Vegan producers hungry to make mark on our food industry

Products include plant-based ready meals, additive-free crackers and vegan treats

When it comes to food innovation it’s all about finding a niche and putting a new twist on it.

Shane Ryan, Katerina Kazantza, Artjom Blackred and Sjuzanna Muizniece are all part of the latest wave of new food innovators trying to stand out from the crowd. What makes this group different is that they're all vegan producers.

Ryan is the founder of fiid which makes plant-based ready meals. The range is called Nourishing Lunch Bowls and there are three varieties: smoky Mexican black bean chilli, Moroccan chickpea tagine and Italian sundried tomato and lentil ragu. They come in single serving pouches and don’t need to be chilled.

“Each meal is all natural, suitable for vegans, high in protein and made using 50 per cent vegetables to deliver a whopping three of your five a day. We describe fiid as ‘hyper convenient’ because it doesn’t need refrigeration making it the ultimate kitchen cupboard or office drawer staple,” Ryan says.


Business idea

Ryan studied commerce at the Shannon College of Hotel Management and then worked in the international hospitality sector mainly on the food and beverages side. This included a year managing a restaurant for chef Gary Rhodes in the Middle East. "By the time I was 24 I had lived in Germany, Malta, USA, London, Beijing and Abu Dhabi before returning to Ireland with the kernel of a business idea. To help me develop the idea further I enrolled in UCD's Innovation Academy where I did a post-grad in entrepreneurship, innovation and enterprise before starting my first business in 2016," Ryan says.

Ryan's initial idea was a fresh salad box delivery service to offices which was successful as far as it went, but wasn't suitable for exporting or scaling. Venture two was a chilled product for the retail trade but Ryan says this wasn't quite right either as keeping food correctly chilled was an issue as was waste. Business idea Mark 3, which was launched last December and is now an Enterprise Ireland HPSU company, is fiid.

“We went through a number of different incarnations as we tried to get the business model right and navigate the difficult landscape of outsourced manufacturing. We kissed a lot of frogs before finding our current producer, but outsourcing was essential if we were to scale the business and export,” Ryan says.

“I’ve always had demanding jobs where free time was a luxury. At the same time, I’m obsessed with food, health and fitness and found this glaring conflict between how I aspired to eat and how I had time to eat,” he adds. “I couldn’t find any prepared food that matched my criteria for taste, nourishment, healthy ingredients and convenience and so set about creating it myself.”

Ryan says convenience was his major goal and he felt this wasn’t up for negotiation despite being advised otherwise by food industry professionals. “We spent months researching different processes that would give us stability on the shelf while also maintaining flavour and texture. Ultimately, we chose to cook our meals sous-vide, which locks in the flavours and maintains the bite of the whole food ingredients but gives us a 12-month shelf life versus the 30 days of our chilled competitors.”

Ryan has spent in the order of €125,000 developing fiid and has global ambitions for the brand. The product was launched in SuperValu in December and is now available there and in independent food outlets. The company has just received its first listings in the United Kingdom.

Baking business

Greek-born Kazantza studied chemistry in her native country before moving to the UK in 2009 and to Ireland eight years later. "I started my home baking business in the UK and I really wanted to create something different, interesting, gluten-free and healthy and so I came up with the idea of a cracker for every moment of the day," she says. "It was very important to me to use my most favourite ingredient – olive oil – so I bring my extra virgin oil all the way from Crete where I come from to Cork where our flaxseed rounds are prepared in a dedicated gluten-free facility."

Katerina’s Pantry additive-free crackers come in two flavours: olive oil and sweet and smoked paprika. “The plain cracker is very versatile and can be used with both savoury and sweet toppings from roast pepper hummus to tangy lemon curd. The sweet and smoked paprika cracker is great with soups or with cheese like Gorgonzola or on its own,” Kazantza says.

Kazantza originally went to London to pursue a dance career before an injury forced her into a more sedentary job in project management. She subsequently became very interested in healthy and gluten-free cooking and began to put the baking skills learned at her grandmother’s knee to good use. Since moving to Ireland she has invested about €20,000 in her new venture which is just over a year old. Katerina’s Pantry products are available in 40 SuperValu and 20 independent food stores. The baking is outsourced and the company now has a distributor as Kazantza wanted to be able to scale up quickly.

Latvian-born Blackred and Muizniece set up the Blackred Bakery 11 months ago to produce vegan sweet treats. That’s a lot more difficult than it sounds as getting the textures and flavours right can be a real challenge. Blackred (a vegan) is a trained pastry chef and he says he wanted to make vegan versions of people’s favourite desserts without them even noticing the difference. “I wanted to show that you don’t have to lose the texture, the taste and the quality when you choose a vegan option,” he says.

The company is based in Dublin and its original business plan was to supply small vegan/wholefood cafes. However, the founders quickly found that while these small businesses were enthusiastic about Blackred’s products, they were not prepared to buy them preferring to make their own treats. This led to a refocusing towards retail sales and bigger establishments such as hotels already making their own cakes and desserts but lacking the “free from” facilities needed to produce vegan and gluten-free products on site and without sufficient demand to justify setting them up.

“Our target market is anyone who enjoys a dessert and we have a big range to suit everyone,” says Blackred who estimates start-up costs at about €20,000 which have been self-funded. Asked about the biggest challenge of setting up a small business, Blackred says: “It’s being impatient and wanting to do everything at once.”

Digital Food School

The Dublin Food Chain and the region's LEOs have come together to launch the Digital Food School which aims to give food entrepreneurs access to expert advice online. The programme is free and open to food businesses in Dublin initially with a national rollout to follow.