While many have tried (and failed) to gain a foothold in the ready-meals market in the past few years, Monaghan-based Swift Fine Foods has quickly become one of the fastest-growing chilled-meals providers in the Irish retail sector, despite, remarkably, only emerging from liquidation 18 months ago. Its specialist area? Traditional carvery meals, an authentic Irish alternative to many chilled ready-meal products already on the market.
“We felt that while there were a lot of people doing something similar, they weren’t doing it to the standards we aspire to,” says owner Robert McElwaine [pictured], who bought the liquidated company in February 2011. “Swift Fine Foods, which had previously been all about foodservice, always had a tradition of high quality, with a focus on handmade products and chef expertise. We have retained that with the new business, and won a lot of contracts simply by ‘doing it better’ than many of our competitors.”
The company has provided a boost for the local area as well, with McElwaine estimating that the numbers of staff employed at its facility have risen well above the 23 people employed in February 2011, and that a “few million euro” has been paid to local suppliers since the company was re-established. “Supply levels have really gone through the roof,” he explains.
What is arguably most remarkable about the Swift Fine Foods offering is its price positioning. With its Chef’s Cuisine ready meals retailing for up to €5, a step above the mainstream market, McElwaine explains, the product is still “flying off the shelves. Sometimes you look at the potential opportunities in the market, and that’s all they are, opportunities. But we saw a clear, identifiable gap in the market, for a high-quality handmade Irish product, which really takes the ready-meals market to the next level. Customers acknowledge the quality and really buy into it.”
While McElwaine’s focus from the outset was on ensuring the quality credentials of the food, it was also critical to establish a point of contact with key retailers. “We knew from the outset that we were going into retailers with a product that they didn’t have, and wanted. We also knew that certain quality credentials had to be met. Retailers could see the level of expertise, they could see the high quality of the product, and it has grown from there.”
An initial listing with Fresh – The Good Food Market last year spawned entry into the BWG Foods portfolio, and then on into Superquinn, Dunnes, Tesco, SuperValu and Centra. The company trades both as a private-label entity and under a brand proposition, Chef’s Cuisine, which it hopes to expand further next year.
McElwaine understands the need to benchmark the company, not just against the best in Ireland, but also against international standards. He has paid many visits to Germany, France, Belgium and the UK in order to gain an understanding of the high standards of global convenience and keep in touch with emerging trends. In terms of the company’s development here, expansion into ethnic meal options, such as Italian, and a health-care meals service will follow in time, but for the moment, the company is focused on maintaining the core strengths on which it has built its success over the past year and a half. “We’re only 18 months into a three-year plan,” says McElwaine, “and we think it’s time to take things to the next level. We have a great product, great staff, a great facility and we have the retailers. We feel that now is the time to start shouting a bit about it.”