'We wanted to create a beautiful moment through chocolate'
Inside Track: sisters Natalie and Karen Keane of Bean and Goose
Sisters Karen and Natalie Keane of Bean and Goose chocölatiers
They began selling at food markets in Dublin and now sell into approximately 120 gourmet food stores, gallery and gift shops, bookstores, cafes and specialist off-licences countrywide. The company is based on Last Tree Farm, outside Ferns, in Co Wexford.
What sets your business apart from the competition?
We started the brand because we wanted to create a beautiful moment through chocolate and that comes into our product design, our packaging and flavours. We work with wonderful Irish illustrators (including Steve McCarthy who designed our Easter packaging this year) as well as other Irish makers and artisans who each bring their own layer of creativity to the brand.
We try to celebrate Ireland through our brand too – we are named after the Bean Goose, which winters in Wexford during its migration and even the shape of our 80 gram bar is inspired by the topography of Last Tree Farm.
What is the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received?
We were at a Bord Bia event at which William Kendall, responsible for the phenonemal success of Green & Black’s, was speaking. He advised having a really good financial person on board.
Even as a small food business, we have thousands and thousands of units per year and we need to know exactly where those units are being sold, what margins they are being sold at and to be able to see if our marketing and messaging is working by analysing our sales data. This was something we knew anyway but when someone like William Kendall says it emphatically you really realise the importance of it. It takes time to build a brand like ours and the best opportunity you have to do that is to be really clever with your financials.
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Not sure whether to hurry for the Hare, or catch the Goose on the loose? Our Easter bundles are a good excuse to try both. Choose from a milk or dark chocolate hare, and a milk or dark chocolate egg. Or try our most elegantly indulgent Easter bundle... The Riot of Spring! With 4 of our most popular 80g bars, including Smoked Irish Sea Salt with single origin milk chocolate from Java or Spiced Hazelnut in 70% single origin chocolate from Ecuador ➡
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in business?
Probably taking too long to make decisions. As the business gets bigger, we need to move fast with making decisions. Our gut feeling has nearly always been right so we need to learn to be more confident that we are making the right decisions and to know that we have enough knowledge about our business. Slow decisions can really have an impact.
And your major success to date?
Building a loyal and returning customer base since those early days of the business in the markets. That we have created a brand that connects with our core customers. We need to now amplify that but we know we have done that right. In the past few months we have also become a high performance start-up client with Enterprise Ireland and we now have a private investor on board.
Who do you most admire in business and why?
We really admire the people behind Keogh’s Crisps, they seem to have built a strong business that exports around the world and they have done that with a premium product in a mature market. They came into an existing market with a product that was more relevant to the modern consumer.
Based on your experience in the downturn, are the banks in Ireland open for business to SMEs?
We’ve had to look elsewhere. Enterprise Ireland and Bord Bia have been very supportive to us and, when we bought our first piece of machinery, we had to go to Microfinance Ireland. But the banks, for us, no.
What one piece of advice would you give Government to help stimulate the economy?
I can only talk from our perspective but cash flow is vital. At the beginning, you have to keep the business going long enough to build trust in the brand and, to do that, you have to have the opportunity to grow and mature. It’s probably right that funding is not easy to get but it also takes a long time to get funding – which takes time out of running a business and pushing things forward.
What’s been the biggest challenge you have had to face?
It’s that “finite time and resources” problem. Karen and I have had to bridge skills gaps very quickly because we haven’t been in a position to employ people to do certain jobs. This is where, hopefully, the HPSU will come in, enabling us to bring people on board full-time who can really add value to what we are doing.
How do you see the short-term future for your business?
Our focus is working hard to build our online presence. We are currently trying to develop a digital strategy in order to try to find our voice online and to connect with people both in Ireland and worldwide. We want to double our sales in Ireland in the next year and to begin to look at export in key markets abroad. At the moment we are also actively looking for an industrial unit in Co. Wexford.
What’s your business worth and would you sell it?
I don’t know how much the business is worth at the moment as we are just at the beginning of our journey. In terms of selling it, I couldn’t even answer that, but right now, no.