Crunch time as company seeks to expand despite the recession
FUTURE PROOF: BR Foods:Bill Mick’s crisps is the first in a new range of snack foods planned by Dublin brothers
Dublin brothers Bill and Michael Rochford have been importing ethnic foods, snacks and sauces for almost 30 years. BR Foods was set up in Michael’s garage when they were in their early 20s, with £10,000 and a blue Hiace van.
They began by importing the Kuhne range of gherkins, pickles and dressings in 1983. Gherkins were a rare sight in Irish homes back then and friends told the brothers they were mad. But today they sell thousands of cases of gherkins and Bill’s friends have dubbed him the “Gherkin Baron”.
They have greatly expanded their range of products and now import Caribbean, Chinese, Thai, Indian, Mexican and Italian foods. Some of the household names include Pataks, Blue Dragon, Monini and the Jamie Oliver range.
BR Foods employs 40 people in Blanchardstown. So the brothers might be excused if they felt like sitting back and taking it easy. Instead, they have decided to launch Bill Mick’s, a new high-end Irish food brand.
Bill Mick’s hand-cooked crisps were the first line of products to hit the shelves of major supermarkets last month. The gourmet recipe was created by the Rochfords who then outsourced the cooking and packaging to Irish companies. They have won listings to supply major outlets such as Dunnes Stores, Superquinn, SuperValu and Spar.
Not content with being an importer, Bill Rochford’s eye is already on the export market and he will begin targeting the UK in the new year.
“We have been importing for years, but when I go to all the foreign trade shows I don’t see enough Irish products,” he says. “My belief is we will get established here and then get exporting.”
He is on the lookout for the next product in the range and says he will be is focusing on snack foods, biscuits, sauces and dips. Like the crisps, the cooking and packaging will be outsourced to Irish companies.
But is it not extremely foolhardy to launch a high-end brand in the middle of a recession?
“No,” he says. “I have this philosophy, if you’ll excuse the language, of ‘Feck it, let’s do it’. We believe we have the best spuds, we have the cooking skills and the ability to market the products, so why can’t we launch a new product range that keeps everything Irish?”
He recalls how the idea of the quality food brand was, quite literally, his big dream. He was doing a business course when the class was asked to write down their big dream. He said he wanted to create a food brand and sell it around the world.
When they settled on the name Bill Mick’s, they decided to start with crisps because it’s a snack that has been repositioned as an indulgent treat for adults to share.
“Research has shown that consumers are increasingly nesting during the current economic climate,” he says.
“People are entertaining at home more and are searching out permissible, affordable treats, both of which offer further opportunities for the crisps and snacks category.”
He says the crisps are made from 100 per cent Irish potatoes, using the Lady Claire and Lady Rosetta varieties. They are cooked in sunflower oil without MSG, artificial colours or flavours.
Rochford says the response from customers and shops has been “fantastic”. He is looking forward to seeing the next set of sales figures as people stock up on snacks in the busy pre-Christmas period.
“We’re hoping to do at least €500,000 worth of product next year. If Ben Jerry can do it in America, then I say Bill Mick can do it in Ireland.”
Rather than retrenching during a recession, he believes it’s all the more important to set up new businesses and to get Irish communities behind these companies.
“I know it’s not politically correct in EU circles to urge people to buy Irish,” he says. “However, we have to start looking after our own community if we are to get the country back on its feet.
“There’s a wealth of entrepreneurial spirit in Ireland and, unless the whole country unites to tackle the economic problems, the benefits of this spirit will never be realised.”
Meanwhile, having cracked the gherkin business, BR Foods continues on its mission to introduce exotic foods to Ireland. The company has grown on average by 15 per cent per year since it started.
“And we plan to carry on for the future,” he says. “It’s going very nicely for us.”