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.