Supporting more than 300 food businesses to grow

In this month’s WoW! Bites column, KATE RYAN talks to Angela Sheehan, who has helped more than 300 small food businesses to flourish
Supporting more than 300 food businesses to grow

Dr. Angela Sheehan, Food Industry Training Unit, UCC. Picture: Denis Minihane.

FOR 14 years, Angela Sheehan has been helping small-scale speciality food businesses come to life, grow and make their mark on Ireland’s exciting and creative food scene.

As programme manager for the Diploma in Speciality Food Production, part of UCC’s Food Industry Training Unit (FITU), she has engaged with over 300 small food businesses; an experience she describes as endlessly rewarding.

But it was far from small-scale food production that Angela cut her teeth in the early years of her career.

After graduating from UCC with a dairy science degree, she continued her studies with a master’s in nutrition, followed by a year stint as a research student with the eminent food chemistry Professor, Patrick Fox.

She left her academic studies behind to join Kerry Group as a nutritionist in Research and Development.

“It was a good time to be in the food industry,” Angela recalls. There, she met her husband Denis and, after five years, moved to Toronto, Canada, in 1991, and joined Nestlé – the largest food company in the world.

“I had been doing a lot of work at Kerry Group with ice cream, ice cream ingredients; a small bit on confectionary and chocolate, and a on quality. I found a lovely job with Nestlé and really enjoyed working for them.”

Eventually, her husband’s work brought them to the UK, and then back to Ireland via Naas, before finally settling back in Angela’s home town of Mallow with two children in tow and Denis continuing to commute to the UK for work.

An opportunity to lecture at IT Tralee enabled Angela to pull together her academic studies and corporate experience in food science and food production systems.

“I loved it, but my timing was unfortunate. The role was temporary and was supposed to become permanent, but in the end, IT Tralee couldn’t take on new lecturers.

“They were rejigging the lectureship structure: to progress, I had to have a PhD. I decided I would do that myself in my own time and was lucky to get a Walsh Fellowship from Teagasc. It allowed me to do a PhD and provide enough of an income to cover travel costs, childcare and a little bit besides. It was worth doing and meant I could be flexible.”

Her PhD was in cheese – specifically how enzymes create flavour in cheddar cheese.

“I made tonnes of cheese,” Angela recalls.

Dr. Angela Sheehan, Food Industry Training Unit, UCC. Picture Denis Minihane.
Dr. Angela Sheehan, Food Industry Training Unit, UCC. Picture Denis Minihane.

It was experimentation with cheesemaking that sowed her passion for small scale producers, particularly farmhouse cheesemakers.

“Cheesemakers are so interesting and work at a sort of different, mysterious level. 

"There’s this lovely magic of converting milk into cheese, letting the surface ripen and letting things happen. You couldn’t do that on a large scale, you can’t sit around let see what happens! Cheese is fascinating, one of my favourites.”

Angela returned to lecturing in UL and CIT, (MTU), for three years after completing her PhD, and spotted the post for programme manager of the Speciality Food Production diploma in UCC.

“The post really interested me; it really tied up everything - the food production background, manufacturing, cheese, the PhD and lecturing. The academic, technical and food production backgrounds all came together for a sector that’s really interesting.”

That was 2008; everything finally fell into place on a professional and personal basis.

“The role is part time; when I started my kids were younger, so it was great to be flexible. My husband came back from the UK and began working in UCC. We went from him commuting to London to both of us heading off to UCC in the mornings!”

The diploma was already in situ for three years when Angela arrived. The idea for a diploma came from Darina Allen, a vocal advocate for small local producers having established Midleton Farmer’s Market a few years prior as well as Slow Food East Cork.

“Darina was extremely anxious that UCC, being the food university, should have a programme of training and support for small producers of speciality, artisan foods. She approached the president at the time, Gerard Wrixon, and he kick started it.”

FITU was staffed by just three people then, managed by Mary McCarthy Buckley (recently retired). There was also a Steering Group of artisan producers, such as Gianna Ferguson of Gubbeen, and academics who oversaw the academic rigour of the programme.

“The diploma has evolved over time, but many of the modules are the same covering key parts of setting up a food business: food technology, food process technology, nutrition, food microbiology, risk analysis, business management and marketing.”

The diploma itself is very broad ranging, covering ten different modules. Learning is pitched at Level 7, and is intensive, running over just one academic year from October to May.

“The goal of the course is to provide a programme of education and training in all the key areas a person would need to know about to set up a small-scale food business. Students take different things from it because they come from different backgrounds and levels of experience.”

There is a variety of food businesses too. From milk kefir to goat burgers, organic oat farming to catering, cheese and sauces. Some are farmers who have a raw material at their fingertips and know what they want to do, while other students may shift direction because of their learning experience.

“By next year, we will have achieved close on 300 graduates, so you can imagine the variety and backgrounds of students and food businesses.

“The course is specifically geared towards start-ups and small producers. Anybody should be able to do it and it should benefit everyone. Some may get more out of it than others, but I say to students at the start of the year, you know what you want to get out of it; you know where you are. The best thing is to apply everything to what you need, but it is an academic diploma so to achieve it embrace every part.”

Students the last two years have done well to adapt to learning online, but this year there will be a new blended approach to learning. Of the fourteen sessions, ten will be online with four in-person and now, for the first time, split between Dublin and Cork.

“For 2022, we’re doing something different! Three of four in-person sessions will be delivered in Dublin at the Irish Management Institute, (IMI), in Sandyford.”

IMI is part of UCC’s extended campus, and it’s hoped by doing so it will increase accessibility for producers in Dublin and surrounding counties. The diploma is funded to the tune of 64% by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

“As it’s national funding, we’re trying to encourage people all over the country to participate. Every year we get a fine cohort from Cork, now we want to see if we can draw more people in from the Dublin area where there are a lot of really good producers.”

After 14 years as programme manager for the diploma, what makes it still rewarding?

“It’s hugely rewarding when you have somebody on their journey, their challenge of starting up or further developing.

“We have end of year presentations, students bring in their products for others to taste. At the start of the year some will say they didn’t identify what was going to be their product but now they have a brand, a logo, a recipe defined; they know where they’re going, and they have something tangible at the end of it. That’s pretty great, that’s a really good outcome. But it’s more about the individuals themselves and what they’ve achieved.

“It’s a tough course, everyone works so hard, but there is lots of help and support from UCC available and students come out the other end of it knowing they’ve completed the diploma and rightfully put the work in.”

When your job is all about delicious food all day long, can food still be a personal passion?

“I would say it is. I love going to farmers’ markets; however, I take a balanced approach because I did work in large scale food industry so I understand how important that sector is to Ireland. Their interest is in making good food, and I’m always interested in what they’re doing!

“Judging for Blas na hEireann, Dingle Food Festival and the Cork and Kerry Food Forum in City Hall are highlights of my year.

“I love food but I’m not a food snob! You couldn’t feed the world with artisan food, really, I don’t think it’s possible. We do need our large-scale producers, but at the same time I think we should be doing way more on the smaller scale - there’s so much more possibility – and we all need to do better at supporting them.”

Applications for Diploma in Speciality Food Production 2022 are open until September 14. The course runs October to May. See www.ucc.ie/en/fitu/courses/specialityfood

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