In 1986, Jim and Breda Maher blazed a trail when they launched Cooleeney, one of the first Irish farmhouse cheeses on the market. Since then both their business and the farmhouse cheese sector have gone from strength to strength and it looks as if the couple’s enterprising spirit has rubbed off on the next generation. Their twin grandsons, James and Daniel Buckley, are the co-founders of Souper Fresh, an early-stage start-up that uses surplus whey from cheesemaking instead of stock to produce more eco-friendly soups.
“We grew up working our summers in our grandparents’ cheese factory and we noticed that while whey was seen as a valuable ingredient in health foods, cheesemakers were paying for excess whey to be taken away or they were spreading it on their fields as a way of getting rid of it. The problem with this is that it can burn the grass and cause eutrophication in rivers and streams if not managed properly,” James Buckley says.
“The idea for Souper Fresh came out of the Enactus Ideation Summit in November 2022 [an event that encourages young entrepreneurs to develop socially responsible businesses] and we were originally planning on making baked goods using dried whey as an ingredient. However, when we looked into the economics of drying whey, it became clear that it was only viable with really big volumes. So, we started thinking about an alternative product that would use whey in liquid form. Soup immediately came to mind and we pivoted.
“We replace the stock with whey liquid, which allows us to reduce our energy use and costs as we’re not simmering ingredients, like bones, for ages to make stock. Stockmaking consumes large amounts of energy and water contributing to carbon emissions and water pollution. Our method mitigates all the negatives of traditional soupmaking,” Buckley says.
Helping out with the family business introduced the twins to manufacturing from an early age but also gave them exposure to the sales, promotion and marketing side of the operation as they regularly accompanied their grandparents to big public events such as Bloom and the Christmas gift fair at the RDS. Both are in their third year of management science and information systems studies at Trinity College Dublin and were recent participants in TCD’s Tangent Launchbox accelerator for budding student entrepreneurs.
The founders have just soft launched their first product, a vegetable soup, in a small number of outlets in Tipperary, Cork and Dublin to test consumer reaction. Two more flavours are ready to go, and Buckley says the soups are a good source of vitamin B12 and iron and high in calcium, potassium and vitamin E. The company has made its first hire on the production side and the plan now is to ramp up the volume as the colder weather sets in.
To date, the twins have spent about €30,000 on their business with the bulk of this going on the construction of an industrial-scale soup kitchen at the Cooleeney facility in Tipperary. Launchbox contributed €10,000 to the start-up budget with the remainder coming from private investment. Other costs include nutritional analysis, shelf-life testing and graphic design for new packaging. “We have not had any outside funding yet as we have been focused on perfecting our recipes and building up a small but loyal customer base before we scale,” Buckley says.
Souper Fresh is a nice example of one business working with another to create a circular manufacturing cycle as it currently sources its whey from Cooleeney. However, if the business takes off, Buckley says there will be no shortage of cheesemakers willing to donate their excess whey. “They currently spend thousands getting rid of it every year so it’s an ingredient we never envisage having to pay for,” he says.