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Two firms who are taking a bite out of the food market

Seeing a pregnant woman beg for a drink inspired Colin Mackey to set up Mango Street in Belfast, while Gerald Miller in Limavady, Co Londonderry really knows his onions

Published 29/09/2015

Boss Colin hopes to expand the company
Boss Colin hopes to expand the company
Colin Mackey with one of his juices
Onion producer Gerald Miller on his 440-acre farm at Myroe outside Limavady, Co Londonderry
Gerald’s wife Irene with a selection of their products

Colin Mackey was on holiday in Las Vegas when the sight of a heavily pregnant woman begging for a drink spurred him on to start Mango Street. The fledgling business, based in south Belfast, produces cold-pressed juice from locally sourced fruit - with all the profits going to charity. Colin (31) is a rare breed in the business world. He studied media at university but is now working as a web designer while building up Mango Street.

"I haven't given myself a wage yet," he said. "I'm supporting myself through my web design work at the moment."

Mango Street has came about as a result of coincidence and circumstance.

During a trip to Las Vegas, Colin was struck by the desperation of a heavily pregnant woman in the soaring temperatures.

"It was a sweltering dry heat - you couldn't get a breath and all she wanted was a drink of water," he said.

"She looked like she was ready to drop. You see that level of poverty in the face of such excess all around you, and it really made me want to do something to help."

Self-employed Colin decided he would start up a social enterprise.

"I really wanted to start my own business and I was into juicing myself, so I thought I could do something with that," he said.

"I have developed the recipes myself and we have five flavours so far.

"I want to establish the brand before bringing out more flavours and the smoothies and shots as well."

Colin had no experience of starting up any kind of business - never mind a social enterprise - but he has not allowed that to stand in his way.

With his experience in Las Vegas seared into his mind, he is determined that homeless charities and food bank organisations in Belfast will benefit from his business venture.

He spent 10 or 11 months carrying out market research and developing his brand, and was forced to rename the company after he was contacted by a US company with a similar title.

Still, he said that had all been part of the learning curve.

Colin has secured the premises where he produces his range of juices rent and rate-free for the next six months.

He is currently turning part of the building into a customer-facing unit, where people will be able to enjoy his products indoors at their leisure.

"That will have a limited opening at the start until we get up and running," he said. "My premises are right below the offices of the South Belfast Social Enterprise Hub, and to begin with I thought that it would be far too big. But once I got everything inside, I thought that I could actually do with a bit more space.

"At the moment, we sell at St George's Market, but I have been talking to cafes and other places in south Belfast about stocking my juices.

"So far, I have been getting the ingredients from a guy at St George's Market, but as we expand I am looking for a wholesaler.

"I also plan to have a pay-it-forward scheme in my own juice bar, where the customers who buy the juices can leave a message on a board.

"I will count them all up at the end of the week, and once a month I will make up that number of juices and then deliver them to one of the local homeless shelters. It's all about helping people in poverty to be healthy as well.

"As we grow, I am looking to take on some people to help because, at the moment, I am doing everything myself and it can be tough.

"This will be done on a voluntary basis to begin with, but ultimately the company will have to make a profit."

Even though Colin does not have a business plan in place at present, he has high hopes for Mango Street.

"My ultimate dream would be for it to become a franchise," he said.

"There's no reason why, if it works in south Belfast, it can't work in Glasgow or Manchester.

"I really want to develop this social enterprise and help people in need.

"Most of us are so close to losing our homes. All it takes is a couple of months.

"If I can make a success of this, there would be so much potential, because there are lot bigger and better people out there than me who can make a massive difference.

"Business does not have to be just about profit. Well, of course profit is important, but at the same time what you do can make a real difference."

‘You have got to take a risk in life’

Seeing a pregnant woman beg for a drink inspired Colin Mackey to set up Mango Street in Belfast, while  Gerald Miller in Limavady, Co Londonderry really knows his onions

Prepare for failure — that is the business advice from the man behind the biggest onion producer in Northern Ireland. Gerald Miller set up Milgro in 1989 and now supplies all the major retailers in the province, with plans under way to expand into mainland UK and Ireland. But the success of his business has not come easy.

He has spent more than 25 years growing onions at his 440-acre farm on the outskirts of Limavady, Co Londonderry, after taking the decision to diversify from crops such as wheat and barley.

“We just thought we would give it a try in the beginning and see how it went,” he said.

“We definitely had a lot to learn in the beginning and we made plenty of mistakes at the start.

“It took a long time to get a handle on how best to grow and dry the onions to produce the best quality, but we got there and now we’re known as ‘the onion people’.

“The onions are harvested in the field and brought in to the shed where air is blown through them at 28 degrees.

“That would be important to make sure they don’t go black in places so they can be sold as premium onions.

“Anything that isn’t regarded as premium either goes into value packs or we sell to processors who chop them up.”

In the early days, the Millers grew and harvested just enough onions to sell at markets in Belfast.

But Gerald was determined that the growth of onions would become the main source of income for the farm, so he approached supermarket chains, such as Wellworths and Stewarts.

It was a move that has paid off.

As their reputation as a producer of quality onions grew, they were approached by Sainsbury’s when the chain arrived in Northern Ireland.

However, it is not possible to grow enough onions to satisfy the demand from major retailers 12 months a year.

Firstly, the onions grown at Milgro’s Myroe farm are harvested once a year, so Gerald had to look further afield to source onions to supply supermarket chains all year round.

The solution came by working with a number of other onion suppliers in Northern Ireland and they now have a working relationship with farmers in New Zealand.

And, of course, farmers are very much at the mercy of the weather and no amount of knowledge or skill can save a crop if there is too much, or not enough rainfall.

“There are no excuses in this business, we need to supply 12 months a year, end of story, and if you can’t do that it is the end of the business,” said Gerald.

“We work closely with a farmer in Cambridgeshire and that has been developed over the last 15 years.

“They have a good farming ethic and dedicate their time to growing onions for us.

“The onions are grown and dried there and brought to us where they are kept in cold storage for distribution.”

Milgro has also recently started to produce tobacco onions — as a way of using onions that do not make the premium grade.

“There is absolutely nothing wrong with the onions, apart from the appearance, so once you take off the skin the onion below is perfect,” he said.

“We cook the onion and pack the onion on the farm and distribute it ourselves to the likes of Tesco.

“One of my sons is in charge of developing that and we’re looking at producing different flavours, while my other son looks after the pack house.

“The factory for the tobacco onions was a £200,000 investment but you have to take a risk in life.

“I would say you have to expect and plan on disappointment because some things go wrong.

“But I would say you have to expect that and be able to have it covered if it does happen.”

Next week, Big Interview speaks to Lord Rana, founder and chairman of hotel and property firm Andras House

Belfast Telegraph

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