How setbacks for the farming world led one woman to make a go of her meringue business
Ahead of the Balmoral Show from May 15 to 18, exhibitor Catherine Finnegan tells Lisa Smyth about how her business emerged from adversity
Sometimes a business is borne out of necessity and that is the case for The Fluffy Meringue. Established by Catherine Daly Finnegan to supplement the income of the family farm in Co Tyrone, it is now a thriving home bakery that supplies shops around Northern Ireland and the Republic.
In addition to stocking retailers, Catherine also caters events such as weddings and attends regular speciality markets, and is currently preparing for this year's Balmoral Show.
She will be one of many exhibitors who'll take pride of place at the agricultural extravaganza later this month, including those showcasing their produce at the Food NI Pavilion.
The Fluffy Meringue is also one of a number of food firms taking part in the show's first ever food trail.
While the final number of meringues she will bake for the event is still undecided, it will run into hundreds and will include a selection of some of her most popular flavoured meringues.
It is a far cry from the inception of the business, which started out almost two decades ago in the kitchen of the family home in Tullybroom, outside Clogher.
Catherine had always baked at home, but the BSE and foot and mouth outbreaks forced her to turn to a hobby to help support her family.
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She explains: "The Fluffy Meringue has been going since 2000.
"Basically, we are here in the heart of Clogher and historically we have always been beef farmers, but I suppose with BSE and foot and mouth, we had to look at other ways of making a living and realised that, like many farmers, we had to diversify.
"I decided I would do a bit of home baking and it really took off from there.
"I'm not professionally trained, I would have done bits and pieces at home and the business started off very small but expanded quite quickly and we went from there.
"I started out making breads and scones which were sold by local shops."
For someone with no marketing and sales experience, Catherine had to take the courageous step of finding retailers willing to stock her produce.
She adds: "I remember approaching the owner of one shop and I was very nervous.
"I was thinking they would never want to sell anything like my breads and scones.
"It was 1998 or 1999 at the time and home baking and artisan baking weren't popular like they are now, but a number of shops agreed to take some of my products and we went from there.
"We're obviously a lot bigger now than when we started out, but I still consider myself as an artisan home baker.
"Most bakeries will have maybe 50 to 100 lines, but I didn't want to go down that road.
"Pavlovas were always my speciality and of course, I do other things when requested, but meringues are definitely the biggest part of my business.
"I do think programmes like The Great British Bake Off has made home baking much more popular and people are a lot more interested in what goes into products and how they are created."
It is for this reason that Catherine, who has five children aged between 16 and 26, regularly attends a number of farmers markets.
Not only does it help her raise the profile of her business, but it also allows customers to talk to her directly and find out more about the items they are buying.
"I think that is so important and it's a side that I really enjoy as well," she says.
"People are definitely starting to appreciate food more and I do the Causeway Speciality Market once a month and Monaghan Farmers Market every Friday.
"They are fantastic, I do breads, scones and cakes for the markets and the customers can meet me. I think they do like that they know a bit more about where the products come from."
As the business grew and became increasingly popular, Catherine realised she could no longer operate out of her kitchen.
She was able to apply for a diversification grant and in 2006, a purpose-built bakery was constructed on the farm.
Not only has this allowed her to increase the volume of produce, it also enables her to meet strict health and safety hygiene standards more easily.
In particular, it allows her to ensure all the meringues she creates are gluten-free.
"This is something I have done by design. I don't make the meringues gluten-free, they are gluten-free by the very fact of the recipe," she explains.
"Basically, I use two ingredients in my meringues, egg whites and sugar, so that means they are gluten-free.
"So many people don't have any awareness of allergens, so labelling is a big part of the business and it's important that ingredients are displayed clearly on our products.
"The beauty of building a kitchen from scratch is that I have been able to design it so that it meets all the standards that are required of a business that produces food."
Working in a kitchen so close to her house, however, has its downfalls.
"I can get to the kitchen very quickly, but it also means I am more likely to just run over and spend hours there," she says.
Over the years, Catherine has developed a range of flavoured meringues, with salted caramel, chocolate orange, marshmallow chocolate, and pistachio and elderflower among the most popular. The success of the business has also meant that Catherine now works with a distribution company based in Sprucefield.
"We've been working with them for about five years," she says. "Up until that point it was my husband Patrick who delivered the products in a van.
"It just made financial sense for us to start and use a distribution company."
In just over one week, Catherine will return to the Balmoral Show for the first time in four years.
So, her attention is currently devoted to making sure she is ready for the thousands of people who will visit her stall.
"I have no idea how many meringues I will need," she says. "I'm still trying to work that out and it's a lot of work but events like Balmoral are so important to a business like mine."
So, what has Catherine learned over her many years as a home baker?
One of the most important lessons has been understanding the value of the produce she creates.
"I did find pricing difficult when I started out," she says.
"Most people appreciate the price of home bakery produce but it can be a bit of a challenge.
"For example, most people know how much a pint of milk costs but they don't think about why it costs what it costs, they don't think about how the farmer milks the cows, how the milk is transported to a processing plant - they just see it as a finished product in the shop.
"It's the same with what I do and there are more people who like to bake themselves these days, but they've been busy at work all week and the last thing they want to do when they get home is starting baking.
"That's where I come in."
However, probably the most important lesson she has learned over the years is the importance of finding your niche.
"The night before we started in the new bakery is the time when I definitely felt like I had taken on too much," Catherine says.
"But I got over that.
"I think what is most important in business is to find out what you're good at and stick to it.
"I do get quite a few orders through Facebook to do celebration cakes and people have used me for weddings and things like that.
"But, first and foremost, I make meringues and I am good at that."