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Article appeared in issue 4, 2021

Bringing home the bacon

Oakpark Foods has risen to the many challenges facing businesses of late, helped in part by the success of its new own-brand range of pork and poultry

Oakpark is part of the family-owned Brett Group. Founded in 1940 by Bridget Brett and her four sons, it has since grown into a multinational pork, bacon, and poultry processor. John Brett, who runs the company with his brother David, discusses how the Oakpark brand is standing out in a crowded marketplace, and the opportunities still to be tapped into in the UK.

“Oakpark Foods is now a fourth-generation family business with over 250 employees. We have a pig farm in county Kilkenny and our pigs are fed from a bespoke diet produced at our animal feed mill in Callan. The feed used for the pigs is made from local wheat and barley harvested in southeast Ireland and brought to our mill for processing. Oakpark is the last step in the process where we produce award-winning pork and bacon products. Our family operates a unique vertical integration model through the supply chain where the last step is Oakpark.”

Oakpark’s primary business is in private label for well-known retailers, but it has achieved notable success with its own branded range of bacon and poultry products – Oakpark. “A lot of our private label volume is in the UK, with key customers like Lidl, Aldi and Morrisons, among others. But in the last two years, we have had great success building the Oakpark brand in Ireland, and we are now the third-biggest bacon brand in the country. Our presence has been cemented in Ireland, with stockists including Dunnes, Tesco, Musgraves, BWG, Iceland, Lidl and Aldi. This has given us confidence and a platform to expand into the vast UK market in recent years.”

Innovation is critical in a market as crowded as the UK. “The UK is a competitive space with some of the biggest meat producers in the world operating there. We have to stand out and our new product innovations – turkey bacon, turkey lardons, low fat bacon lardons, chicken bacon and American-style streaky bacon – have helped us to gain a strong foothold in the UK.”

Identifying the growing consumer demand for functional foods has helped to drive the direction of the company’s own brand. “I’ve been in Oakpark Foods for 10 years and, in that time, there’s been a huge shift towards health and wellness. People are very conscious now of what they are eating. Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board) helped us to identify market trends and we work closely with Kantar on insights into consumer appetites for healthy alternatives.

“Our standard turkey breast rashers have double the protein and one tenth the fat content of traditional back bacon rashers. They’re convenient, they can be cooked in three or four minutes. Our products are a huge hit with the Slimming World and Weight Watchers communities. Our turkey lardons, for example, came about when we analysed how some of our loyal followers on social media had been cutting up turkey rashers to add to their pastas and salads. So, we said we’d do that for them! We now have over 20,000 followers on Facebook and over 4,000 followers on Instagram, and we’re constantly being tagged by people using our products in recipes. People are more conscious of calorie counts and what they eat. We tailor to that market while still offering a tasty product.”

With new product development proving successful, how has the company fared against external challenges? “After what we’ve faced as a business in the past three years, we feel we are well-equipped to handle any challenge going forward! It started with the African Swine Fever global pig crisis; there was a disease outbreak in China which had a huge impact on global supply of pork and sent international prices rocketing and really tightened up supply chains. We then went straight into Brexit which was protracted, lasted three years and culminated in the British leaving [the EU]. Then, running concurrently, came Covid-19, which, as a retail packer, we have not been immune to in terms of growth and changes to our business model. We had to change some of our business practices in a very short space of time. Our staff have been superb in adjusting to all these tough business challenges.

“But our trade with the UK has not been altered by Brexit in terms of volumes. In fact, we’ve grown our business over the past year. What has changed is our export paperwork requirements and they’re due to change further this year. We worked with Bord Bia and Enterprise Ireland to prepare for Brexit. We want to stand beside a British supplier and not provide any further headache and red tape for the retailer or the customer.”

The UK, he says, is a land of opportunity. “We’re only scraping the surface. We have some key listings, but only with a selected range, and the Oakpark branded range in Ireland has over 15 products. There are huge opportunities. Our brand is becoming more recognisable in the UK because of our listings and our social media and we have huge ambitions to grow further, to push our innovation. But we want to do this without losing sight of the larger part of our business, which is our private label packing capabilities and our private label business partners. We are dedicated and committed to growing that core business also.”

 

On sustainability

“Sustainability was a buzz word five years ago; it was a developing trend. Now it is at the top of all retailers’ lists of demands at negotiation. We’ve moved all of our modified atmosphere packaging (MAP packs) from 0% recyclable to 90% recyclable. Next year, that pack will be 100% recyclable.”