Wild Geese: Telling and selling Ireland like it is
Rachel Gaffney’s stateside business covers Irish food and drink, media and culture
Rachel Gaffney: “I hit the reset button. It took me years of mistakes and sleepless nights to arrive to this point.”
On meeting Rachel Gaffney, I am immediately struck that she is a woman who is proud of her roots. Her formative years were spent in the Ursuline Convent in Blackrock, Co Cork.
In the Eighties, she left Ireland for Britain and pursued a marketing career. She rose to the rank of sales manager for Thistle Hotels corporate office, overseeing the government and communications sector for the group.
While in London, she met her husband Peter, whose career at Lloyds took them to Dallas in February 1996. After the birth of her two sons, she left the business world behind and adapted to being a stay-at-home mother.
“It was during my time as corporate wife and mum in Chicago and Dallas that I noticed people had a pre-conceived idea of Ireland. The questions people asked me were quite shocking, and I noticed that the stores I frequented, such as Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, etc, did not carry the kind of products from Ireland that I knew existed,” Gaffney says.
“It bothered me for years that countless drinking statistics made headlines on St Patrick’s Day but we were not represented in the mainstream stores like Italian, French and Greek products were.”
Gaffney introduced the Irish shortbread cookie to America and it proved to be the foundation of an entirely new career and brand. Using only the finest ingredients and Kerrygold butter, she made small quantities for friends, but the word got around that these were so good that people wanted to pay for them.
“An interior design store from Dallas bought my first batch of Irish shortbreads and then their customers wanted to buy them again and again,” Rachel recalls.
It was because of the cookies that Gaffney was invited as a guest on the Martha Stewart Living show. She moved her production from the small bakery in Dallas into commercial production in Chicago.
At a certain point, she began to feel that she was getting pegged as “the cookie lady”, which was never her intention. “I wanted to create a brand that would showcase and highlight the best Ireland had to offer,” she says.
“When people buy Le Creuset products, they don’t buy them because their great-grandparents are from France but because they trust the brand and its quality. I wanted people to buy products from me because of their quality.”
A pivotal moment for her business was when she met Neven Maguire in Atlanta airport in 2010. During the return flight to Dallas, inspired by their lunch, Gaffney set to rearranging her business plan. The core values and mission statement remained the same, but she readjusted her strategic course.
She immediately changed the name of her brand from Rachel Gaffney’s Authentic Irish Goods to Rachel Gaffney’s Real Ireland. It was to be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
Maguire had the same drive and inspiration so, when Gaffney embarked on the third phase – travel – of her RGRI brand in 2014, creating bespoke tours to Ireland, Maguire’s MacNean House Restaurant and cooking school in Cavan quickly became a favourite place for her guests to stay. “I hit the reset button on my business plan. It took me years of mistakes and sleepless nights to arrive to this point,” she says now.
The Rachel Gaffney Real Ireland brand now has a broad sweep, covering food and drink, travel, fashion, household goods, media and communications and culture.
She is frequently asked to give presentations to women’s groups about Ireland in Texas. She teaches cooking classes throughout the country and jokes that you do not go to her class for knife skills. “I am a storyteller and when people come to my class, they can buy and learn about the products.”
Gaffney created six recipes for the Irish Farmstead cheese collection for An Bord Bia and persuaded it to make videos with two-time Emmy-winning producer Bob Altman.
Altman was producer for the Martha Stewart Living show, and supervising producer for Everyday Food for PBS. He is no stranger to Ireland as he lived in Wicklow for months when he was line producer for This is My Father, starring Aidan Quinn, James Caan and John Cusack.
Together, Altman and Gaffney are developing her lifestyle brand by inviting partners to film both in the United Sates and Ireland for airing on multiple distribution channels. The possibilities of taking brand Ireland to the rest of the world through the internet are huge, as she has already demonstrated by repeated orders with Irish vendors.
Georgina Campbell was quick to see the Cork woman’s expertise and asked her to write a monthly column, now in its third year, called Rachel Gaffney’s Letter from Texas for her monthly ezine.
With a unique business model, Gaffney, who was listed in Tatler’s Top 100 Irish women internationally in 2015, may prove an inspiration to others setting off to establish themselves in new homes around the world.