Combining tradition with innovation
The firm has used technology to ensure its product is the freshest around
Ger and Mag Kirwan of Goatsbridge Trout Farm with Prof Gerry Boyle at this year’s Irish Times InterTrade Ireland Innovation Awards in Belfast. Photograph: Arthur Allison.
Goatsbridge Trout Farm has been producing farm-fresh, premium-quality Irish trout for more than half a century yet it was acknowledged as Ireland’s most innovative food enterprise at The Irish Times Intertrade Ireland Innovation Awards earlier this year.
“We are one of the few trout farms that produce truly local products from start to finish – we grow our fish through their whole lifecycle from tiny eggs to fully adult fish,” says managing director Mag Kirwan.
“We want to be innovative in how we market our fish and how we package ourselves – that will be critical to our success in future.”
Indeed, innovation already plays a central role in the business. “We found the market for trout quite difficult and we were trying to think outside the box, to understand why people weren’t buying trout,” Kirwan explains.
“We found that the small pin bones in the fish were an issue for people and we decided that we had to eliminate these if we were to get more of our products into people’s shopping baskets.”
The company responded to this challenge by developing a prototype machine that combined traditional pin-boning with a suction vacuum.
This made Goatsbridge the first company in the world to remove these bones from freshly caught rainbow trout, allowing it to offer completely fresh boneless fish fillets to customers instead of waiting two days, which is usual in the industry.
This helped Goatsbridge make the breakthrough into the major multiples. “We began in Superquinn and once we proved the product would sell started to supply SuperValu. They made a conscious decision to buy our product and support Irish producers ahead of cheaper European alternatives. Those guys are genuinely supporting Irish industry.”
She is passionate about her product and its potential. “Each year there is a Savour Kilkenny food festival held on the October bank holiday weekend and we have usually held an event in association with that here at our premises in Thomastown. This year we are holding a ‘Focus on Fish’ event with lots of industry representatives attending.
“Fish is the future as far as I’m concerned. I’m tired of people here not appreciating what we have in Ireland in terms of aquaculture. We want people to come here to see what we do – we are the future. There are a lot of good people in the aquaculture industry and we want to highlight some of the good things that are happening.”
While success in Ireland is important, the future very much lies in exports. “We are producing a niche product and that means the Irish market is very small for us.
“However, there are lots of opportunities in export markets and that’s why we participated in the European Seafood Expo in Brussels earlier in the year. We were absolutely delighted with the reaction to our products and the support we got from Bord Bia. We also learned a lot about the market.”
The experience in Brussels has helped inform the company’s future strategy, which is firmly built on quality. “We like to progress and to be modern but some of the things we saw there wouldn’t be for us.
“We looked at water recirculation systems that would allow us grow a lot more trout in the same volume of space but I felt I couldn’t produce fish in that way and be happy. We are not going to be mass producers of trout trying to compete with lower-cost countries who are not as well regulated as we are.
“We can be a global brand in trout by producing the best-quality trout in the world and that’s what we do. We could ramp up production to thousands of tonnes annually but we are not going to do that; big is not always best. We will compete on quality.”
The firm also competes on inventiveness and its ability to extend its brand, with caviar being one interesting example. It may not be part of the Irish staple diet but it’s appearing on more and more restaurant menus in this country thanks to Goatsbridge.
“Irish caviar simply didn’t exist until we started looking at it,” Kirwan says. “We were throwing away eggs from maturing female fish and succeeded in finding a way to modify the process being used in other parts of the world to produce Ireland’s first trout caviar.”
While it is still very early days for this product, the reception from restaurateurs has been very encouraging. “We are getting great support from restaurants around the country and that is very helpful in terms of getting the Goatsbridge name on the menu. It’s been a very good door-opener for us.
“We won’t ever be producing tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of it but it will be an important product for us. We don’t want to be in any market where we are just price takers and we are able to sell our caviar as a branded product which has been made with loving care.
“It’s always a challenge to get your story out there but we are constantly innovating to look for new ways to tell our story and promote the Goatsbridge brand,” Kirwan adds.
“Our message is that our product offers two to three days longer shelf life and is a superior quality Irish product made by a company which employs 20 people down here in Kilkenny. That’s what we are going to concentrate on for the future.”