How local family businesses got the recipe for success
Ahead of the Taste Northern Ireland Garden Party in Belfast this weekend, Marie Foy meets the Northern Ireland businesses that have passed on from generation to generation
Even in this era of competition from multi-nationals, family-run businesses remain the backbone of the Northern Ireland economy.
Many of those companies will be displaying their wares at the Taste Northern Ireland Garden Party being held in Belfast's Botanic Gardens this weekend.
We look at three such companies who have risen from humble beginnings to become household names in the highly competitive retail marketplace. They include the artisan bakers, who started in a small home-bakery and who now supply some of the UK's largest retailers.
Then there is the Italian ice-cream makers using a secret recipe handed down over the generations since the grandfather of the current owners first arrived on these shores, and the fruit packers and processors, who began selling in local markets and who have invested millions in new product lines and a new factory.
While delivering widely differing products, they believe there is a common recipe for success – the ability to respond quickly to changing customers demands and to identify market niches not served by the huge conglomerates.
The bonus for local communities is employment prospects as the firms expand and the use of locally sourced raw materials.
All of them will be tempting your taste buds at the Garden Party, jointly organised by Belfast City Council and Tesco on Saturday and Sunday.
Morelli's, the ice-cream makers
Daniela Morelli (30) and her brothers Marino (47) and Arnaldo (35) are carrying on the ice-cream business Morelli’s, which started in Co Antrim in the early 1900s when the family emigrated from Italy. She says:
The company celebrates its 100th anniversary next year. In 1911 an ice cream cone cost around sixpence, that’s 2 1/2p, now it costs £1. We started off with vanilla and later more flavours began to emerge like chocolate and strawberry, and maybe a raspberry ripple if you were lucky.
Our top ice creams are vanilla, honeycomb, strawberry, and mint and chocolate. We produce 40 flavours, all sourced in Italy. This year we brought out pistachio, made with pure Sicilian nuts. I think my favourite is Ferrero Rocher, it’s quite new but delicious. A lot of our customers have fond memories of holidaying in Portrush and Portstewart as children, and maybe they now bring their children to do the same thing. People around the North Coast are traditionalists and they often want a Knickerbocker Glory or hot fudge sundaes.
The family owns shops along the North Coast with our flagship shop in Portstewart, which is where we originated. We also have branches in Portrush and Coleraine.
There are franchises in Letterkenny, the Lisburn Road in Belfast and in Newcastle.
We also supply customers like Spar, hotels and restaurants, as well as Tesco.
I look after the marketing, Arnaldo runs operations from finance to production and Marino is in charge of transport and deliveries. Our father Guido, who is 75, is still very much in charge of developing new recipes. He has just invented a new sugar-free ice cream because he is a diabetic, so he can eat away at it.
I have two nieces, Natalia (21), who has just graduated in PR and marketing, and her sister Elena (19), they are in charge of the shop in Portrush which gives them a bit of experience.
I think the Garden Party helps make people aware of all the brands that we have here. We are bringing along an old-fashioned ice cream bicycle for the stand complete with umbrella.
This year we at Botanic we are holding a competition and the prize is a freezer which is full of ice cream which will be good news for someone.
There has never been an attempt to steal the family secret but we have been asked to sell it. The answer was NO!”
Genesis Breads, the home bakers
Brian McErlain (48) is managing director of Genesis Breads and runs the company along with the help of his five brothers, Adrian (49), John (46), Paul (44), Seamus (41) and Damian (33). They all live in Magherafelt where the company is based. Brian says:
Ours is a family business set up in 1968 by our parents, Joe and Roberta, as a small home bakery with door-to-door van sales. We were brought up baking. When I was 11 years old I used to get up at 5am and my job was to scale up all the mixes for the farls and wheaten bread. It was 35 years ago and I can still remember exactly all the weights.
We run the business but our parents — they’re 72 now — still come in every day and take an active interest.
They are what you might call the gofers, keeping themselves active and involved without the pressures.
The business has grown tremendously. We have 120 employees and produce high quality, craft bakery items. We make around 100,000 scones a week and the same in pancakes — that’s about 30 tonnes of flour.
We supply Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose across the UK and Ireland though 55% of our custom is in Northern Ireland.
We just started to supply Marks & Spencer in May and that has been a big event with us this year. One of the best sellers is the jam bake, a pack of four buns, which is being rolled out into 200 stores in the UK and 38 in Ireland.
We’ll have a range of all our products at the garden party. The last thing we brought out was wheaten bread for toasting, so we’ll be promoting that.
We’ve also launched big pancakes, 25% larger than the usual, in Tesco.
We often do demonstrations at our stands at big events. People love seeing the theatre of that. We show how it is done in the factory.
We are very much artisan — it is a craft product made by hand.
Other lines are no added sugar Wonder Wheaten, Soda Bagels, and Lemon and Raisin Pancakes.”
P McCann and Sons, the juice makers
Kevin McCann (19) is learning all about the family business of P McCann and Sons, packers and processors of apples, pears, pure apple juice and cider which is |produced at Carn Food Park, Portadown. He says:
The business was founded by my grandfather Patsy McCann in 1968 at the family farm at Loughgall, Co Armagh. He started by selling fruit and vegetables around doors and at markets. He moved into wholesale and went to St George’s Market in Belfast and Dublin Fruit and Vegetable Market where we still have premises. It’s the main hub within Ireland of the wholesale side.
We use fruit we grow ourselves and also source food from 120 local growers who we have dealt with over 40 odd years.
My father Oliver is the managing director and runs the firm with his brother Peter, and my grandfather also still takes an active interest.
I am spending as much time as I can in each sector learning the business and am also doing a food science course at Loughry College.
Over the last 10 years we have made major investments in the company with a new state-of-the-art factory in Portadown where we make juice and cider.
We are still investing in the business and will have spent around £2m. Hopefully the building will be completed within the next year.
The drinks will run alongside the fruit — we are trying to build up both sides. We are only starting to push the latest lines and brand them now that they are being seen in all the major supermarkets.
Our ranges include McCann’s Harvest Pure Apple Juice as well as McCann’s Apple County Cider which has great potential.
There is a new orchard tree wall system, a new design which is vine–like. Where you could have 100 to 200 trees in an orchard this allows you to have 1,000 or more. It will allow increased quality as well as more tonnage for growers. We are leading the way with this and are looking into new apple varieties as well as plums and pears.
We are now blending apple juice with various berries and vegetable extracts such as pear, cranberry, carrot, blackberry and blueberry, and are looking towards the US market under the McCann’s Irish brand.
I’m looking forward to the Garden Party. Thousands of people came last year – it was really warm weather which pulled the crowds. Even if it isn’t as good this year, we will be covered by a marquee.
We want to give people a taste of our new lines and I’m positive they’ll go down extremely well.”
Taste Northern Ireland Garden Party, Botanic Gardens, Belfast, Saturday and Sunday, 11am-6pm