Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Fiona is utterly nutterly nutritious

When Kilcullen food producer Fiona Maher’s Fiona's Nutterly Nutritious range of nut butters hit the shelves in a number of Supervalu stores in Kildare and Meath shortly, it will be the next stage in journey that started on Masterchef Ireland, writes Brian Byrne.

Fiona set up her Nutterly Nutritious range of activated and roasted nut butters business in May of this year. She previously worked as manager in The River Cafe in Kilcullen; as a consultant on the setup of the Fragrance Cafe in the Yankee Store at Tougher’s Business Park; as manager at The Good Food Cafe in Michael Murphys, Newbridge; and as marketing manager with Cassidy Wines.

"I started in the wine trade after coming home from Australia, did some courses and was out on the road as a rep until our first child came along," she recalls. That very significant event was soon after she and her husband John had moved to Kilcullen from Newcastle. "We were looking for somewhere, and drove over the bridge from a drive around the area and I loved the place immediately."

In a new home, with a new baby, Fiona continued in entrepreneurial mode, creating customised wine labels for events such as weddings. Then in 2011, applications were called for the first Irish TV series of Masterchef. "I had always loved cooking, and went for it. I loved the idea, and I was very involved with the ethos of food and family."

From around 1,000 applicants, Fiona got through the early stages to the auditions on camera for the final 50. "I didn't get out of that round, but it was a fantastic experience that really reinforced my belief in that food was the journey I wanted to go on."

The journey took a particular direction when a health-related dietary requirement introduced her to nut butters, variants on the traditional staple of peanut butter. "I thought they all kind of tasted the same, and wondered if I could do something about it?"

In the meantime, she took a side track on the possibility of producing chicken stock on a commercial basis, a product which she had also been making as part of the diet. "But I found it would be too difficult to compete with the big producers." Through all this time she was gaining significant front of house experience and business management skills in various restaurants.

From January of this year she worked on her own versions of nut butter products, and has come up with a range that includes straightforward almonds, activated almonds and vanilla, and pecan butters. All of her products are completely natural, with nothing else added, and they have a shelf life of around a year. She has test-marketed them at a number of Farmers Markets and also participated in the famous Sheridans Cheesemongers Food Festival in Meath in May of this year. "That was terrific, because I met a lot of people like me there, and small food producers are enormously supportive of each other."

A key boost was being accepted for the Supervalu Food Academy, an initiative by the food store group to encourage local food producers, especially those in niche areas. Included in the programme is advice and mentoring, and finally an opportunity to get product on shelves in their own locality.

"I get a list of somewhere between six and 10 stores where I can make a direct pitch to the owners, who are also incentivised by the programme to consider the products. But I still have to sell the idea, and then have to do my marketing in-store and all that."

It's the kind of thing that can really boost the confidence of an entrepreneur in a start-up situation, and reaching a significant birthday this year also 'flipped a switch'. "The change in me over the last five or six months has been phenomenal. I have a belief in myself, and it seems that the white noise and the little voices in my head saying 'you can't do this' are gone."

Fiona has no illusions that the rest of the journey will be easy. She admits to already having hit some walls, and is on a roller coaster ride in many ways. But she has always had a strong work ethic, and is fully prepared for whatever lies ahead. "I'm into yoga and mindfulness, and able to find internal calm. But the business world is very exciting, and I'm happy at the pace the project has taken so far."

Fiona has a number of ideas for diversification and expansion as the nut butters end of her food interest moves forward. But she's taking it carefully for now. "All the money in the business so far is my own, and though I've recently got backing for equipment and startup, I'll play the long game."

A big help is the availability of facilities at Naas Racecourse for her production needs, courtesy of manager Tom Ryan. "He's very supportive of local initiatives, and I really appreciate that."

Besides the Supervalu stores, Fiona has also booked a stall at the upcoming WellFest event in Herbert Park in Dublin, which will offer more exposure to a key cohort of her target market, people who are interested in healthy foods. And an Enterprise Ireland award for business development is already being put to work in a packaging design.

"It's all go," she grins. "But I’ve always had the bit between my teeth.”

This article was first published on the Kilcullen page of the Kildare Nationalist.