Sweet dreams of retail success
In 2002, Margaret Lynch, Geraldine O’Connor and Celine Hayes-English, cofounders of Couverture Desserts, watched as flood water swept through their premises destroying everything in its path. There was time to save only the main computer and a few files as the water rose. The flood happened on a Friday afternoon. By Tuesday morning the trio had a temporary premises up and running, and most of their customers were unaware of the disaster.
In 2008/2009, its sales tumbled due to the recession. Again, the company knuckled down, and through a combination of a new business partner, new products, increased efficiency and a move into retailing, its turnover for 2012 will be €2 million, back to where it was before the downturn.
“Couverture was set up in 1998 and grew very quickly. By the end of year two we were turning over a quarter of a million. I’d attribute this to the fact that we were offering the market something new: gourmet chilled and frozen desserts that were perfect for the food-service sector,” says Lynch.
“Building sales up to €2 million was a slower process. That took about eight years, and no sooner had we reached this milestone than the recession came along and sales dropped below €1.2 million. That said, our market share stayed consistent.”
In 2010, Country Crest foods invested in the company. “We always felt we needed a partner and had spent time trying to find one,” says Hayes-English. “Then we were introduced to Country Crest by our Bord Bia mentor, James Burke.
“For us finding a partner was not just about money. We wanted other skills and expertise, in retailing for example.Country Crest has strong retail relationships, especially with SuperValu, which is an ardent supporter of Irish producers . . . Our business is now split about 50-50 between food service and retail. Previously it would have been 80-20 in favour of food service. We see retailing as offering us the greatest growth potential.
“As a small company, what we really value about the relationship with Country Crest is the support they give us across the board,” says Hayes-English. “We bounce ideas off them and discuss pricing and work closely with them in the area of finance. The discipline of regular management meetings is also useful and they tell us how good we are, which is a great confidence booster.”
Couverture has taken stock of its business and made a number of key changes, including rationalising its customer base by opting for less direct supply and more use of distributors. It also became involved with Enterprise Ireland’s lean manufacturing programme.
“We now know hour by hour the value and profitability of everything we produce. It’s not that we resisted doing this previously, we just wouldn’t have known how. Now there’s a system in place.”
The constant rise in the cost of ingredients is a challenge for Couverture. and Lynch says passing on price hikes is not an option. “While you try to factor in what might happen to the cost over nine months or a year, the best way to cope is by staying focused on what you can do something about, ie improving your own purchasing and processes,” she says.
This Christmas SuperValu will stock the company’s new range of festive desserts. Couverture employs 21 people and produces both under its own brand and for private labels, exporting to Northern Ireland, the UK and Bahrain, and supplying the desserts Aer Lingus serves in first class. The company recently won the contract to make the desserts for the new Jamie Oliver restaurant in Dundrum shopping centre.
In 2013 Hayes-English says there will be a major drive to build the Couverture brand in its own right. “We have never really invested in promoting ourselves before, but we have a string of award-winning products that can stand shoulder to shoulder with anything on the market, and our aim is to become the automatic dessert of choice when people are looking for a treat.”