'I'm proud to say we were one of the first firms to sell stuffed mushrooms to the big supermarkets'
The Big Interview: Plunkett Curry
There’s a cliche that life’s too short to stuff a mushroom. Thankfully, Plunkett Curry, joint managing director of Co Armagh food company UMI Ireland, is happy to carry out the task on behalf of supermarket customers all over the UK.
Plunkett, a father-of-five from Middletown, set up UMI with fellow managing director Seamus Cassidy in 1999. It now has annual sales of around £11m and 70 staff, and has branched out into other vegetable side dishes, rebranding from Unimush to UMI Foods to reflect diversification away from mushrooms.
The firm’s customers include Asda, Tesco, Morrisons, Dunnes and high-end supermarket chain Booths in Great Britain.
It supplies customers from its base in Edenaveys Industrial Estate on Newry Road in Armagh.
The pair both had experience of the mushroom sector, Plunkett as a grower and Seamus as a seller of peat products. “I’ve been in the mushroom business since the late Eighties and I did know Seamus through the industry. I’d been working for myself growing mushrooms and started supplying some wholesale markets across the way in Scotland with my own mushrooms as I grew them.”
He couldn’t grow enough to keep up with demand and so started buying from other growers in the Co Armagh and Monaghan areas — which has long been associated with mushroom cultivation.
Plunkett grew up in a farming family in Middletown. “Coming from a farm — we reared calves — got me interested in farming and horticulture. The local area around Co Armagh and Co Monaghan was all about mushroom-growing, apple-growing or pigs.
“And a lot of the guys were very enterpreneurial and weren’t afraid to go and make something of themselves. They weren’t waiting for hand-me-downs but wanted to make a go of things.
“It’s the culture of the area and you know nothing different. There’s no fear of trying something new — and fear can be the one thing that holds people back.
“We were always encouraged to go and try things.”
He and Seamus put their heads together and decided to do something to add value to the mushroom product. Seamus brought additional knowledge of growing in England, and Unimush was born. At first it was based in the village of Madden in Co Armagh.
“It was a hard market but we were lucky as we were one of the first people to introduce stuffed mushrooms. And having a unique product does open doors. We weren’t the first, but we were one of the first.
“Up until then, stuffed mushrooms were limited to markets and food fayres.”
Plunkett reflects that as well as being one of the first to produce stuffed mushrooms, decades earlier he was one of the first pupils to enrol at the newly-built Keady High School.
He jokes: “I was a genius at school — actually, no, I didn’t like it at all, and after three years I left and went to technical college in Armagh. I left at 16 and started an apprenticeship at NIE in their new training centre in Knotts Corner. I was there for nearly 15 years as an engineer and then in the last two years of that, I ventured into mushroom growing. My wife Helen helped me while I was at home until I found my feet.”
The couple’s five children are aged 32 to 22, and one son has been working in the business for around seven years. “He always helped me with the mushroom farm, since he was knee-high to a grasshopper. And Seamus’s two sons also work in the company. It’s very much community-oriented.”
And he insists that he still enjoys eating mushrooms. “I love them. When I started to grow them in our area there was one other producer who had just started and after the next 10 or 12 years, there was tremendous growth locally and further afield. And to match that, there was tremendous growth in sale and consumption across the water.”
And he said the company had learned from the Dutch how to present their product in a more appealing way. “The Dutch could present tomatoes much better so we went with that and thought, let’s do the best we can in the presentation of our mushrooms.”
He says promotion efforts by food promotion body Bord Bia in the Republic, along with The Mushroom Bureau in the UK, have also helped.
But there were also problems facing the business early on, with new composting systems proving problematic, then a disease outbreak.
Any mushroom businesses could also be beset by growing pains.
“You might have three mushroom houses in a long tunnel and a cottage industry could spring up from that, with your family helping you do the work.
“But then you would outgrow that, and you would have to have five or nine houses to make a living, so it becomes much larger and more like a real business. Originally a small satellite system was putting in 18 to 20 tonnes of compost every week, but then that grew to 50 tonnes.”
And Brexit has also posed difficulties to mushroom growers in the Republic, who have been hit by the falling value of the pound. “There used to be over 700 growers but now it’s more like 200.
“There have been downward pressures on the mushroom business down the years. In a round about way, Brexit has changed things by distorting the currency exchange, and led to casualties south of the border. People weren’t getting the same return, and growers that were of a good size have now gone.”
It sources its mushrooms from close by.
“Our mushrooms are all sourced as locally as possible, but some growers haven’t wanted to expand so we’ve had to go a little further afield, but it’s still within a 25 mile radius, covering a little bit of Monaghan, Co Down and Co Armagh.” Its diversification has included broadening out its Harvest & Made range. It’s made up of convenience foods such as stuffed mushrooms with cheddar and bacon, goats cheese, caramelised red onion and paprika, mushroom and spinach burgers and Mexican bean burgers.
“Generally, everybody likes their own spin on the product. We have a product development team dedicated to producing new fillings and new products all the time.
“After a period of time, when we got into supermarkets, we found that you can be vulnerable if you only have one or two product lines, so that’s why we’ve gone into our vegetable products.
“If we can stuff a mushroom we can stuff anything else at all, within reason.”
The company has won a series of awards for its quality products and customer service including ‘Best Supplier of the Year’ in the recent Northern Ireland Food Manufacturing Awards.
And it was listed among the London Stock Exchange 1000 Companies to Inspire Britain 2016. It also won category champion for its Asda Grower’s Selection Creamy Chicken & Mushroom Pies earlier this year.
While around 97% of its customers are in Great Britain, some of its fillings are imported, including some from the Republic.
When asked about the implications of Brexit on the company, he says: “That’s a very good question, and if I had a definitive answer, someone would take me on board doing something else.
“One thing we’ve always been good at in the local counties is, we’ve always had to duck and dive and go with the flow. So a hard border will be something that’s just there, but we will feel the difficulties. There will be difficulties purely in timescale, getting the product out to have it on the shelf by 24 hours.
“Everything has to work like clockwork to make that all happen. We’d pick it from farms or producers across the border, over to a packing facility, then to get it distributed it would go back across border again and out on a boat through Dublin.
“We don’t relish the fact of it as it’s going to be an obstruction, purely on a timescale. What I do know is there will be a cost, but I don’t know where it’s going to come from, but someone is going to have to pay for it.
“What the industry doesn’t need at the minute is downward pressure.”