Serving a growing appetite for Irish meat products in the US
The chief executive of Tommy Moloney’s Irish meat importer and producer, is aiming to grow turnover to $500 million a year
Bill Colbert: “The potential growth is incredible. The largest growing segment in the food business in the United States is ethnic foods.”
Bill Colbert worked as a carpenter in New York for several years before he won a visa in the mid-1990s under the Morrison programme after dumping sack-loads of applications every week in the visa lottery. On the Monday the first Morrison visas were issued, he was among the recipients.
An American citizen since 1999, Colbert is one of the largest importers of Irish meat products into the US, with a New York business that turns over $30 million (€22 million) a year and employs almost 100 people.
Originally from Abbeyfeale, in Co Limerick, Colbert is aiming to grow his turnover to $500 million a year and double his staff within five years, with the purchase of a former Häagen-Dazs ice cream factory in New Jersey, a high-tech 12,077sq m (130,000sq ft) facility.
Speaking in a hotel in New York, Colbert proudly says that he sells about one and a half million pounds of what he calls his Irish breakfast sausage every year and that he has about 80 per cent of the market for meat products sold in Irish pubs and restaurants across all 50 states in the US.
The company – Tommy Moloney’s (named after an old butcher’s shop back in Abbeyfeale) – has developed strong business ties, with the most American of institutions, supplying the meat products served to trainee officers at the West Point military academy in upstate New York.
About five years ago, it was asked to ship about 5,000 pounds of Irish bacon to US Special Forces fighting in Afghanistan. “An army marches on its stomach,” he jokes, recalling the odd order.
A key member of Colbert’s operation is Irish-American Earle Mulrane, a well-known former American football quarterback with the Army college team – hence the military connections for the business.
Through Mulrane, the company is expanding its client base in his other area of connections – sport. The same company that supplies West Point also sells meat at college football grounds in Alabama and Florida. Colbert says Tommy Moloney’s is in talks with Fenway Sports, owners of Liverpool Football Club, about supplying all the meat products sold at Fenway Park, fabled home of the Boston Red Sox.
Tommy Moloney’s started with an idea Colbert had in the early 1990s. He noticed that there were plenty of “Irish-style” food products masquerading as actual Irish food being sold to the Irish community. There was a Polish company in Vermont and a German guy in New Hampshire but none were authentic.
“They were selling these Irish-style sausages. There was no one making the real thing. They didn’t really taste like Irish sausages. I thought it was a little disingenuous to be calling these things Irish when they weren’t even close to it,” he says.
The love of the taste of a real Irish sausage and an eye for spotting demand for them in the US initially led Colbert to open a supermarket in West Side, Queens, in 2003. The butcher counter in the supermarket made its own sausages with seasonings imported from National Food Ingredients on the Dock Road in Limerick, a business now owned by the Irish multinational, the Kerry Group.
“Within three months, my God, we had lines down the block,” he says, all because of the meat counter.
Seeing his brother Tony’s chain of Tir na nÓg Irish pubs and restaurants in New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Colbert realised that although others could buy sausages in bulk from his supermarket, his state-governed licence prevented him from delivering the sausages in bulk to customers. He sold the supermarket in 2005 and decided to invest his money in a importing and food production business.
Colbert knows about the business of shipping. Before moving into the food business, Colbert went into logistics, expanding his own company, Intercept Logistics, through acquisitions into a business that serves JFK and Newark airports and the ports in the area. He still owns the company.
The first big obstacle to overcome for his new meat business was winning approval from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for his authentic Irish sausages. A marketing graduate from New York University, Colbert knew the sausages had to be branded right if they were to sell as the real deal.
Securing approval was harder than he thought. It would take five to 10 years, he was told. He hired a US food consultant and told him to sit in the lobby of the USDA’s offices in Washington DC for a week and badger them until all the paperwork was right. Official approval arrived within nine months.
“When I went to the USDA, they couldn’t call something Irish because there was no standard of identity. I had to go through an arduous process of getting the ingredients over from Ireland and the labelling, the statements and send them all down to the USDA,” he says.
“Then they actually agreed that it was Irish authentic. I don’t call mine Irish-style; I call them Irish products.”
Colbert’s Tommy Moloney’s imports container after container of seasonings for his sausages, black and white puddings, as well as Cumberland seasonings from the UK along with Irish pork.
The new factory he is renovating is due to become operational in May and is located just 10 minutes away by lorry from Port Newark, the largest port on the US eastern seaboard. The facility has a storage section seven storeys high with a million cubic feet of space, so he has plenty of room to grow.
The facility is completely automated, run on robotics and computers that will allow him to maximise profits by minimising overheads. He is spending $6 million on “retro-fitting” the factory for his needs.
Colbert’s customers are not just located in the US. Tommy Moloney’s supplies all the Irish bacon to Loblaws, the Canadian supermarket chain, and sells meat to many hotels in the Caribbean, including Bermuda and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
If you eat a bacon butty on a British Airways flight from the US to Britain, you will be eating pork sourced from his company in New York, he says. He also supplies meat to the US rail company Amtrak.
The business is growing at between 25 and 28 per cent a year, he says. “We are in a tremendous growth spurt,” he says.
The industry is highly competitive. Colbert monitors pork prices on commodity markets not on a daily basis, but hourly. The swing in prices can be as much as 15 per cent over just four days, which, for a company locked into yearly contracts with supermarket chains, can really hurt, he says.
Online sales to everyday consumers are another expanding part of his business. Tommy Moloney’s had about 10,000 online shoppers across the US three years ago – that figure is close to 50,000 now.
This time of year is good for business as families back in Ireland send relatives in the US a little taste of home with Irish products delivered via the Tommy Moloney’s website.
“We have gotten many, many emails in the past from people relocating around the country. They say: ‘We are moving to Florida and my kids won’t eat anything else but your sausages – how am I going to go about getting them?’,” he says.
American sausages just don’t cut the mustard with the typical consumer of Irish sausages, he says. In Ireland, the largest group of sausage eaters are the under 12s, whereas the flavour and texture of American sausages are geared to adult palates – coarser, spicier and with a higher fat content.
“An Irish sausage is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. It is higher lean-to-fat ratio which makes it a healthier sausage – it is a really fine grind,” he says.
Tommy Moloney’s sends food packages to places as far away from the traditional Irish-American centres of New York and Boston as Mississippi and Wyoming, such is the dispersion of Irish sausage, bacon and black pudding lovers across the US, a sign of a changing trend in migration.
Colbert is not stopping with Irish tastes. He is starting to develop Polish, Spanish and Portuguese products, having seen the popularity of Irish and UK products among other ethnic groups in the US.
Irish black pudding is popular among the Korean community – “it must resemble some product they have in Korea,” says Colbert – while Kenyans purchase the company’s UK-style sausages, perhaps because of the African country’s former status as a British colony.
“The potential growth is incredible,” he says. “The largest growing segment in the food business in the United States is ethnic foods.”
Another area Colbert is working on is what he called the “home meal replacement” products. He has developed a bag that can cook food up to 375 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing Tommy Moloney’s to create a combination of meat and starches that will allow the company to sell a line of 15 meal products.
“There is a beef stew that you would die for,” he says. “The beauty of it is that it is a fresh product in a family-sized pack. We will probably launch those products by the beginning of 2015.”
The wave of new Irish chefs and the number of people travelling to Ireland and other parts of Europe from the US means more Americans know about the quality of Irish food and cooking, says Colbert, and this helps him sell and market his products.
“Gone are the days when Americans knew our food as corned beef and cabbage. You go to any of the Irish restaurants here, you will see a wide variety of products. We are putting our black pudding into salads. The food has become more sophisticated,” he says.
Colbert despairs at the US ban on EU beef imports because it prohibits the sale of Irish lamb in the market. New Zealand and Australia account for 96 per cent of all lamb imported into the US, yet he believes Irish lamb is a far superior product.
“If I had a penny for every time I was asked for Irish lamb, I would be a millionaire,” he says.
He has worked with the Irish Embassy in Washington and Bord Bia to push for Irish lamb to be segregated from the US ban. He knows it would fly off the shelves of high-end stores such as Whole Foods if that happened.
Should the ban on Irish lamb be lifted, Colbert’s business is “extreme well positioned” on the eastern US seaboard for any new meat exports coming into the US from Ireland.
“If we can get the Irish Government to basically get the finger out and go to Brussels and say we need to get this done on the lamb, it would be a huge boost to the Irish economy,” he says.
“Ireland couldn’t produce enough lamb that the American market would call for.”
CV: Bill Colbert
Name: Bill Colbert
Position: Chief executive, Tommy Moloney’s Irish meat importer and producer, Maspeth, New York
Family: Married with four children
Home: Originally from Abbeyfeale, Co Limerick, he lives in Pearl River, just north of New York City
Education: St Ida’s College, Abbeyfeale; Institute of Technology, Tralee; New York University
Hobbies: Big supporter of Irish rugby – he attended the recent All Blacks game at the Aviva Stadium – and golf.
Favourite product: His Irish breakfast sausage.
Something that might surprise: He co-founded New York Irish
Rugby Club in 1988, a team that lasted until 1995 when too many players started returning to Ireland as the Irish economy improved.
Something you might expect: He has been living in the US since 1987, at first illegally and later with a green card secured through the Morrison visa programme