With support from Enterprise Ireland, BFree Foods has developed a range of innovative new products in the "free-from" category, which has seen it expand beyond Britain and Ireland and into the US, Australian and Scandinavian markets, among others.
“Retail buyers told us they weren’t interested in something that simply replicated existing products on the shelves,” says BFree Foods’ general manager Alex Murphy. “They were asking us what was different about our product. Unless you have a USP, you needn’t bother. They want to know your products are going to bring different customers down that aisle.”
Innovation is a key driver of business growth, according to Joe Madden, who manages in-company research, development and innovation supports at Enterprise Ireland. “At Enterprise Ireland, we see that in relation to sales, exports and job-growth, companies which innovate will most often outperform those that don’t. Our data shows too that a company’s products only remain competitive for a limited time. It typically takes two to three years before a successful product is superseded in the market by something new.”
The BFree story began in 2011 when Murphy began working with Cuisine de France founder Ronan McNamee. “I joined Ronan on a mission to find the best gluten-free bread offering possible,” she recalls. “Our research found that the gluten-free bread manufacturers were adding sugar, fat and oils to make their products taste nicer. People were stopping buying them for health and other reasons. We started working with UCC on developing good-tasting bread that was good for you and came up with two recipes.”
Test-marketing took place in a pop-up shop off Dublin’s Grafton Street. “It was meant to be there for two weeks, but it stayed open for three months. It was one of the best decisions we ever made. We got great feedback from customers and changed the recipes. We took out dairy, for example, as a lot of people told us they had dairy intolerances, and we had vegans coming in as well.”
International expansion was always on the cards. “We had global ambitions from the very beginning,” says Murphy. “The products had to be exportable and the brand name was key as well. It had to be easily understood in different markets. Many existing products were under medical-sounding names – we wanted to be different.”
Having perfected its initial offerings, BFree quickly became the ‘free-from’ market leader in Ireland. “The UK was next for us and that was very challenging,” she notes. “We had to come up with something different. We went to trade shows and we spoke to hundreds of free-from customers and asked them what products they were missing. We were going after categories that didn’t exist – not just stealing share.”
“That’s where the Enterprise Ireland project started,” Murphy continues. “We didn’t go into the UK market with traditional loaves, we went in with gluten-free tortilla wraps which were the lowest calorie on the market and could fold without breaking. Enterprise Ireland has facilitated us so much by helping to develop our R&D resources. That has opened up different possibilities for us. We tripled our R&D department. We’ve launched six new lines this year and Enterprise Ireland enabled us to do that.”
Market diversification is also key. “The UK is still hugely important to us,” she says. “We own 10 per cent of the free-from segment there. But innovation to diversify away from the UK is big for us. We are targeting other countries as part of our Brexit strategy. We have just received a free-from listing from Walmart in the US. That was based on the fact that we offer different products in the category. It’s a niche within a niche so it is quite difficult.
"The US is our strongest emerging market now and it now accounts for 40 per cent of our sales after just two years. The sheer scale of the market makes it very important. We are in 1,500 Kroger stores now and will be in 500 Walmart stores from January. We are in Australia and Scandinavia as well. Our next step is into continental Europe. That market has been a bit behind when it comes to free-from, but we believe the timing is right now. If you just do known-value products, you get into a price war. You have to go after unknown value lines. You have to try to be first to market as well and Enterprise Ireland has supported us in doing that."