Shane Bonner, founder of Newmarket Kitchen, met with us recently to discuss his one stop shop for food businesses, and how to turn your innovative food idea into a successful business.
Why did you think Newmarket Kitchen could work, was there a particular moment or experience that made you realise there was a gap in the market for such an idea?
Yeah, well I was working in the farmers markets and the guys I was working with needed a kitchen for one day a week. I went about looking for a kitchen space, we weren’t in a position to pay that much or to pay for rent when we weren’t even there. The idea for Newmarket Kitchen kind of evolved out of small businesses that weren’t big enough to get their own place and were stuck working out of their domestic kitchen.
You’ve made Newmarket Kitchen a one stop shop for food businesses with kitchen, incubation and office space, are there any other features that you would like to add to it?
Yeah for sure. Right now we’re trying to introduce Food Science. There’s the new food labelling laws coming out in December which will mean all products right across the country are going to have to have nutritional content declaration which is like your calories, energy, salt, sugars, protein. Right now that’s for products that are sold in major retailers, but products that are sold in small cafes don’t have to have that nutritional content declaration, so we are trying to introduce that right now. We are also trying to introduce distribution whereby we have our own transport which will allow us to deliver products to shops.
Restaurants aren’t too fond of having to come up with calorie listings on their menus, do you expect that to be a tough issue for you to implement into the business?
Not so much. Most of our businesses here are producers, they are more concerned with their ingredients and their quantities, so nutritional content, labelling and calories is going to be more consistent for them. Whereas with restaurants the ingredients they have, the suppliers change, their calorie declarations are going to be a bit more difficult.
What do you feel is the biggest issue for new food businesses besides access to kitchen space and equipment?
Well it depends on what kind of business you are. Say if you want to own your own cafe or restaurant, probably the biggest challenge would be trying to get a unit. The city councils would define the number of businesses per street, per zone in Dublin, so trying to get your foot on the ladder or key in the door is very difficult and costs a lot of money. If you’re a producer it’s trying to get yourself onto the shelf and to do that it’s all the functions involved whether it be packaging, labelling, finding a kitchen, distribution, logistics, branding, marketing, all the different various functions.
Branding and social marketing are obviously very important for businesses these days, what sort of consultation and advice do you offer your members?
We hired Henry on the 4th of January, he’s a marketing and commercial graduate. What we’ve done in terms of branding and marketing is to consult with Henry, we have ideas in terms of where we think branding and marketing is going in the Irish market. We look abroad at the likes of America, Germany, and England, we think the trends kind of follow from there.
What would you say to new businesses that might think “Sure I’ll just do it all myself, how hard can branding and marketing be”?
I’d say benchmark. Everybody has their own ideas but try and benchmark to businesses, try take a bit of branding and marketing from all businesses, talk to people see what they like, see where the trends are going, try and benchmark.
When you and your members have done all the hard work and are ready to get selling, what are the biggest issues they face getting their product to market?
The biggest issue is that they’re on their own. There’s a big leap from when you’re on your own to scaling it up. The biggest problem is if you’re on your own you have to be the guy driving the van, producing the product, branding and marketing, social media, it’s hard to find time to do all that. The hardest challenge is for that one person to take the leap to cover all those bases to a satisfactory level, to hire people, to make sure all aspects are firing.
It must be amazing seeing that growth when you’ve worked with members from the very beginning and they are getting to that final stage with their product?
Yeah for sure. There are a couple of businesses coming in here now and they’re currently selling in shops. It’s a win for everybody, for example Claire has been selling to The Happy Pear for the past few weeks, and I’m delighted for her. It makes me really happy, it makes her really happy, and the other businesses can look to her and go “Wow, how did you get into there?”. Everybody’s been happy seeing her business progress.
How tricky is distribution for fledgling businesses?
Distribution is a pain. There are distribution companies out there but they charge quite a lot. Big supermarket shops basically want to deal with one invoice, the terms of payment can be quite long, there are only so many vans that they can take into the shop each day for deliveries. Generally the big supermarkets only want one or two suppliers, or very few suppliers.
The alternative is for small businesses to try and work with the suppliers for the shop, to work independently is quite difficult, to even do your own distribution is difficult because you’re producing and dealing with all the other aspects of your business. Yeah, distribution is a real pain for everybody. It ties the market up almost, it’s so traditional, new distributional channels are hard to break. It’s a challenge for us as we are trying to introduce that here, and for small businesses.
Bordbia has reported that Irish food and drink exports has exceeded 11 billion, are you going to help your members export their product in the future?
We’d love to. I’d guess that 11 billion is probably made up of all the big food companies but I think there’s huge potential for small food businesses to export. Like the farmers markets in France, England or elsewhere in Europe, Irish produce has that level of high worth amongst European individuals but they don’t have any small producers. They have the likes of Kerrygold butter and high quality Irish meat, but when it comes to small produce it’s very hard for Europeans to get their hands on it. There’s big potential in trying to sell into farmers markets.
Are there any countries that you particularly would have your eye on exporting to?
Mainly France, to send a pallet to France can be cheap. We know of an Irish distributor in France who would deal with the likes of Tayto, supplying that traditional Irish snack to Irish bars in France. We were talking to them briefly before Christmas to see if they could gauge the farmer’s market scene in France, to see if there’s potential for Irish small produce over there.
How many businesses can you host in Bray?
We can potentially host 25 to 30 businesses.
Are the premises suitable for members that might be offering gluten, nut, and wheat free products?
Right now we’re in the gluten-free kitchen, it has no flour or anything. We have a couple of businesses that are certified gluten-free and Mari that does “Dan & Monstro” got a certification there recently reinstating that her product is still gluten free. We are happy with that status but it’s something we may not be able to stand over in the future when we take on businesses that use flour. However, there are no additives or preservatives in the products here, it’s all natural in our kitchen.
Even with your help, what are the main risks that remain for your members?
Starting a business is expensive so the risk is financial, or you have to give up a job. There’s members here that are working full time and have to come in during weekends. That leap of faith where you have to give up your job and your regular income and go full hog to grow your business.
There’s also a financial risk with packaging and labelling. You also have to sacrifice your time and social life until you get going.
You have plans to expand, where do you feel is the perfect location for Newmarket Kitchen, and when do you hope to open another premises?
Right now we feel North Wicklow is actually a fantastic location for our kitchen. Originally I thought the city centre but the traffic the way its going is a problem. For future expansion, I’d consider staying here to be honest.
What separates you from other food incubation centres?
We are trying to be heavy on incubation, we try to take a more contemporary method in terms of the service we provide, whether it be help in marketing, branding, a bit of book keeping with the businesses, we do food science and food labelling. We try to connect the businesses with similar businesses abroad in America to encourage communication.
We’re more into pure networking and collaboration. There’s no competition between the members, it’s more like a team working together.
What advice would you give to a young budding food entrepreneur who has an idea but is unsure what to do next?
My advice would be to try and look into the social welfare that’s available, like the Back to Work allowance. I’d go to the Social Welfare office, talk to your Local Enterprise board, they will be able to put you in touch with people who can mentor you. Look abroad, try find something new that’s different and innovative, talk to people abroad, ring up somebody in America who has a similar business and talk to them. We are in the corner of Europe so they don’t see it as competition, Irish people are seen as kinda cool by American people, and they love to help them.
Pick up the phone and contact somebody to see what the pitfalls are. If you get the chance to go over and visit them, go do it!
Fancy taking the first step in creating your own food empire? Get in touch with Newmarket Kitchen