Irish savoury meat company Clonakilty has returned to its home-town roots following a EUR7m (US$8.2m) investment in a new, self-contained site. However, the move comes with Brexit hanging over Ireland’s exporters. Simon Harvey catches up with CEO Colette Twomey.

Irish black pudding producer Clonakilty Food Co. has unveiled a new factory in its namesake town in southern Ireland, from where it is hoping to grow its domestic sales and its exports to the UK and mainland Europe despite the uncertainty presented by Brexit.

Clonakilty’s new production facility, also home to a new product development centre, is the result of a multi-million euro investment by the family-run artisan business.

Clonakilty, which traces its origins back to the 1800s, makes traditional Irish black pudding, a white variant and sausages, along with a gluten-free range. The puddings use beef blood instead of pork, which has allowed the company, for example, to ship its products to the predominately Muslim United Arab Emirates to cater to the Irish expatriate community looking for home-comfort foods and what CEO Colette Twomey calls “iconic Irish brands”.

The company, which employs 50 people from the local area, generates an annual turnover of approximately EUR16m and saw revenue grow about 10% in 2016, Twomey tells just-food. Growth averaged around 8% in the past few years, she points out.

“It’s not a safely-guarded secret,” she says when asked about the turnover numbers. “You have to be mindful of who your customers are, how they can dictate demand. If these figures are out there they can demand a bigger slice of the pie. Getting your profits up and staying in business is the everyday battle.”

The bulk of Clonakilty’s sales are generated in Ireland but the firm plans to stretch further afield as the local market becomes almost “saturated”, Twomey says.

The company already has a presence in Australia, where a “small” butcher with a “few shops” and a food facility in the country makes Clonakilty black pudding under licence. Although the raw ingredients are sourced there because of Australia’s meat import restrictions, Twomey emphasises the secret blend of spices is the key element.

“Our individuality is really the spice mix,” says Twomey, who personally mixes the special spice blend behind the products. “I’m mixing the spice and then sending that in.”

The company also sees Germany, France and Spain offering opportunities. The firm is working with Bord Bia, an Irish state agency that promotes sales of food and horticulture both locally and overseas, to identify opportunities in those countries. Clonakilty already ships to Spain but only to the southern coastal areas where most of the Irish ex-pats are located. 

France offers “huge potential”, Twomey claims. While the nation makes its own black pudding, restaurants and chefs in the country “are open to using new things”, Twomey says, especially given the crumbly texture of Clonakilty’s puddings.

However, she adds: “North Spain is renowned for black pudding not too unlike ours. France is a different concept, so will probably be more difficult.”

Twomey is “optimistic” about Hong Kong and Singapore, markets with large ex-pat communities. The company conducted trials but did not have the “adequate licensing” to send its products from the old site. That has now changed with the new, bigger plant in West Cork, which comes complete with scanning and stock control systems. That set-up now opens up possibilities in the US, where Clonakilty has researched distribution routes.

“With our new facility here, hopefully we’ll get the licence for the United States,” Twomey says. “Licence approval is a difficult one, but we are working towards that now as well.”

Nevertheless, she says the UK offers the most potential. In the UK, Clonakilty’s products are on the shelves of select Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons and Budgens, as well as being listed with online retailer Ocado.

“After Ireland – 26 counties – Northern Ireland is a growing market, and where we have most potential is of course the UK. But then the uncertainty of Brexit comes in.”

Twomey says the UK’s vote to leave the EU presents the “fear of the unknown”. Companies exporting to the UK have seen pressure from the fall in sterling, while concern about overall trading conditions and consumer confidence in the country is a worry. Moreover, looking ahead, the uncertainty over the UK’s future relationship with the EU and the future of the border between the UK and Ireland – about which London and Dublin found early common ground last Friday – adds to the uncertainty. 

“It’s as low as it can go now,” Twomey says of sterling. “It makes things difficult. Besides that, it is really the unknown aspect – hard border, soft border, tariffs.”

Twomey says she recently attended an event where the participants mentioned the “huge tariffs” that could potentially be imposed on meat and dairy, and milk powders.

“A business like ours couldn’t survive that,” she reflects. “In the marketplace, from our selling point, we would be very much challenged.”

The new complex at Clonakilty has been built with a multi-purpose room, which will open as a visitor centre next year to take advantage of tourism to the town and people’s interest in the history of the company, as well as a better knowledge of how the food is produced, Twomey says.

“People need to know where the food is coming from, with no hidden agendas,” she asserts.

Clonakilty is also looking at new product development as a means to drive its sales. Twomey describes innovation as “high on the radar”, and this year, the company launched sausages containing its black pudding, where there is “great room for development”.

Twomey mentions the prospect of black-and-white puddings, sausage-related products and stuffing – products that are “something more convenient, more value-added”.

She adds: “Because we have the new facility, new product development will be high on our radar. The technology will follow now for new products.”

With its new factory, Clonakilty is entering its next phase with qualified optimism, watching closely the Brexit-related clouds on the horizon.