'Our product is a premium one... aimed at people who love their food'
Hannah O'Reilly from Co Fermanagh tells Louise McBride about how the growth of home cooking is helping spread the word about the butter brand she co-founded with her friend Elaine Lavery
Most of us would do a double take if we came across a cow wearing an earring. So it's no surprise that it is the blocks of Improper Butter which are amongst those which stand out most in the butter aisles of shops and supermarkets. On the packaging for Improper Butter there is a distinctive image of a Friesian cow licking its lips - and wearing an anchor earring.
"We want to be a modern butter brand," says Hannah O'Reilly, who is originally from Enniskillen and is the co-founder of Improper Butter. Along with her co-founder Elaine Lavery, Hannah strongly believes in the value of Irish butter - and in their ability to build a solid business on it.
Improper Butter sells flavoured Irish butters which are used for home cooking.
The original idea for the company was born in the French Alps when Elaine took a year out of college to work as a chalet chef in a ski resort.
When preparing food for the chalet guests, Elaine made herb butters and melted them on to steaks and other food.
"So flavoured butters were on Elaine's radar - but such butters hadn't really taken off in supermarkets here back then," says Hannah. "Flavoured butters are about limiting your time in the kitchen. They're a good convenient way of cooking great food."
When Elaine returned to Ireland from France in April 2013, she talked to her friend Hannah about the possibility of the duo setting up a business together to sell flavoured Irish butters.
Hannah, a gifted singer, had also taken a year out after graduation to study music in the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin.
When Elaine returned home from France, Hannah was considering interning in a music agency that summer - though she was having doubts about that career path.
"When Elaine spoke of getting into business together, it was an opportunity I couldn't turn down," says Hannah. "I had specialised in marketing in my final year in college. I thought it would be good to start something for ourselves."
And so in the summer of 2013, the pair set up Improper Butter.
"It was the right time for us to set up our company," says Hannah. "Before then, there had been a shift towards low fat spreads, but many people have questions about low fat spreads now - they're asking what's in the margarine or spread to make it low fat.
"People are now more into whole foods. Butter is massively back in fashion. Irish people are also more into cooking at home now.
"We saw from the times of the crash that people started to eat in more. There's been a shift in fashion - people are having dinner parties now when in college and this wouldn't typically have been done by students in my mother's day. There's a lot of interest in health and wellness today - and in a holistic approach to food."
The pair believed they could do something different with Irish butter. "We take the quality of our butter for granted here in Ireland," says Hannah. "My aunt had told me that in Sydney, you can buy a block of Cashel Blue or Dairygold butter for up to A$12 in independent stores there.
"Butter is one of the most exported things out of this country.
"Irish butter is treated as such a basic product here but it shouldn't be - and that's the reason we wanted to do something with it.
"When you walk through a supermarket, so many aisles have value-adds: milk, yoghurts and so on. Yet before we set up the company, no one was really doing any value-adds with butter."
The company's main products include garlic butter, garlic and chilli butter, and lightly seasalted butter. A 100g block of the butter typically sells for around €2.50, (£2.20) though prices vary depending on the stockist.
The pair initially sold their butter in farmers markets and they have since made inroads into SuperValu, BWG (which owns shops such as Spar), and independent stores such as Avoca and Donnybrook Fair. In Northern Ireland, it is sold in Spar and Eurospar through Henderson Wholesale.
"Improper Butter is a premium product and is targeted at people who are very interested in food," says Hannah.
"So we are not trying to appeal to a certain person of a certain age - our product is for people who want to spend their money on food."
Improper Butter also exports its butter to Bahrain - and to London. "We have our butter in a small chain of supermarkets in Bahrain," says Hannah.
"The demand for our butter there is coming from the expat market, who are looking for products from the British Isles. Irish butter has a good name abroad. It has a great shelf life so it travels well."
Although it's early days for the company, the duo would eventually like to export to France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.