How did the business start?
I came back from Australia about three years ago after 26 years out there. I wanted to be close to my parents, but there's not a lot of jobs for people with my experience around here.
I finished a degree in dairy science in UCC in 1988, and worked for two Danish companies creating the bacteria for yoghurt and cheese. I had a mix of tech and business roles after that.
I saw dairy-free yoghurts in Australia, and though that there might be a market for that here. I did the research and there was only a few products, all coming from the UK. So I thought I could do it.
I went to Supervalu and their Food Academy and they were interested.
Tell us more about the product.
It's called Coconut Treasure. We have four flavours - plain, apple and cinnamon, strawberry, and pineapple. It has about 1/3 of the sugar of a plain or fruited dairy yoghurt. It's higher in fat, but low in sugar. For mums, they are not concerned about the fat if theyre kids have loads of energy, but sugar affects things like their teeth.
I use coconut milk, tapioca starch, and a culture to start it. It's suitable for vegans, no dairy, and no added sugar. It appeals to different age groups.
Most kids go through an allergy phase when they are young, though most grow out of them. If you're a mum, the selection of dairy free products four to five years ago would have been very stark. There's more now, and I'm targeting that market. There's also lactose intolerant people, and then there is the vegan market. Vegans, especially in their teens and twenties, don't just see it as a way of eating, it's a way of life. I've had a lot of local vegan groups supporting me and recommending it to their members.
How did you develop it?
It's a very simple product to make now, but it took a while. It took well over a year to develop it. I looked at a lot of different coconut milk products and had to choose the right type of coconut milk. Some people love it, some hate it, so I've gone for one with a neutral taste. The starch and bacteria are just as important. Coconut milk is low in protein, so the starch is needed to blend it. The one I use gives a very pleasant mouthfeel. It's rich and creamy, but light. The starter bacteria is important too. I chose something that would add a nice taste. I have two pro-biotic starts.
What's your typical work week like?
I need about two days to make it. I put it on one evening, and it ferments overnight. Then I pack it up the next day. I do two-three days of tastings in store, and then I catch up on all the paperwork that needs to be done. Then I need a day off!
It might seem like a long week, but it's not if you're doing it for yourself. When you get positive feedback, it's a great boost to the morale. When you get a sales boost, its a bigger boost to morale!
How have you taken the product to market?
Through the Food Academy, I launched in Supervalu in July last year. We're in Skibbereen, Bantry, Clonakilty, Grange, Midleton, Fermoy, Malow, Kinsale, and Glanmire. We're slowly rolling out. If you just drop it into a store, it doesn't take off unless you're doing in-store tastings. So are trying to do a few stores every week. It's a really good thing to do, because you're meeting customers and testing your products.
You get feedback and some ideas about what you want to do next. For example, we sell in 90g single serve pots. But we had a mum looking for a family pack. So I'm sourcing packaging now to do it in 400g pots too. Hopefully, that will launch in February.
Customer feedback is very important. I went to the Vegfest market day in the city and brought three logo designs with me. I had the bones of it - if you'll excuse the pun - and 40 people gave me their opinions on it. It was those 40 people who designed the logo.
Where did the name come from? About six years ago, there were works being carried out in Schull and they struck a ship. A marine archaeologist, Julianna O’Donoghue, went down and came back up with some coconuts. She did a bit of research on it - so did a guy called Des Aiken - and she reckoned it was an English merchant vessel coming in from the Caribbean. It was commandeered by a Dutch pirate operating in the area - there was a lot of pirates operating around here. He must have hit a storm or something because the boat is preserved under 30 feet of silt. So that's where Schull and Crossbones comes from - a Dutch pirate!
Are you looking forward to the Cork and Kerry Food Market next week?
I am. Vegfest was all vegans, so I was speaking to the converted. This will be people from all walks of life with all types of dietary requirements, so it will be interesting to see how it will go. I'm a one-man-band most of the time - although my daughter, Jemma, helps out a bit to earn some pocket money - so events like this are great for me. When people are tasting it, I can talk to them and tell them where they can pick it up, or they might tell me where they're from and I can look at new places.
What's next for you?
I moved into a production facility in Schull last week. I'm doing it up and the next couple of weeks is about getting it together.
I've got four products right now. I'm working on new products. I'll have the new family packs, fortified with calcium and vitamin D for kids. I'll also be looking at new flavours and I'm thinking about some seasonal products for Christmas and Easter too.
I want to have Cork covered by Christmas, and take on Munster in the new year. By the summer, I want to push into Dublin. 99% of that will be through Supervalu.