Since setting up their baby food business from their home in Northern Ireland in 2009, husband-and-wife founders of Heavenly Tasty Organics James Blair and Shauna McCarney-Blair have seen the firm go from strength to strength. Now the firm is about to launch its range of snack products in Asia. James Blair, operations director, tells John Shepherd about the firms latest expansion plans.
As with all “new-borns”, Heavenly started small. Fruit purees were the first products on the menu as the Blairs nursed their fledgeling company towards taking its initial steps into actual production for retail in 2011.
Five years on, and with a range of products now well established, the company saw growth of 900% year-on-year for 2015-2016. However, Blair says: “We are still a husband-and-wife team and not a multi-national.” It is that ethos which Blair believes continues to be the company’s hallmark for success.
“We have always approached the challenges of the business as parents,” Blair says. “About 11 years ago we had our first child, followed not long after by our second child. We prepared most of the food they ate ourselves at home, but we soon found out that our children had multiple allergies, including dairy allergies, so we were looking for products that contained no allergens.”
The scarcity of products on the market was the spur the couple needed to source their own ingredients and cook up nutritious and allergen-free meals their children would enjoy. The next step was a natural progression, of using their know-how and expertise to set up the business and help parents just like themselves.
“From the purees, we went onto popular meal choices such as shepherd’s pie, all free from every allergen,” James says. The firm moved into chilled foods as well as healthy baby snacks, using superfood ingredients such as kale and millet wherever possible. The duo worked with their local food technical college to develop recipes that were “shelf stable and nutritious”.
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The growth of Heavenly from “kitchen table concepts” to fully-fledged production, however, required the couple to quickly come to terms with the trials and tribulations that entrepreneurs face.
Just last year, the firm said it was halting production of its range of frozen and chilled products. Blair recalls it was a tough decision. “They were selling, but not in the volumes that we wanted. Some of the products had won us awards, but retailers are not in the habit of putting freezers to the front of the baby aisle products aisles so they proved difficult to sell.”
A decision was taken to focus on Heavenly’s range of ambient products and, last September, the firm launched a range of organic snacks designed for children six months and over.
Heavenly’s first move into snacks was though Yummy Wafer Wisps, which were test launched through Ocado. The products are a combination of fruit and vegetables, blended with ancient grains. They are available in pumpkin and banana; and spinach, apple and kale.
However, Blair stresses the option of reviving frozen and chilled products is being kept under review. “With the ambient goods we will have a presence in the baby aisles and people will get to know our name and what we do, Blair says. “That could then put us in a better position in terms of selling chilled and frozen products.”
Also last year, Heavenly entered the French market in a deal the firm said should be worth more than GBP100,000 (US$152,000). The business agreed to supply its New Organic Superfood range to 49 supermarkets and 15 hypermarkets operated by French retailer Casino Group.
Perseverance has paid off and the company is also working closely with playgroups to boost interest in and take-up of its products.
Today, Heavenly is selling in 15 countries and its products can be found in major chains such as Tesco, Waitrose and Morrisons. “We are also going into Carrefour and growing in Central Europe and Scandinavia,” Blair said. He said the company has a “large presence ” in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, its products are also sold in Australia and “we will be in Japan and Taiwan very soon”.
In addition, business registration for Heavenly has now been completed for its entry into the Indian market, where it hopes to have products on sale later this year. An application has recently been made to distribute in China too.
Blair says Heavenly’s snacks will be sold in their original English-language packets, but stacked in specially-branded cartons with the relevant language for local consumers.
Other parents are now among the teams of people employed by Heavenly to keep the ideas and range of products flowing while actual production is contracted out to third-party companies.
Blair says there are no artificial sugars in its products, which include Yummy Wafer Wisps and Crispy Veggie Waffles, and none contain above 22g of sugar per 100g. “Most are under 10g per 100g.”
According to Blair, research shows that these types of healthy snacks are increasingly popular in overseas markets such as Asia. “Increasing birth rates there is also an advantage for us as parents look for healthy products for their children.”
“Our production facilities are now in the UK and Europe,” Blair continues. “For a young company, we still have big potential. The company was born out of what for us was a necessity because of the needs of our children.”
The business is not the only thing to have expanded over the past seven years. The Blairs have found time along the way to increase the size of their family too. They now have four children, all of whom have been given a healthier start in life thanks to the talents of mom and dad!