Long before sustainability was an integral part of business strategy and reformulation efforts focused on helping consumers to live healthier lives, Folláin’s range of traditional preserves was bringing wholesome jams and marmalades to households nationwide. Maev Martin talks to general manager John Daly and company director Mícheál Ó' Lionáird about increasing market share, the pandemic dividend, and new export and category opportunities.
The word ‘wholesome’ is defined as ‘conducive to or suggestive of good health and physical well-being,’ so its Irish equivalent, ‘folláin,’ is a particularly apt name for one of Love Irish Food’s founding companies.
The manufacturer won no less than nine accolades at this year’s Blas na hÉireann awards, for both its Folláin and private label products, and also recently received the prestigious Origin Green Gold membership.
A love of cooking and a shared passion for preserving traditions is at the heart of the success that Folláin has enjoyed since the product was first brought to market in 1983.
Mícheál Ó Lionáird’s mother Máirín Uí Lionáird met Eithne Ui Shiadhail while they were working in the honey business in the early 1980s, and they decided to join forces to make a traditional preserve.
“Folláin was born using a 100-year-old grapefruit marmalade recipe that had been passed down through the generations,” says Mícheál.
“Using Eithne’s grandmother’s recipe, my mother and Eithne whipped up their first batch of grapefruit marmalade in my father Peadar Ó Lionáird and Máirín Uí Lionáird’s family factory in Cuil Aodha in west Cork.”
After a period of hand preparing the fruit and cooking the jams and marmalades, word spread quickly about their delicious jams and marmalades and Superquinn came calling, ordering 100 cases of jams and marmalades to sell in their shops.
A few years after that initial success, and to keep up with the demand for their growing range of preserves and chutneys, Folláin moved to a larger, purpose-built kitchen in Baile Mhic Íre in Macroom, and in 1995 they won their first Great Taste Award for Folláin Strawberry Jam – and they’ve kept on winning ever since!
After nearly 20 years as a family-managed business, John Daly was appointed as general manager of Folláin in January 2020.
The company’s original founder, Máirín Uí Lionáird retired in 2020, while her husband Peadar is still managing director of the business.
Mícheál sister Mairead is also involved in the company, managing its sustainability strategy, as well as occupational health and safety.
“We also have a strong management team of professionals in the sales and marketing, supply chain, production, technical and quality control departments,” says John Daly.
“This ensures good continuity in the business. I’m a food scientist and have held numerous production and factory manager roles with the Kerry Group and Manor Farm, as well as with family businesses in the Cork area, so it is great to continue working with a strong family-run business that has good brand values.”
Sustainability and Seasonality
Sustainability has been an integral part of the business since day one and as far back as 2004 Folláin gave away a free packet of seeds with each jar.
“This was a big success and by the promotion’s end we had given away over 100,000 seeds for herbs such as basil, chives, parsley and thyme,” says Mícheál.
In addition, the company’s commitment to wholesome, healthier food led to the introduction of a No Added Sugar range in 2007 which, Mícheál claims, is “just as sweet as the traditional taste our customers come to expect. Today we have a Nothing but Fruit range of jams and a No Added Sugar range of relishes, to which we’re constantly adding new recipes.”
In 2009, Folláin planted over 5,000 trees and gave one community in Ireland the chance to win 200 native trees for their local area.
“This was a small step towards our goal of creating a greener and more wholesome environment,” he says.
“Folláin is wholesome by name and to us that means good food. In the almost 40 years that we have been in business, that commitment is just getting stronger. A wholesome, more sustainable future is what we want to assure and making good food in a sustainable way is how we intend to do it.”
The conserves market is pretty static, but Folláin has managed to build its share in this market and win strong retailer support for its products on shelf. “The main catalyst for success has been our Nothing but Fruit range or No Added Sugar range,” says Mícheál.
“It has been on the market for approximately 10 years, but has seen a significant uplift in sales over the last five years, and an even greater increase in the last two years. This is a sustainable product in every way – apart from the contents, it comes in a bespoke glass jar which is intended for reuse and we encourage customers to use the jar when finished with it and not just put it in the recycling bin."
Retailers have been very supportive of us and have been enthused by our product’s health credentials and by our innovative and sustainable packaging. My mother was keen to ensure that the new packaging reflected the quality of the product within the jar. We therefore hope that it encourages reuse as it is something that consumers would be reluctant to throw away.”
The Folláin brand is best known to consumers as a marmalade and jam, but the company has been producing relishes and chutneys for over 15 years, although these have been available predominantly in the foodservice sector.
“Our relishes were launched nationwide last year,” says John.
In the Checkout Top 100 Brands 2021, Folláin significantly increased its share of the jams market, and is now the number-two brand.
“We want to continue to innovate and adapt home recipes to scaled industrial production and market our product across different categories,” he says. “A key part of our strategy is to leverage our wholesome, natural ingredients and good taste credentials to meet customer expectations with all new products we produce.
“We have extended our range from jams to fruit fillings where consumers use our fruit when baking or as breakfast toppers, so we are looking to bring our culinary credentials to any other category that utilises our core competency, which is making good food," explains.
"We are looking at a number of prepared consumer food categories to see where we can move into next. We are already in jams and relishes, so we are looking at using our learnings from foodservice to see if we can apply that toother prepared consumer food products. There is also a strong export market for our product. We have seen that in the US, Canada and Germany over the past year and we would like to extend our reach to other export markets,” he says.
Folláin recently redeveloped its website and is offering an online gifting option for its customers just in time for the busy lead into Christmas 2021.
“While this option has been up and running for a couple of months, we haven’t had a major launch yet, but we are hoping to officially launch it soon,” he says.
Folláin’s impact as a local employer has been significant. The company current employs 48 people and is planning to increase that number over the next few months. “We are in the process of diversification at the moment,” says John.
“We expanded our workforce by eight people over the last 18 to 24 months as there was strong demand for our products during the pandemic. Our food range was viewed as being a healthy product and a lot of people switched to healthier eating during the pandemic and we benefitted from that trend. In addition, most people were having breakfast at home during the pandemic and when they are doing that they are having jam on toast and they choose our product for that.”
Most of Folláin’s workers are from the local area and some have been employed by the company for between 10 and 15 years.
“We have low staff turnover and a dedicated staff and that is what helped us to move from being a small cottage industry to being the size we are now,” says Mícheál. “It is also sustainable for the community to have a dependable employer in the area.”
The company decided to open a 3,800 square foot purpose-built facility in 2016.
“We built it bigger than our needs at the time, which was a good call, and since then there has been significant investment in renewable energy and technology to make the operation as sustainable and energy efficient as possible. Also, a lot of automation and other efficiencies have been introduced to the production process.”
As we look to 2022, where do John and Mícheál see the Irish economy heading?
“Next year will be a challenging one,” says John.
“There are a lot of unknowns as we navigate this stage in the pandemic. Shopping behaviour has changed dramatically, but one positive on the horizon is that Irish consumers are embracing local and Irish brands, so we hope that will continue.”
Like all business owners, they are concerned about energy, insurance and materials costs, as well as the availability of labour over the coming months.
“However, we believe that we have the correct package of products and that we are agile and flexible enough to react to what the market needs,” says Mícheál.
“Global supply chain issues could lead to food price increases, so we will need to work closely with our customers to ensure that we have the right offering for the market.”
As a brand that has emerged from local to national availability, what message do they have for other local food producers?
“The most important thing for companies similar to us is to make sure that their offering is relevant to the market when it is launched,” he says.
“They must also keep costs in check, be as sustainable and efficient as possible, and be lean in all processes.”
New product Development
For Folláin, it is all about extending its reach into new grocery retail categories and Mícheál says that the company will be using its strong presence in the foodservice sector to trial and rollout innovations in the retail channel.
“We use our foodservice market to grow our stable of products and some of our non- jam products are available through foodservice,” he says.
“We have a lot of new and interesting flavours coming through in the foodservice sector, such as sauces and savoury products. Apart from the changes to the retail landscape, the eating out market has also changed significantly, so we have used the last 18 months to develop new flavours in world cuisine. Those sauces are now being rolled out in foodservice, and if they are successful in that sector, we would be looking to make some of them available in the retail channel.”
As a founding member of Love Irish Food and given that the company currently has a seat on the board of the organisation, what message does Folláin have for Irish food producers?
“Love Irish Food’s main function is to help Irish shoppers make informed choices in the retail sector and it is now more important than ever to keep purchases local,” says John.
“We have received mentoring from Love Irish Food and they have been involved in promotional activity to raise awareness of our brand and our products. I would advise other food producers to join the organisation because I feel that Love Irish Food has a key role to play in the Irish retail sector over the coming years.”