Crumbs of success

Michael Carey of East Coast Bakehouse talks to IrishFood about Covid-19 creativity,
the importance of female empowerment,and why sustainability is here to stay

Snagging a place on the list of Europe’s fastest growing firms is no mean feat, especially when you encounter Brexit and a pandemic in your first five years. In March, the Financial Times included East Coast Bakehouse in the 1,000 companies in Europe that achieved the highest percentage growth in revenues between 2016 and 2019: the Drogheda-based company recorded a CAGR of 142.2% and revenues rose from €268,000 to €3.8m during this period.

“There is €5m worth of biscuits imported in Ireland every week. By establishing a large scale competitive, innovative biscuit manufacturer, we believed we could supply some of that domestic market, but more importantly become a platform to allow us to export from Ireland into our target countries with our three ‘sources of growth’: our own brand East Coast Bakehouse, retailers’ private label and contract manufacturing,” explains co-founder Michael Carey.

Exporting, he says, is where the growth lies. “Last year, we won the overall Irish Exporter of the Year Award. Exporting is very important to us: it accounts for 35% of our revenue today, and we expect that to grow to over 50% in the next year or two. We were also listed last week by the Financial Times as the third fastest-growing food business in Europe. In that context, attending trade fairs and events has been a hugely important part of how we have built the business so far. In the absence of those type of events because of Covid-19 restrictions, it’s great to have an alternative offering in the way Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board) is planning.

We’ve some good business in the UK and we hope to expand on that and in Europe, our areas of focus are Germany, France and Holland. We established our facility in Drogheda, the Bakehouse.
It has full scale manufacturing capability (including one of the largest biscuit production lines in Europe) and it’s now fully commissioned and available to meet some exciting opportunities in the marketplace. We see almost endless opportunities and it’s about prioritising which are the more attractive ones to us, where we can help our customers to drive their growth.”

The team at East Coast Bakehouse has identified opportunities in functional and health/wellness related products such as high-protein biscuits, sugar-free biscuits, keto diet and vegan products. “We’ve developed products in all those areas and launched into export and domestic markets. We have a full-scale innovation capability in Drogheda and a really good team coming up with some insight-based innovations. We are offering them to our existing customers and hopefully the new customers that we will secure through programmes like the Bord Bia virtual sourcing event.

“Our vegan range has just been launched and has secured listings in the UK and here in Ireland and we’ll offer it further afield. It’s an area where interest has been spiked among consumers seeking offerings that match closer with their lifestyles. The retailers we have shown it to have supported it, probably faster than a lot of the other mainstream products that we have offered over the past few years, it’s had almost an immediate response at a retail trade level.”

The global pandemic has caused disruption at trade level but has sparked change at consumer level, he says. “Covid-19 has slowed a lot of things down. The difficulty in getting face-to-face meetings is significant, not being able to meet customers at our site, or attend international trade fairs: all of those things have been part of our growth over the last few years and Covid-19 has blocked that progress in many ways. Getting decisions takes longer, getting engagement takes longer and we have to find creative ways to do that, and I think Bord Bia’s virtual sourcing event is part of that creative move.

“At a consumer level, I think everyone is questioning how they want to live, work, spend, consume, and in that context, they are seeking out alternative offerings, something different, something that chimes with their current thinking. I think there is a heightened awareness of the need to eat healthily, to buy local. Supporting local business is hopefully part of the new environment as we emerge from Covid-19.”

 

Sustainability journey

Sustainability, he says, has been part of the business from the start. “We set out to establish the business as an Origin Green member rather than retrofitting it afterwards. We rejuvenated a derelict site and brought it back into use which was the first step on our sustainability journey. It was a dilapidated industrial building and it needed significant investment to become a world-class food manufacturing site.

“We set zero landfill waste targets: everything is recycled, even the food waste which we sell to a local farmer who uses it for pig feed. Sourcing more recyclable packaging is a major priority for us and a challenge in some cases to find the right suppliers who can meet our needs for truly sustainable packaging. In the area of energy management, we are looking at solar panels and changing the lighting that we use in the facility. We have very low levels of water usage other than as an ingredient and certainly a low level of water wastage in the facility.

“A lot of our efforts are going towards sourcing sustainable purchasing. We are closely associated with organisations in terms of sourcing sustainable chocolate and sustainably produced palm oil. Those organisations provide support, information and also credibility for a new business. When consumers see these programmes, it gives us a borrowed interest as a company that we can trade off.

“We’re incredibly fortunate to have the Origin Green programme. For individual companies trying to get across the message of sustainability to their trade customers or their consumers, it’s a very difficult path. Attending trade fairs with the strong branding, clear communication and impactful imagery associated with Origin Green, gives much more credibility than one small company trying to claim that we are making better efforts than other companies. Since we’ve started, we have always presented our sustainability credentials to new customers, new trade customers, new brand partners. We tell them we are part of Origin Green. It’s becoming embedded in the business.”

Community engagement is another strand of the company’s sustainability programme. “We established the Baker’s Dozen Fund and the name stems from Victorian times when bakers were under a restriction of not short-changing anyone, and to avoid that, they always put a thirteenth loaf into the dozen going into the oven. In our case, we have committed to giving the profits from every thirteenth packet of East Coast Bakehouse biscuits to selected causes, mainly in the areas of food security, homelessness and female empowerment, such as programmes in the Simon community at home and Goal internationally.

“In the area of female empowerment, my wife and partner in the business, Alison Cowzer, has established an arrangement with the Irish Girl Guides where we produce a product specifically for them and they supply it to their troops around the country. They establish an enterprise where they sell them to their communities and use it to generate funds, but more importantly use it as a programme to encourage entrepreneurship and business skills development. They brand it as ‘creating future CEOs and entrepreneurs’, and the winning group comes to visit the Bakehouse. It’s part of a wider programme of engagement with the community and wanting to build a sustainable business. It’s more than just selling a few biscuits.”

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