In this month’s Meet the Makers profile, in association with Love Irish Food, Maev Martin talks to Simon O’Keeffe, head of sales with iconic Irish brand Lir Chocolates.
Created in Dublin in 1987 by Connie Doody and Mary White, Lir Chocolates began on Connie’s kitchen table with a food mixer and a bowl.
Today, the business is based in Navan IDA Business Park in Co Meath and employs 300 people, the majority of whom produce the brand’s range of exquisite chocolate creations.
“We produce artisanal products to scale and that involves a lot of manual work, so about 60 of our team work in the office with the balance working in our factory,” says Simon.
“All jobs are Meath-based. Those employed in the company are, for the most part, living in Meath or the surrounding area, and we have a diverse workforce of people from outside Ireland who are living near the factory.
“There is a seasonal spike in production that lasts from July until March the following year, as we start producing our products for the Christmas market in July.
"Creating artisanal chocolates is manual and very skilled work. It isn’t like handling other food products as it involves a lot of temperature control and finishes.”
The Lir Brands
“We are Diageo’s longest serving licensee – we started producing for them nearly 20 years ago,” he says.
“Connie Doody approached R&A Baileys about using Baileys in their chocolate and the relationship has thrived since then.
"We became an official licensee in 1997. We are very proud of that relationships and it has been a cornerstone of our success.”
When it comes to the Lir Chocolates range, Simon reports that the salted caramel truffles are currently their biggest seller, with other popular flavours including milk chocolate, caramel and vanilla.
“These are the flavours that generate the bulk of our sales,” he says. “Outside of that, we have Baileys original truffles, which are popular globally.
"We are in 25 markets with Baileys. In fact, we can’t make enough of them for international markets!”
New product development and innovation is a cornerstone of the Lir operation.
“We are all about innovation and we consider ourselves to be market leaders when it comes to innovation, particularly in the private label area,” says Simon.
“The early days of the business instilled a spirit of creativity and attention to detail that are still integral to Lir Chocolates today.
"Our constant innovation gives us the edge over our competitors and we take great pride in it.
"We are always trying to create that wow factor as there is a real love and passion for chocolate across all departments in Lir.
“For example, following a lot of development work over the past year, we now have a new Lir range that will launch on the Irish market in September.
"With this new gift box and new collection box, we have updated our packaging, and our chocolate selection within it, and that will reflect a lot of new trends that we have identified in the market.”
Blond chocolate – a caramelised sugar and milk chocolate – is one of those new trends that appears to be particularly popular at the moment.
“We are seeing a huge spike in demand for blond chocolate,” he says.
“We are also seeing a shift in consumer trends when it comes to how chocolate is used and consumed, from baking to desserts to alcoholic drinks.
"We are finding that consumers want value for money and are pushing against the trend of taking weight out of products and packaging.
“We are doing our best to keep our product weights the same – we haven’t made changes to them for the past three or four years and we don’t plan to make any changes in the foreseeable future.
"We prefer to take a hit ourselves and keep delivering value for money. We are an expensive, high quality and premium gift, so we see the maintenance of those weights as an important part of our value for money offering to our consumers.”
Lir Chocolates is a leading provider of premium chocolates to major retailers at home and abroad.
“In Ireland, we have the support of all the main retailers, particularly around Christmas and Easter,” says Simon.
“We are also a leading supplier of private label chocolates to most of the big retailers in the UK, such as M&S, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s. In fact, that constitutes 50% of our business.
"The production of artisan products to scale is difficult to deliver, but Lir can do this to scale for those big retailers. I believe that we are unique among makers of premium chocolates in the UK and Ireland in terms of our ability to do that.
“Also, in terms of our NPD, we lead the chocolate category, and every year M&S are putting chocolate innovations on their shelves.
"The private label market is driving innovation in chocolate and Lir is in the vanguard of that drive.”
Lir Chocolates creates hand-finished and hand-decorated chocolates, based on both traditional recipes and unfamiliar new combinations.
“We like to experiment a lot with new flavour combinations, including infusing our chocolate with chilli, various uncommon fruits, or alcohol," says Simon.
“Not all of these new combinations will stick and a lot will have a short shelf life, but one that has been very successful for us is the Strawberries and Cream Chocolate Truffle with a hint of Baileys.
"We launched it two years ago and it has been very well received for some of the key special occasions in the calendar, such as Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, and throughout the spring and summer season.”
Lir Chocolates joined the Zertus GmbH Group back in 2012.
“We are a very successful business in the Irish market and we have very strong contacts with Irish retailers, so that was a big attraction for Zertus, and the time was right for the founders to sell the business,” says Simon.
While Mary White stepped away from the business shortly after the Zertus acquisition, Connie Doody remained working in Lir Chocolates until 2020.
“Sadly, Connie passed away in August 2022, but she was a standard bearer for innovation and quality,” he says.
“When we are looking at creating new product development, we always think of what Connie would have done, so her influence is still very much in evidence in the business.”
Originating from what was once Europe’s largest sugar refinery, Zertus GmbH Group is a 200-year old family company based in Germany.
The Group, which produces mainly confectionery products, operates 11 sites, mainly in Germany, but also in the UK, Greece and, of course, Ireland.
Zertus UK is comprised of the subsidiaries Humdinger, Kinnerton Confectionery, and Lir Chocolates, who are based in the UK as well as in the Republic of Ireland.
“Some investment companies might take a short-term view of an investment but Zertus take the long-term view – they aren’t interested in flipping Lir in five or ten years’ time – they have a lifetime plan for the brand,” says Simon.
“There is expertise across the group in areas including supply chain, finance, human resources, sales, and marketing and Lir is benefiting from that expertise.
"We have all the flexibility of a small business, but being part of the Zertus Group means that we also have all the assets of a large business.
“Membership of Zertus has allowed Lir to scale much more significantly than we could have done if we had continued to go it alone.
"Right now there is record investment underway, some of which has resulted in the installation of a new chocolate production line at our main manufacturing site in Navan.
"This line, which went live in July, will add to our capacity and capability, allowing us to produce greater quantities and many more varieties of chocolate.
"Our business has been developing very strongly, but we were creaking at the seams in terms of capacity, so this new line means we can move to the next stage in our development.”
While Lir travels the world in search of the finest ingredients, such as Thai lemongrass, Persian lime oil, and Spanish pistachios, the company sources as much of the ingredients for its chocolate creations as it can locally, including Irish Atlantic Sea salt.
“We also participate in cocoa sustainability activities through Barry Callebaut’s Cocoa Horizons Foundation, which seeks to improve the livelihoods of cocoa farmers and their communities through the promotion of sustainable, entrepreneurial farming, improved productivity, and community development,” says Simon.
“Barry Callebaut sells Horizons cocoa and chocolate products with a premium that goes in full to the Cocoa Horizons Foundation to support sustainable cocoa activities.
"Through our support of the Foundation, we aim to improve farming practices and drive social impact in four community development areas - women's income generation, enabling children’s potential through education, enhancing community well-being, and mitigating climate change with cleaner energy.”
Lir is also a member of RSPO – responsible sourcing of sustainable palm oil ingredients – and of the Rainforest Alliance, which works with governments, companies, and local and international civil society organisations to promote policies that support rural producers with sustainability transformation.
According to Simon, Lir is moving away from plastic, to paper-based, fully recycled and recyclable packaging.
“One example is a recent change to our 'tube' packaging - we moved it to the only flat, paper-based tube available that is 100% recyclable,” he says.
“This has resulted in 21.3 tons a year of packaging, on this product alone, being recycled rather than making its way to landfill.
"Just one metric on our plastic reduction efforts demonstrates the significant progress we have made. For example, when it comes to the components containing plastic in Lir products purchased by consumers for Easter, we can see that this was 2,036,290 in 2019 and by 2022 it had reduced to 834,374.
"We also try to reduce our pack size – we keep the weight, but take out any over-packaging, where possible.”
Lir are members of Bord Bia's Origin Green programme and, as part of this, the business has made significant improvements in waste reduction (down by 30%/tonne of output) and water reduction (down by 54% per tonne of output).
“Origin Green has been very helpful to us in setting targets and creating a framework for the business to progress its sustainability agenda,” says Simon.
“When it comes to our sustainability credentials, being members of Origin Green has really helped to boost our credibility, both domestically and internationally.”
Love Irish Food
Lir Chocolates joined Love Irish Food at the start of 2023.
“We have a had a brilliant response from our membership,” says Simon.
“It is a clear identifier to consumers that we are an Irish-made brand.
"Provenance is a big factor in making consumers choose your brand, so the fact that we are made in Ireland means that we continue to be a big hit with Irish shoppers.
"We attended Bord Bia Bloom where we advertised our membership of Love Irish Food and the feedback there was really positive. At Christmas, we will roll out the Love Irish Food logo on our packaging and we are looking forward to seeing the reaction from our consumers.”