Belfast Telegraph

'I'd love it if the company became a household brand'

Small business can

By Lisa Smyth

There can't be many people who can say a bout of severe food poisoning has led to a new career. But for 36-year-old Kelly Neill that is exactly what did happen when she fell ill.

The mum of one from Saintfield, Co Down, said water kefir helped her digestive system recover from the food poisoning and she started to make a variety of flavoured, healthy drinks for family and friends.

They were so popular that just over one year ago she decided to leave her job - working in business development for SureSkills - to start up Panacea Drinks.

"Kefir water has been around for a long time - thousands of years, if not longer - but it's starting to come back in popularity now," she said.

"I don't actually remember exactly where I read about it, but it was after I had really bad food poisoning and after that my digestive system was completely shot to pieces.

"The only thing I found that helped me was cutting out dairy and taking a probiotic in pill form," she added.

"I didn't want to take it in drink like Yakult or Actimel because of the dairy and I just sort of came across water kefir, which is full of natural, good bacteria and yeasts, but is low in sugar."

Kelly was able to order the grains for the water kefir online and started out making the drinks in her kitchen.

"Friends and friends of friends wanted to pay money for them," she added.

"At the start we used figs and raisins and lemon and would put in fresh fruit, like blueberries.

"We can't do that now because of health and safety, everything is very different when you're doing things on the scale we're working in now."

Kelly said she loved working for Sure Skills, but a turning point came when she secured a place on the Propel programme, which is run by Invest NI.

"I decided that if they believed in me, then I should believe in myself," she said. "It was daunting to leave a steady salary and a job that I was good at, but I really love what I'm doing now.

"I had never thought about setting up my own business, although when I look back now I can see that I was always interested in it.

"I had a car washing business in my summer holidays and I got a job as soon as I was 16 and paid my way through my A-levels and university and got a job as soon as I graduated.

"I don't know why I didn't consider working for myself from a younger age, plus there is so much assistance out there for people in Northern Ireland wanting to set up their own business.

"There is so much help for people to build and sustain business."

With the decision to set up Panacea Drinks came the decision to move out of her kitchen.

Kelly opted against opening up her own factory.

"It would cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, to do that," she said.

"We decided to go for a manufacturer and we pay to use their equipment.

"It suits our flexibility of scale as well, because if we want to change the size of the bottle or make lots of different flavours we don't have to invest a lot of money to do that.

She added: "It's a very common way to do it when you're starting out, because you don't have the upfront cost of setting up a factory; it makes total business sense."

When she was producing the drinks in her kitchen, Kelly was making 75 litres.

She is now turning out 1,000 litres, which makes 4,000 bottles, at a time.

Panacea Drinks is currently stocked by independent retailers, but Kelly would like to expand.

However, she said that increasing brand awareness and educating retailers and consumers about the benefits of water kefir will be crucial in achieving this.

Currently selling in Northern Ireland, the company has recently signed up with two distribution companies to help them move into the drinks market elsewhere in the UK and Ireland.

"We're looking at taking on someone who can help with things like responding to Facebook and email inquiries," she said.

"We get all sorts of questions, such as how long a person should be drinking the drinks for.

"I really need someone to help me with this, because it is so much work for just one person to do.

"Then I want to look at taking on a marketing manager, because that is where the bulk of our money should be going in the coming months.

"By next year I would like to have a good wee team working with me.

"At the moment, we are stocked in smaller, independent retailers and cafes, but that's not to say that if Tesco or Sainsbury's came along we wouldn't stock them too.

"I would like Panacea Drinks to become a mainstream, well-known brand, a household name in the next three to five years.

"But ultimately, I would like the company to get to the stage where I could hand it over to someone else, who could make it something bigger and better than I ever could."

Belfast Telegraph