Sofie Rooney and Garret FitzGerald are no strangers to the food and beverages business.
They are the driving force behind Chimac fusion restaurant and more recently the founders of a sauce company by the same name which they set up in October last year.
Rooney has background in communications and an MSc in marketing from the UCD Smurfit School while FitzGerald is a chef and former brewer at the Wicklow Wolf craft brewery.
Chimac’s sauces are inspired by Korean cuisine and a trip the couple took to the country back in 2016.
“We fell head over heels in love with a Korean cultural phenomenon called ‘chimaek’ which quite literally means fried chicken and beer,” says Rooney.
“We were so taken with it that three years later we opened Chimac which is a fast-dining casual restaurant with a menu that draws on the fried chicken we ate in Korea but also serves dishes that incorporate Irish cuisine and flavours.
“As a Dublin city centre restaurant we were hit very hard by the Covid-19 restrictions,” Rooney adds.
“We were already making original recipe sauces in the restaurant so we decided to pivot and to bottle and sell the sauces online via Deliveroo to keep some revenue flowing. Initially we did this at the restaurant but as restrictions eased and dining reopened we decided to move off-site and to turn the sauces into a totally separate entity with the goal of making it a sustainable, stand-alone business.”
Rooney says the hardest part of the transition has been getting to grips with scale.
“It’s a bit of a shock to the system to go from sending out orders for a few bottles to orders for cases of product at a time so this has required a big leap in production,” she says.
Also proving to be a challenge is finding suitable packaging and distribution as the couple’s early experience with delivery was not good.
“We were getting calls from customers telling us the bottles were smashed when they arrived which was obviously not on and, as we have our sights set on exporting, the packaging has to be able to withstand a lot of handling. It’s something we’re still working on but it’s not easy to find packaging that works but is also sustainable,” Rooney says.
There are currently three sauces in the line-up and Rooney says the idea is to let people “travel through food” and try Korean flavours in an accessible way. The sauces, which are pitched at the premium end of the market, cost around €6.95 for 350 mls.
“We are using Korean flavours, but the recipes and formulations have been developed specifically with the Irish and European palate in mind. Many consumers are unfamiliar with Korean food and are uncertain if they would like it. Our sauces offer the perfect way to try it out.”
Chimac sauces employs four people including a full-time production manager and Rooney says the company will self-produce rather than outsource the manufacturing.
“It’s about control,” she says. “We want to have total oversight of the quality and making it ourselves also allows us to stay close to our customers which is important. Because we have the restaurant we also have the perfect place to try out ideas for new products with our diners.”
Chimac sauces has been started with sweat equity and a shoestring budget of €20,000 and Rooney has recently completed the New Frontiers programme for start-up businesses at DIT Hothouse.
The brand, which was officially launched seven months ago, now has stockists in the UK, France, Germany, Switzerland and the US.
“The overall sauce and condiments category is very much dominated by big international players but growing consumer interest in flavours, quality, and novelty have created the perfect niche for brands like Chimac,” Rooney says.