Belfast Telegraph

It can be a gradual process to start up alone

The man behind preserve Irish Black Butter and the co-founder of a recruitment firm on how they managed risk when deciding to set up businesses

Alastair Bell of Irish Black Butter with examples of his product
Alastair Bell of Irish Black Butter with examples of his product

Alastair Bell is proof that age is no barrier when it comes to business. He also demonstrates the extraordinarily varied path a person can take on the journey to becoming an entrepreneur.

In October 2017 he set up Irish Black Butter, which makes and sells black butter to retailers around the island of Ireland.

Alastair, who manages the business from his home in Portrush, Co Antrim, hopes to champion Northern Ireland using his product, which is made from local ingredients wherever possible.

He first became aware of black butter during a holiday to the Channel Islands. It's a traditional preserve made from a blend of apple, cider and spices that can be eaten on its own, as an accompaniment or used in a variety of recipes.

"It wasn't here in Northern Ireland full stop, you never saw it anywhere on this island," he says.

"I knew of its existence and I always thought it sounded interesting, but I never did anything about it."

However, an opportunity to develop his business idea came about quite by accident. "I had been working in the public sector and then in 2005 I launched the first model tractor show in Ireland. It has been running every year since and as a result of its popularity, I started up my own business customising and weathering farm toys and models.

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"As a result I ended up writing a book, Jake the Tractor.

"You can tell from the title that it isn't a psychological thriller - it's actually about one of my tractors.

"In writing the book it gave me time to develop my idea to make my own black butter."

Alastair, who is in his mid-50s, was also inspired by the massive surge in popularity in artisan food, further reinforced by the success of the 2016 Year and Food in Northern Ireland.

Alastair teamed up with award-winning chef, Paul Clarke, the managing director of En Place Foods at Cookstown, Co Tyrone, to create the perfect recipe for the very first Irish Black Butter product. "Historically, black butter is something made with apples and ciders and dates back to medieval times," he says.

"It was referred to in the 1800s, it was the poor person's butter, and ours is the modern-day interpretation.

"The product is vegan, it's vegetarian, it's dairy free, it's in the same family as other apple butters.

"We use Armagh Bramley Apples, which has EU Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), giving the product a core steeped in locality, quality and provenance.

"The Armagh Bramley has a rich heritage dating back hundreds of years and Armagh has long been recognised as the orchard county of Ireland."

He adds: "I think it was really important that we used the Armagh Bramleys for the ingredient as it gives it a kind of tradition that I think is important and what I want for the brand."

Building up the brand has also been crucial and Alastair worked hard to ensure the labelling reflected the origin of the product.

He also became a member of Food NI, which helped him to network and promote the product before it even went on sale.

"For me it has been very much about getting out there and doing markets, through the press and also through connections and word of mouth."

It was during a promotional photo shoot that Alastair made his very first sale. "I'll never forget it. The very first batch had arrived and we went down to the White Rocks in Portrush to do some photography and quite a few people came over to ask what we were doing.

"I was explaining what it was and the fact you couldn't buy it anywhere yet and one man said he would really like some, so I sold my first batch right there at White Rocks."

The black butter is made at En Place and the first order placed by Alastair was for 600 jars. He was delighted when he had to place a second order less than three weeks later.

"There was a risk getting the business up and running because there was a cost associated with the product development and design, although it wasn't a massive amount.

"There was also a lot of time went into the whole idea so it was a wonderful feeling to see the product in front of me and even better when I made my first sale.

"I didn't have any customers lined up when I made my first batch but I've been delighted with its success."

Alastair has been very deliberate in the retailers that stock the product.

"I wanted it to go into delis, butchers, independent retailers, farm shops," he says.

He has also found there has been an element of education required in marketing the product as not everyone is familiar with black butter.

To this end, he believes getting out, speaking to prospective customers face-to-face and giving them the opportunity to try Irish Black Butter is crucial.

He also wants Irish Black Butter to become synonymous with all that is good about the island of Ireland.

"It is on sale in all the popular tourist spots here," he says. "It's in Dublin and Belfast City and Belfast International airports, the local information centres, it's at the Titanic Centre.

"It is going to take a while to become the product that I want it to be. I want it to be something that people who come here take it home with them.

"I want it to be authentic and unique from this island, for it to be something great about the country because there has been so much negativity for so many years.

"I want to do something great that everyone can be proud of."

Alastair is hoping to expand the brand throughout the UK and beyond.

"I'm getting enquiries from Europe and the States," he adds.

"It's very exciting because I really do feel like I will be able to give something back.

"That's actually even more important to me, that I might be able to motivate or inspire someone else to start up their own business.

"I want people to look at me and think that if I did it, then they will be able to as well. I've no regrets about starting up my own business whatsoever.

"It's surpassed my expectations already, we've had about £40,000 in sales since we started and while that might not seem a huge amount, it's a lot of jars of a new product and I know it's only going to get bigger and bigger."

Belfast Telegraph

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