Cloughbane Farm Foods: ‘It has not been easy... but now we are ready for even more expansion’
Cloughbane Farm Foods Ltd produces and sells 30,000 ready-made meals each week which can be found on the shelves of all of the UK's major supermarkets.
It's a phenomenal achievement for a business that started out as a small farm diversification project, but it almost ceased to exist after planners refused to give the green light to expansion plans.
Lorna Robinson (61), who set up the business at the family farm in Pomeroy, Co Tyrone, in 2003, says: "I couldn't believe it when I got the phone call.
"The business was doing so well and we wanted to expand our premises but the planners kept saying no to everything.
"Then one day, they rang up and asked why we couldn't just do the cooking up on the first floor of an existing building.
"It would have meant going up and down stone steps, we wouldn't have been able to get all the equipment up there.
"I said to them that I was going to go and tell my 10 staff at the time that we were going to close the business down - it was totally ridiculous.
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"I was standing there crying, we'd ordered all the equipment, we were expecting to get planning approval and then this happened.
"They rang back five minutes later and asked for me, my son and the architect to meet them first thing in the morning."
While Lorna managed to convince planners to approve plans, it ultimately cost the business £200,000 and set back expansion by five years.
"We got approval for smaller plans, but it slowed everything down," she says.
"I think it's a total disgrace that the planning authority can have such power to prevent businesses from growing.
"I don't think anyone could ever imagine how the planners treated us.
"We're a business, we're employers and people rely on us to be able to pay their bills and their mortgage.
"We have to constantly think about its future, so it was very frustrating."
In spite of the setbacks, however, the business has gone from strength to strength since it started out in 2003.
It began when Lorna was asked to participate in a farmers' market that was being set up in a local branch of Tesco.
Such was the demand for the beef and lamb reared at the family's 180-acre farm that she subsequently decided to open a farm shop.
Then in 2006, Lorna began to make a small number of ready meals in the farmhouse kitchen as a way of using up leftover cuts of meat.
"To begin with, the farm shop was open on a Thursday and Friday afternoon and all day Saturday," continues Lorna.
"I was doing a marketing and finance course at the time so that helped me with making leaflets that helped to promote what we would be doing next.
"I was really surprised by how well the business did and setting up our own cutting room seemed like the natural progression.
"We were able to buy second-hand equipment so the initial set up was under £2,000, so it wasn't a big risk.
"We had to make sure our product was the best that it could be because we are so far out so it had to be worth people making the effort to come out to the shop, so we put a lot of emphasis on the product.
"We sold 28-day matured beef, which not a lot of people were doing back then, and we also promoted the experience of coming out to the countryside as well."
She adds: "I was amazed at how well we did, it was back in the days before social media but we had people coming from Belfast and Enniskillen to buy our meat."
Demand for their products has continued to drive the business over the years.
Lorna originally began producing ready meals, including steak and mushroom and savoury mince pie, and started to sell them in local shops.
"I remember that feeling of people taking our produce when no one knew the brand," she says.
Afterwards, retailers approached Lorna asking her to stock her products in their shops.
The company, which currently employs 46 people, now sells products in Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda, Henderson Group stores, Musgrave shops and Ocado and they also have an online presence themselves.
"It's one thing getting into the supermarkets, it's another thing staying there, you have to work really hard," says Lorna.
"It can be very tough on price, but I never give them a price if it isn't going to keep the business sustainable.
"I would walk away before I would do that, there's no point in doing that out of a feeling of pride for seeing your product in the shop because I have wages to pay."
Over the years, they have also developed vegan and a children's range as Lorna remains committed to staying ahead of the competition.
With the success has come the requirement to expand and throughout it all she has had unwavering support from her husband Sam.
"We were starting to expand when the recession was really taking hold and banks weren't just handing out loans," she explains.
"We had to secure finance against the farm, but my husband has always believed in me and he said it wouldn't be the end of the world if we had to sell some land.
"The farm has been in the family for five generations and for most farmers selling land is the end of the world, so his support has meant so much to me.
"We do have plans to grow further but they have been set back by the collapse of Stormont because grants we need aren't available, but eventually we hope to grow our premises from 15,000 ft to 30,000 ft.
"It hasn't been easy over the years, especially when you're a woman you have a mentality that you have to do it all, but I would say that you should take help where you can get it.
"If you're going to be out working every hour, then you should take help in the house if needs be.
"Most importantly, however, you shouldn't forget family and friends.
"Business does have to come first a lot of the time, but you shouldn't forget your family.