The family who hand-harvests Ireland’s most westerly sea salt

Inside Track: Marjorie O’Malley, co-founder of Achill Island Sea Salt

The O’Malley family, who run Achill Island Sea Salt

The O’Malley family, who run Achill Island Sea Salt

 

Achill Island Sea Salt is a family business that was inspired by the forgotten tradition of salt production on the island. Founded by Marjorie O’Malley and her husband Kieran in 2013, they started in the family kitchen, where they hand-harvested sea salt from the Atlantic with their children.

They moved the business to an Údarás na Gaeltachta production facility on the island in September 2016, and recently launched a new smoked sea salt, produced by smoking the salt over oak and beech.

What sets your business apart from the competition?

We’re the only sea salt business that comes from an island off the coast of Ireland. Every salt is different, depending on where the water is gathered, and the soil. In our case, the water is running off the mountains as well as from the pristine waters in the sea, so that creates a very soft texture, with a flavour that chefs say enhances food. JP McMahon uses our salt in his cooking.

What’s the best business advice you’ve received?

Start small, listen to your customers, grow organically and keep an eye on the cash flow.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in business?

Forecasting wasn’t one of our strengths, and we also tried to target too many customers. We were trying to offer our product in every direction, which we still are, but we’re also still trying to figure out what’s the best area to focus on.

And your major success to date?

We’re still in business after five years. Moving to the factory was a success. We recently moved to glass for our packaging. We did that because our resource is the ocean, and plastic is causing a problem. We won a Great Taste award, a Blas na hÉireann award, and we were recommended by the McKenna Guide. We were also recently certified by the Organic Trust.

Who do you admire in business?

I was a member of the Going for Growth community, and I met a lot of female entrepreneurs. I really admire them for combining a family and business, especially a food business and all the challenges that brings.

Based on your experience in the downturn, are the banks in Ireland open for business to SMEs?

Initially when you go for a bank loan, the bank looks at your projections, which you try to project as positively as you can. But if you don’t reach those milestones, and you go back to look for more money, that becomes a big problem. You’re stuck between trying to be positive about your business, but if you don’t reach your projections, it goes against you negatively. In the very beginning, it’s very easy to get funding and move forward, but as you progress through, it becomes more difficult.

What one piece of advice would you give Government to help stimulate the economy?

We’re suffering from huge population decline in rural Mayo. The Government has done some things like tax relief for small businesses but they’ll have to do more, like increase tax credits for people settling in the west of Ireland or rebates for fuel if you have to travel to centres of population. There isn’t anything for graduates to come home to on Achill Island.

What’s been the biggest challenge you have had to face?

Balancing a family business, along with cash flow. We’ve been lucky to get grant aid, but you have to come up with the finance initially before you can draw it down, and that was a challenge. Trying to develop our brand and our packaging were also difficult.

How do you see the short-term future for your business?

We’d like to hire someone to do sales and marketing to help us with strategic planning. We’d also like to do some research and development on our by-products. Three per cent of salt water is salt, and the water is evaporated to reduce the salt, creating a lot of distilled water. We’d like to find a market to develop that.

What’s your business worth and would you sell it?

We’re very much on the low end of the growth curve. Like many start-up businesses, it takes a while to be profitable. Because there’s potential value, we don’t have any intention of selling it at the minute or in the future. We are passionate about it, but at the minute selling it doesn’t come into the equation.