Inside Track Q&A: Toby Simmonds, co-founder, Toonsbridge Dairy

A little taste of Italy in Macroom

Macroom-based Toonsbridge Dairy was set up by Toby Simmonds of the Real Olive Company and dairy farmer, Johnny Lynch, to produce fresh mozzarella cheese.

What is special about your business?
We have Ireland's only herd of water buffalo and are one of only 10 dairies outside Italy making real fresh buffalo mozzarella. Buffalo milk makes the best mozzarella and our buffalo milk is produced on a traditional Irish dairy farm that grazes pasture for 10 months of the year. In contrast, Italian buffalo are factory farmed in extremely stressed conditions. This freedom to graze needs to be actively promoted as a unique selling point for all Irish dairy produce.

What sets your products apart in your sector?
Mozzarella is unlike any other cheese in that it is best eaten the day it is made. It does not improve with age. Imported mozzarella is always more than one week old by the time it gets onto an Irish shop shelf. We have a very short lead-time from production to sale.

What has been your biggest challenge?
The whole project has been a rollercoaster and has involved learning about all kinds of new things from the fertility cycle of buffalos to understanding the many bacteria required to produce good mozzarella.

What has been your biggest success?
Producing the first ball of mozzarella after three months of getting nowhere. We also have managed our own distribution until now and have sold everything we've made.


What key piece of advice would you give to someone starting a food business?
Look beyond Ireland and Britain for ideas. In dairy, for example, southern Europe has a well-established food culture where it is normal for a dairy to produce a range of products while remaining very close to its distribution. While this is not always practical, it is something we have incorporated fully into our business model and it has helped us to quickly establish the brand.

Who do you admire most in business and why?
My original and still main olive supplier, Jean Pierre Huber. He has been an inspiration and remains a great friend. He mixes shrewd and sound business practice with unwavering vision and standards.

What two things could the Government do to help SMEs in the current environment?
Italy has introduced a law that compels invoices for food products to be paid at 30 days. This would be a great move for Ireland as delayed payment can be one of the most difficult parts of being a small producer. Ireland still has a huge culture of stringing out payments and using suppliers as creditors. This has a very negative effect on food SMEs.

The guidelines and attitude to raw milk cheese-making at the Department of Agriculture could definitely be more pragmatic and pro-business. During our research in Italy, we experienced many medium-scale dairies perfectly at ease with using raw milk. They were mystified there was so little raw milk cheese-making in a country they perceived as having the best milk in Europe.

In your experience are the banks lending to SMEs currently?
We got very lucky with the banks in 2009. We had a wily bank manager who managed to get us all of the loans we needed with tracker style rates. Those days are over now though and there is a very definite tightening up of the system. Even simple matters such as credit cards have become an issue.

What's the biggest mistake you've made in business?
There have been lots of wrong turns and blind alleys but all have been essential to the learning process. In general we are doing exactly what we set out to do. The sight of the first 29 buffalo arriving into Johnny's farmyard meant there was no turning back.

What is the most frustrating part of running a small business?
Rural broadband.

What's your business worth and would you sell it?
The Toonsbridge Dairy is a vital cog in a system that begins in a field and ends up on our market stalls all over Ireland. It would be very difficult to extract it with the rest of the business still in place. We have done the hardest part now and have a viable business to enjoy. Both Johnny and I have children. Toonsbridge offers a sustainable and rewarding future for any of them that want to remain in west Cork – so no, it's not for sale.

In conversation with Olive