Sweet success: how three Northern Ireland sisters conquered the world with their fudge
As children, sisters Jenny Lowry, Cathy Johnston and Dorothy Bittles were inspired by their dad's love of making fudge - and now their Melting Pot operation is taking the world by storm. Linda Stewart hears their story
Next year marks the 30th since sisters Jenny Lowry, Cathy Johnston and Dorothy Bittles went into business together, first launching their hugely successful Salad Fare business before making the leap into fudge-making.
The three learned the basics of running a food business from their mum, Isobel, who blazed a trail when she launched one of Belfast's earliest delicatessens, Cargoes, initially a fixture on Bloomfield Avenue before it moved to the Lisburn Road.
They set up their own business, making salads that they sold to shops across Northern Ireland, and were looking for a new product after they sold the business. But it was their quantity surveyor dad, Patrick, who was the inspiration behind Melting Pot, with all three sisters nursing fond memories of making fudge with him as children.
They made the fudge in their kitchen for the first year, before buying premises attached to a church hall in Ballyhackamore - a building still fondly known locally as the Fudge Factory.
Now, 15 years on from launching their first fudge product, they produce and package a wide range of fudges from the Old Boiler House at Ballymacarrett Road and sell it throughout the world.
Cathy Johnston (53) is married to Niall (54), who works for Danske Bank, and they have three children, Kerry (26), James (24) and Conor (22).
Although she recalls baking as a youngster, she never planned to go into food production - in fact, she did a degree in social work at Queen's University.
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"When I left Queen's, I got a job in sales and I really enjoyed it. And I thought I would like to go into business - and it stemmed from that really. I knew that I wanted to work for myself quite early on," she says.
Cathy worked in her mum's shop as a child and says they noticed that there was a gap in the market for good quality salads.
"At that time really, Stewarts and Crazy Prices were the only supermarkets and there was no-one making commercial salads. Marks & Spencer might have done them, but there was only one shop in town. So if you wanted to buy salad during the week, there was nothing available," she says.
"So we started to sell into greengrocers, butchers and then into the Spars and that kind of thing.
"It was tricky at the time because I gave up quite a good medical job with my own car and a lot of money to go to very little money and no car, and I knew I was going to have to do that for a couple of years.
"I was on £50 a week for the first year! But that is part and parcel of it really - you reap the benefits eventually, but not initially. That's why it's nearly easier to start when you're young and you don't have any commitments and you can go back and live with your mum. It would be much harder to do if you were older and had dependants."
However, it only took a couple of years for the business to come together and prove a success. After a number of years, they decided to sell it and moved into something else with a better shelf life.
"Salads don't have a good shelf life, so we would have Christmas Day off and that was it - you couldn't make it in advance and plan ahead," Cathy explains.
She says she enjoys working with her sisters because it offers flexibility and all three are in charge. "So you don't feel as if you need to answer to anybody, which I think we all like," she says.
"We get on well, although we don't agree all the time. It's good that there are three of us because we often take votes and that makes it quite easy to make decisions. Either we all agree or we make a majority decision and we just run with that."
Cathy's daughter, Kerry, has also become involved - she works there a couple of days a week and also works at Orchardville charity.
"She did work here full-time, but I think she wanted to explore other things," Cathy says.
And she says the team are eyeing some new speciality flavours along the lines of the gin and tonic fudge that is already proving popular.
"It's something that we could do more of - speciality flavours at Christmas time, those sorts of things," she says.
Jenny Lowry (51) is married to Kevin (53), a medical rep, and they have three daughters — Jessica (24), Charlotte (22) and Emma (20).
“I wanted to be a private eye when I was growing up — I think I might have watched those sort of programmes,” she laughs.
“But I had an interest in business because my mum opened Cargoes on Bloomfield Avenue. As a teenager I used to work there and I saw my mum making bread, pates and salads for other businesses.
“So I went to university to do Business Studies. It was a very general degree and I could do what I wanted with it. When I came back I was working for Canon Photocopiers — it was paid commission only and you very quickly realise that the harder you work, the more money you earn.”
Jenny was around 22 when the sisters launched Salad Fare.
“I was young and living at home. All I needed was money for the weekend and I wasn’t thinking about marriage and babies at the time,” she says.
“We had very little competition and the business was growing at a speed that was probably unique. After year two, we won Young Entrepreneur of the Year.”
After the sisters sold the salad business they decided to take a year out — but it didn’t happen. “It turned into four months because we didn’t like the lunching and shopping,” Jenny says.
“So then we set up the fudge business and trialled it at St George’s Market. We became aware very quickly that no-one else was making it and there wasn’t much competition.”
The business went from strength to strength — the sisters were soon selling worldwide and they now make their fudge under Royal Warrant. They met Prince Charles and Camilla a couple of years ago and were even commissioned to make a floral-themed fudge for a Diamond Jubilee pack with products from all four corners of the UK.
“It’s geranium, rose and honey — those are the flavours that are in the fudge,” Jenny says.
“We sell under our own label, but we also make fudge for other people. We make lavender fudge for the Lavender Farm and we make garlic fudge for the Garlic Farm. It actually tastes quite nice and it’s sold to present with cheese on a cheese board.”
As for the weirdest flavour they’ve ever been asked to make. “Egg custard was probably the most unusual. We did make it for a while but it was definitely not nice,” she admits.
They also made liquorice flavour for a while and haven’t ruled out making it again. “It’s very much a flavour that Scandinavian and Nordic countries like, so we did make it for them,” she adds.
Jenny reveals that her ultimate dream is to target more distant countries.
“It’s limited to Europe mainly because of the shelf life,” she says. “But if we were able to extend the shelf life and keep the quality the same, I would love to travel out to Australia and South America and do some trade missions.”
She admits she loves working with her sisters.
“It gives you the flexibility — when the kids were young, it was great, knowing that you weren’t restricted to six weeks’ holiday a year as long as you get your job done,” she says.
“People say it’s unusual how well we all get on, but we find it pretty normal.”
Dorothy Bittles (46) is married to Eddie (48), who works at Charles Hurst. They have two children, Isabel (17) and William (13).
She has only ever worked with her sisters, even though she initially trained to be a teacher.
“I did a PGCE and then I found that I only liked children that I’m related to!” she says.
“But when I came back from the University of Newcastle, my sister had started a salad business, so I joined them and we’ve worked together ever since. That was 30 years ago.”
Dorothy explains that when her mum opened Cargoes, Cheddar was the only cheese you could buy in Northern Ireland.
“She then imported cheeses from France and she made her own salads,” she says.
“My dad made fudge when we were growing up because he had a terrible sweet tooth. So he was indulging his sweet tooth by making fudge with us and then helping us to eat it.
“When he retired he started making fudge and selling it in the local post office in Dundrum.
“Then we got it into a few shops on our salad delivery run. Everyone seemed to love it and everything grew from that.”
After launching Melting Pot, the sisters started off selling to shops in Northern Ireland, before moving into the rest of the UK where they targeted specialist wholesalers, and then launched into the hamper business.
“That natural growth just happened. We never had a salesperson or anything like that. It’s just been ourselves,” Dorothy says.
The packaging emphasises the homemade aspect of the fudge, with information on which of the three sisters produced and packaged that particular batch.
This traceability goes down well at St George’s Market where they sell fudge every weekend.
Dorothy says it’s a relaxing environment to work in.
“There’s certainly a lot of heated debate quite often. There’s a heated debate and then the next minute you’re into something else, so it’s water off a duck’s back. I think that’s how you get the best out of each other,” she says.
“My two children are still at school, but they have both been great, coming along and working at St George’s Market. My daughter has been helping out in the office since she was eight or nine. She loved the fact that she could come into the office and do some filing. They have been able to earn the money that they needed for clothes and spending money.”
Dorothy says all the traditional fudges have won Great Taste Awards and the most popular products are the traditional butter fudge and the salted caramel, but they recently branched into vegan fudges because Cathy’s daughter is lactose intolerant.
“We started trying all the non-dairy fudges, but they were really rubbish, so we came up with our own. We were working on that for 12 months, if not longer, and in that time veganism really took off.
“It’s really been a growth area for us and it’s opened up a lot of new shops, such as vegan shops and health food shops,” she says.
“We did find that making vegan fudge is different. Making fudge is a science — everything has to be boiled to this temperature, then cooled to this temperature, then beaten at this temperature — but the vegan fudge is completely different. The fudge needs to have a six-month shelf-life as well and the vegan fudge needed a totally different set of ingredients, so it took a long while to develop.
“Now we’ve just launched two new flavours in our vegan range — vegan cream coconut fudge and a vegan honeycomb fudge this year.”
For more information, visit meltingpotfudge.co.uk