Healthy food guru turned down £37k on Dragon's Den to launch business with wow factor
Losing four stone and learning to enjoy keeping fit inspired South Armagh mum Karen Daly's new range of meat products
Glamorous Karen Daly lost four stone in eight months - without doing any exercise. Although she's now into hiking and swimming, the south Armagh entrepreneur's method at the time was healthy eating and Slimming World membership. But throughout her weight management journey in 2008, she struggled to find good quality, high protein foods to support her healthy lifestyle.
So, having a background in sales, Karen (39) decided to create her own Slender Choice range, which won a £37,000 investment on the Irish version of Dragon's Den. As the cash injection would have cost Karen a 45% share in her company, she decided against the Dragon's deal in the end, and has now just launched her new WOW range of high-protein, gluten-free, low-sugar and low-fat foods.
"Dragon's Den was nerve-wracking and stressful but it was great exposure and PR we couldn't afford at the time," says Karen, en route to our photo-shoot. "The 45% equity they wanted would have meant giving away almost half the company, so we didn't go for it, but the business took off after that. Pitching to retailers was no problem after having to do it in front of a nation."
For the WOW range, Karen and her husband Frank have joined forces with global food producer Karro and local butcher McGee's to create delicious sausages, burgers, meatballs and stir-fry chicken dishes which are convenient, quick to prepare and healthy. Available in McGee's butchers and in supermarkets across Northern Ireland, the range includes the already popular sweet chilli and garlic sausages (£2.29 in Asda), with only 2% fat and 46 calories, and burgers (£2.49) with only 122 calories and 3% fat. (Turkey sausages are £2.99; chicken arrabiata and stir fries, £3.99, and meatballs, £4.29).
But how can they be tasty with all that fat taken out, and with no sugar or gluten?
"We use the leanest parts of the animal, so our mince is fillet steak and our sausages are from pork fillet," says Karen, agreeing that makes the products more expensive to produce.
"It's high quality meat but it's a premium product without being over-priced."
A mother of two, Karen is in her final year of a Masters in Weight Management and has an informative blog at www.eatwow.com. Although her food range is gluten-free, she wouldn't go to the demonising lengths of model Rosanna Davison, who was quoted as saying that going gluten-free helped her husband Wes Quirke combat back pain and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, and appeared to back research linking gluten to autism spectrum disorders and schizophrenia.
"The problem is that we eat too much gluten in the form of processed foods that are too readily available at all times," she explains. "You should wake up hungry for your breakfast - literally having broken your fast. Our focus is on eating the way people did 40 or 50 years ago - unprocessed. Gluten can come from natural sources such as grains and wheat, too. I believe in everything in moderation; if you have a couple of slices of toast in the morning, you can walk it off in the afternoon."
Karen's weight gain started in college with a poor student diet of junk food and pots of pasta with a jar of sauce on top, and crept up two stone through bad habits and a total absence of exercise. After she had her first son, Aaron (7), more pounds piled on, and suddenly that two stone extra had increased to four.
She joined Slimming World and used the bulk of her maternity leave from her recruitment job to put all of her energy into minding Aaron and eating properly. In eight months, she had lost every ounce of that four stone, entirely through managing her food.
"I became hyper aware of everything we put into our bodies from then on," she recalls. "Food shopping is something most busy people do in a rush. When I started to take time and make healthy choices in the supermarket, I found all the low-calorie, sin-free promises on diet foods confusing, if not sometimes misleading. As I became more educated in ingredients, I found reading the information on the back of some products just shattered my trust in how much nutrition they provided and what hidden fats and sugars were in there.
"So, myself and Frank started talking about how we could fill that gap in the market and night after night of chatting led us to this crazy idea of setting up our own business and creating our own brand."
Around the same time, Karen was six months' pregnant with her second child, Jamie, now 4. Frank left his job as an electronics sales manager and, from a makeshift office in their Mullaghbawn home, they spent a year working on plans, recipes, and finding people and companies to work with, before their Slender Choice products were actually launched.
Karen says: "What really helped us get off the ground was both sets of grandparents. When Frank and I got married, we had the foresight to build our house halfway between my family home and his. Without their regular babysitting and general help, we would have been lost."
The Dalys have since sold their Slender Choice brand to Karro Foods, their co-partners in the WOW range.
"It's hectic at the minute - most days I'm out of bed at about 7am, and myself and Frank take it in turns to get the kids up, fed and dressed while the other heads straight to our office for about 8am. We somehow manage to keep our own unique system of organised chaos going and going well.
"Most couples come home and fill each other in on how work was for each of them that day - we don't have to do that, and as we are both working towards one common goal for our family, it makes a big difference to the drive we have to succeed.
"There have been struggles over the last five years, of course, when money was tight and we were under pressure. We often joked we were like that couple in Father Ted, killing each other in private but the personification of marital bliss as soon as we walked into a meeting."
Karen has maintained her weight loss by filling up on three lean, high-protein meals a day and 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a week, including fitness DVDs when the weather's too bad for a good walk.
"It was only when I realised that the heart is our biggest muscle and that we need cardiovascular for our heart, that I got into exercise," she says. "I only ever thought of exercising for losing a few pounds' weight before.
"Avoiding sugar is very important, too. I really do believe it is the most toxic substance in the modern diet.
"I do, of course, still allow myself the odd indulgence, though, in the form of a glass or two of white wine. I know some people struggle to maintain weight loss but I have found there's always some external motivation on the calendar that gives me reason to want to stay slim - be it a wedding we're going to, or an upcoming beach holiday. Motivation is the key. Giving into temptation is one of the flaws of human nature - but so too is vanity.
"Mind-over-matter and taking a positive attitude to the delicious non-fattening foods you can eat is what really helped me."
A typical day's diet for Karen
Breakfast: "I either have two boiled eggs or I eat some of my own homemade granola, which is delicious. It's very simple to make. You just take porridge oats, pecan nuts, almonds, flaxseed and sunflower seed, bind them together with maple syrup and sprinkle the mixture with cinnamon. Put that in the oven for 10 minutes and then use it as you need it during the week, mixed in with yogurt for example as a delicious and nutritious breakfast."
Lunch: "I usually have soup or if I'm on the road, I drop into a deli and just get some salad stuff. If I get peckish between meals, I have a banana or an apple."
Dinner: "We might have bacon and cabbage, or salmon with potato and veg. It might seem old-fashioned but simple meals like that sustained generations who didn't have the obesity problems we have now, so there is a lot to be said for it."