimed at developing fast-growing global start-ups through workshops, mentoring and business planning.
"I knew that my products had definite export potential, but wasn't sure how to develop an export strategy," she said.
"I was advised by a friend to apply for Propel when Keen was only a few months old and it was a real eye-opener.
"Propel is not for the lighthearted – they push you and expect you to push back, you will get questioned about what you are doing and why but it helps you get a much clearer vision for where you are going and it really helped validate some of my decisions.
"We also got a lot of help from Food NI, which offered access to a very vibrant community, I could link up with other food producers and we shared problems and solutions."
She described the food scene in Northern Ireland as "very supportive," and cites Peter Hannan, of Hannan Meats, which sells to exclusive London department store Fortnum & Mason, as a particularly inspiring figure.
"Peter is bringing these prestigious sellers into Northern Ireland to meet other producers, which is a massive boost to the industry in terms of getting the word out to big retailers.
"There is immense excitement amongst producers about the resurgent interest in local, homemade goods and the positive atmosphere at places like St George's Market is infectious."
For the future, she could look at doing other things with the healthy snack principle.
"Our main aim is healthier versions of popular snacks," she said.
"We are still in our initial growth period, which is easy to forget sometimes because it has all happened so fast. Once we are in more stores and are experiencing sustained growth then we will be looking at other offshoots of what we are doing now."
She added that despite the rapid success of the company, there have been a few teething problems.
"We have seen every problem that there is, but I don't like to think of them as problems, just the next hoop that we have to jump through," she said. "Like a lot of producers, every so often we have a shortage of jars. We've had our 'smooshing' equipment break, we've had procurement problems when a supplier has run out of nuts, usually because we have used them all.
"We've seen the price of nuts increase by 30% overnight due to different weather conditions in Turkey – but it's all part of the process when you are doing things on this sort of scale."
Propel’s food for thought ... plus plenty of support
Elsa McCarney-Blair, aged seven months, helped her mother Shauna launch the new Heavenly Tasty Organics chilled baby food range along with Tesco's Sandra WeirAS well as Keen Nutrition, other food businesses on the Invest Northern Ireland Propel Programme include Little Deli Ltd and Ocean Veg Ireland Ltd.
The Little Deli is an app that lets customers quickly pre-order and pre-pay for their lunch from local delis and cafes via their smartphone, allowing them to skip the queue and save time.
Propel has been supporting founder Alexandra Mile in taking her product to market.
Alexandra recently won ‘College Entrepreneur of the Year 2014’ (Enterprise Ireland Student Entrepreneur Awards) and The Ireland Funds’ third annual Business Plan Competition.
Ocean Veg is a producer of islander kelp, a ready-to-use fresh sea vegetable product grown and harvested off the coast of Rathlin Island.
Propel is helping founder Kate Burns build an international growth strategy for her product.
Previous Propel participants from the food sector include Shauna McCarney of Heavenly Tasty Organics. Last year, she took part in the Invest NI Propel Programme to help develop an export strategy for Heavenly Tasty Organics, her range of dairy, gluten and additive free baby food. The brand is now available widely across the UK, Ireland, Europe and other international markets.