Belfast Telegraph

Family treat that became a cereal thriller

By John Mulgrew

When Jill Crawford was on maternity leave with her newly born bundle of joy Mya at her Portaferry home, she was also overseeing weeks of noisy building work on her new business.

The 38-year-old Lisburn woman set up the Just Live a Little granola business with her husband David, 42, back in 2012.

It's now grown from their Portaferry kitchen to the tables of some of Northern Ireland's top hotels - such as the Culloden - and the shelves of the big-name supermarket giants.

Married for six years and with two young children, Ollie (6) and Mya (4) (right, with husband David), it's been a tough couple of years getting the business to where it is now.

"David left his job, and in 2012 started full time baking. I was helping out part-time and at weekends, before leaving my job in February 2014."

And she was left caring for her newborn baby, while overseeing a building site out the back of their home - which would become their workshop.

"She was just born. I was on maternity leave when the building work began and I was in charge," she said.

"Maternity leave when the builders were out the back is not the most relaxing thing, but that's not really the way we do things - it just kind of happened."

They impressed hotel magnate Howard Hastings with the yoghurt and granola they sold at St George's Market - and now it's sold across Hastings Group's top hotels, and is now stocked in Tesco, Asda and Waitrose, among other smaller retailers.

And the Waitrose deal, which it secured in May, was a key milestone and turning point for the business.

It's also grown from just two products to more than a dozen.

And running a small business was all-encompassing. "You are literally doing everything - from production, finances to cleaning the loos," she said.

Now, it's doubled its production in the last year, with turnover set to reach £300,000.

"We were knocking on doors and connecting with people. We met with Cliff Kells of Tesco (the company's Northern Ireland commercial manager) and he really liked the product and took us in, and said they would give it a go and got behind it.

"It really makes it easier when you get one big supermarket behind you."

And the firm has grown its product line from just two, to over a dozen.

"We only had two lines at the start, but that then went to 13. We brought bars into the range and have artisan, mainline and children's granolas."

The move into self-employment wasn't an easy one for Ms Crawford - leaving a well-paid job with Business in the Community to take on her kitchen venture.

But she had the support from her family along the way.

"I think there's always a fear from the family when leaving a well paid job. But they have been supportive," she said.

"My nanna Masie is 90, and our best sales person - converting everyone."

"I was a community director at Business in the Community for eight years. I looked after all the school programmes, work experience, as well as community and voluntary projects.

"It was a big team, so this business is a complete culture shock."

And at least one of her young children seems to be taking an interest in the family trade.

"Ollie is keener than Mya. I think he'll be very keen and loves working with us. But I think Mya is going to end up a lady of leisure," she said.

And while the latest deals with some of the big supermarkets are welcomed, it can be a stressful business to be in.

"We are a small business, but we are dealing with the multiples and the same rules apply - it can be stressful.

"We are working together, living together and managing the cash flow - that can be stressful at times."

She says Just Live a Little's most popular products include its whole almond granola and yoghurt berry bars - lovingly made at their Portaferry home.

Her husband David Crawford began his foray into breakfast products working for Clandeboye Estate yoghurt, leaving his job in 2012 to start baking their signature granola full time.

"David's family have owned fruit shops and he has grown up around that. He did a diploma in speciality foods in Cork, that was about five years ago."

While there's not much down time for a husband and wife-run firm, Ms Crawford says they make space for family holidays, and the odd trip to east Belfast Italian eatery Il Pirata with their two young children.

"We are always holiday planning. We love to get away, and half the fun is planning the trips.

"We are going with the kids to Minorca for a week and we are huge fans of eating out. With the kids, it's Il Pirata, and Shu (on Belfast's Lisburn Road) when not."

"We have our hands full between the kids and the business. It's pretty full-on all the time.

"But I think it's good, that the kids know about it and understand work. Most nights we have to do things and they are well used to it, which is no bad thing. If they are off school they are normally doing deliveries with me."

And keeping it local, Ms Crawford sources as much as she can from the surrounding area.

"We source as much as we can locally - we get our apple sauce and our oats from Armagh," she said.

And while sales have now made their way onto the shelves of some of the UK's biggest retailers, the business is still based at their Portaferry home.

But expansion may not be far away.

"I guess we would look at outsourcing some of our production," she said.

"We have got future plans to expand into gluten free, and we also have plans for huge growth in the Republic. Just Live a Little has already launched into 70 SuperValu stores in the Republic. "When you look back, you realise the business is moving quite fast and we have achieved a lot in a small space of time."

The Big Interview

Q: Do you prefer the town or country, and why?

A: I like both. We enjoy living in the countryside where the kids have great freedom and we have a great garden for hide-and-seek. But I also love to get into the city and enjoy the buzz of city life every now and again.

Q: How was the Northern Ireland food sector changed during the past 10 years?

A: It has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. Granola is a good example of the change. Ten years ago, no one really knew what granola was or how to eat it. Now, it’s a mainstream product in the supermarket with lots of competition.

People are more interested in where their food has come from, and Northern Ireland has become renowned for providing quality food products that can seen on shelves around the world.

Q: How do you predict it will change in the next 10 years?

A: For us and for other food manufacturers from Northern Ireland, the world is increasingly a smaller place, which offers great opportunities for expansion and growth in emerging markets. Locally, there is increasingly a more specialist food market where consumers are looking for a range of healthy, gluten-free, natural products — a trend I think will continue to grow.

Q: Have you any career advice for anyone setting out in a niche sector in Northern Ireland food?

A: It’s really tough — be prepared, do as much research as you can before you start, and be realistic about how much money you think you will need to make your business a success because it’s probably double what you think it is. Surround yourself with positive people and get as much support as you can.

If you really believe in your idea, just keep working hard to make it a reality.

Q: What was the last book that you read, and what was it like?

A: Wild by Cheryl Strayed — a film has been made released, produced by and starring Reese Witherspoon. The book is about Cheryl’s journey of self-discovery while she hikes 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2012. It took me forever to finish it as I have hardly any time, but it was worth it. I am an avid Red magazine reader and look forward to it coming in the mail every month.

Q: What was your last holiday, and what will your next one be?

A: My last holiday was to Paris, and my next holiday is next week with the children to Menorca.

Q What is your favourite band/ album or piece of music, and why?

A: Ben Howard’s album Every Kingdom, in particular, Keep Your Head Up. I used to play it really loud when my children got up at the crack of dawn and it was dark and cold outside. It always cheered me up and reminded me to keep my head up.

Q: What is your favourite sport and/or team? And have you ever played any sports?

A: We love sport, and David is an avid rugby fan. Ollie is only six but loves running, so we enter plenty of fun runs together. It’s also fair to say I do a serious amount of trampolining in the front garden with Mya. I currently hold the seat drop record!

Belfast Telegraph