Ulster Grocer

| 7.8°C Belfast

A family affair

For Castlewellan family firm TS Foods, a focus on consumer demand & guiding principle of only selling products they would happily eat is a recipe for success, Managing Director Joanne Molloy tells Alyson Magee

Close

Joanne Molloy, managing director of TS Foods.

Joanne Molloy, managing director of TS Foods.

Joanne Molloy, managing director of TS Foods.

TS Foods was established in 1978 when Tony and Ann Steele identified a gap in the market to adapt products from their popular fish and chip shop, The Dolphin in Castlewellan, for retail sale.

Their successful first launch, the Chip Shop Pastie, was soon expanded into the Tony’s Chippy range, while another market gap was filled in 1983 with the addition of TS Foods’ award-winning stuffing range.

Now managed by the couple’s daughter Joanne Molloy and son David Steele, TS Foods is posting double-digit growth, driven by the success of its Tony’s Chippy, Ann’s Kitchen and TS Foods Chicken, breadcrumb and stuffing lines. In the last year, the business has secured £1m in new listings. TS Foods also produces own-label products for major retailers in NI, GB and ROI.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR PRODUCTION SITE & WORKFORCE?

We’re in the middle of Castlewellan and it’s a compact site but it works. We’ve extended it over the years, reinvesting in the premises and securing any buildings that became available close to us. We’ve just completed an extension, expanding our production and refrigeration space in time for Christmas.

We normally sit at around 110 employees but would have 120 now as we take on a team of people in the build up to Christmas, with stuffing obviously a huge part of our business.

We have a largely local workforce which is quite unusual in the sector and many of our colleagues have been with us for a long time. We took a conscious decision to carry 10% extra staff during most of the lockdown, which was a big cost to the business, but it did pay dividends because we were able to keep going if we had any absences.

Our plan is to maintain the talent we have by offering people development opportunities, so our people know we value them and want to invest in them.

HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED IN YOUR FAMILY BUSINESS?

I came in as general manager in December 2007 and gave it a year to see how it would go with no commitment either way, but here we are 14 years later so it worked for everybody. David and I both joined at the same time. We were in jobs we didn’t feel were fulfilling us and had been looking for a business to buy together but, as it happened, mum and dad needed help with their business. My son has also joined the business in the last year, as an apprentice engineer working four days a week and studying one day at university.

WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO REBRAND THE TONY’S CHIPPY LINE?

It was something we talked about a lot and felt it was the right time to do it. The brand has had a lot of success in the last three years, expanding into Scotland and other new markets, and we felt it needed an update. Invest NI supported us with a Growth Accelerator Programme grant.

We’re very pleased with the look and think it has achieved our aim of modernising the brand while retaining a nod to its heritage with the blue gingham of the old packaging.

Some of the new products we’re bringing out are with a younger consumer in mind and offer an alternative to takeaways with snack boxes and spice boxes which are huge in southern Ireland.

In Northern Ireland we have two Munchie Box products in Tesco, similar to the spice boxes, and they’re doing well.

We have a new regional product for Scotland we’re launching in quarter one of 2022 at the request of a retailer. A lot of our products are in tempura batter which the Scottish market seems to like. Our Haggis Bites have been a real success, much more than we ever anticipated and we now have multiple listings for them.

WHAT IS DRIVING THE STRONG GROWTH IN TS FOODS’ CHICKEN LINES?

We’re blown away by the success of our chicken lines. We launched them with Tesco NI, starting off with two flavours. We’ve now got four variants and they’re among Tesco’s best-selling lines in the category.

The product is available as an exceptional value 1kg bag, certainly in my house, that will do three or four dinners. And then there’s just the convenience of cooking from frozen. If you come in and realise you haven’t taken anything out of the freezer, you can have chicken in a wrap or with another accompaniment, ready in 20 minutes.

Our chicken lines are produced from whole muscle, whereas most branded chicken products are minced, chopped or reformed, so it’s quite unique and you’re getting quality you would expect in a café or restaurant at home.

We’ve invested in rebranding our chicken lines too, creating individual packs for each of the variants with their own themes and we’re hoping that will attract new customers as well.

We use a lot of consumer research, in collaboration with Invest NI, when developing NPD. One thing I’m always mindful of is we have to be led by the consumer, not off-the-cuff ideas or me-too products. We want to see a gap, identify a customer need, and develop products to fit that need.

HOW IS TS FOODS’ READY-TO-COOK RANGE ANN’S KITCHEN PERFORMING?

An opportunity arose for the brand due to Brexit and the Protocol. In a very short time, we were able to launch the Ann’s Kitchen ready-to-cook chicken range. The range is available in the chilled aisle of Tesco stores, has been very well received with sales performing very well and a lot of repeat purchases, so people are happy with the quality. As a family, we wouldn’t sell anything we wouldn’t be happy to eat and that’s always been a guiding principle for us.

HOW IS TS FOODS COPING WITH THE HIKES IN RAW MATERIAL & ENERGY COSTS?

I have been in the business 14 years now and remember we had huge inflation in some areas in 2012, but we’ve never seen anything like this. Our energy bill is more than double what it was this time last year. Our consumption has come down, because we’ve introduced a lot of efficiencies, but the increase in the price per unit is unprecedented.

With raw materials, an 18-24% increase now seems to be the norm and that’s ok with maybe one commodity, but not when it’s across all the ingredients and packaging. Unfortunately, while we work to make cost-cuts and efficiencies where possible, it is unavoidable consumers are ultimately going to have to pay more for food.

DOES THE BUSINESS HAVE ANY FURTHER DEVELOPMENT PLANS FOR 2022?

We’ve set up a team internally to look at environmental issues. The bigger retailers are both supportive and demanding in their expectations from suppliers, and we can see it is going to become the new norm to set targets and milestones.

We’re at the design stage of modernising our website to bring to the fore the values and heritage of the company, and it should be ready for launch in early 2022.

We also want to do some design work on the TS Foods’ stuffing brand in 2022 and have some product innovation in the pipeline for both foodservice and retail.

I often say we’re only as good as the person least engaged in the business, so a happy and engaged workforce is key to the success of our business. We want to produce excellent products that our consumers will love. We are a family business, which is very much part of the local community, and this is important to us.

David and I are very proud to have inherited the business we did and to have been able to grow it. We’ve more than doubled the size of the business in our tenure and feel there’s more headroom to keep growing.

AWARDS SUCCESS FOR TS FOODS

Recent accolades include:

• November 2021: Irish Quality Food Awards - gold for Aldi Specially Selected Cranberry, Apricot & Orange Stuffing and Smoked Bacon & Leek Stuffing.

• October 2021: Energia Family Business Awards - silver for Family Food & Drink Producer of the Year

• October 2021: Great Taste - four TS Foods products awarded one star (Savoury Breadcrumb Stuffing, Premium Sage & Onion Stuffing, Premium Smoked Bacon & Leek Stuffing and Aldi Specially Selected Cranberry, Apricot & Orange Stuffing)

• October 2021: Blas na hÉireann - gold for Tesco Finest Cranberry, Apricot & Clementine

• October 2020: CIPD NI SME of the Year


Privacy