Cork based baker Elizabeth Heron talks to Taragh Loughrey-Grant about going from retirement to running a successful business, which currently supplies a range of products to Aldi, Supervalu and Kelkin

TLG: How did Heron Bakery begin and how did you get to where you are today?

Elizabeth Heron: We came to Ireland to retire in 1994; our son was living here and our grandchildren are Irish. We found a house in Sandy Cove near Kinsale and settled in to enjoy a life of leisure. After a while we became bored, the proprietor of a small health shop in Kinsale that I frequented asked me to make a few loaves of special flavoured breads for her. I started producing flavoured breads and shortly after a delicatessen opened and asked for a different variety of breads, then a new hotel opened and wanted product.

So before we knew where we were we had a small artisan bakery on our hands. This grew and we took over an incubator bakery in Bandon, within six months we had outgrown this facility and we moved up to the site in Knockbrown which is a converted farm. The bakery grew until we had five delivery vans on the road and the bakery was working 20hrs a day! In the meantime I had been asked to make some gluten-free products for customers and co-incidentally the only producers of gluten-free products in Ireland went into liquidation. We were asked by our bankers if we would be interested in taking it on.

We did so and ran the two businesses side by side for about a year until we managed to sell on the conventional side of the bakery to a firm in Cork and so then were able to concentrate on the gluten-free business.

We launched at Olympia in London in 2002 and the company has gradually grown since then. About two years ago it became clear that people wanted a good-flavoured gluten-free bread, so I started working on the project. After many, many loaves ended up in the bin I managed to produce one that I felt was good enough to take to the market.

Aldi heard that we had a gluten-free bread and asked to taste the loaves, they liked them and we then we had to look at production space again. This time we found a large unit in the Udaras Business Park here in Ballingeary. We went into production at the beginning of October last year and are now producing about 5,000 loaves of Aldi’s Lynch’s Gluten-Free bread a week.

What are your most popular products and why?
The gluten-free bread is almost certainly our most popular product, but we also make biscuits under the Kelkin brand and Supervalu brand. Most of our work is for private label, we also produce porridge and muesli for the gluten-free market and chocolate rice cakes for various supermarkets. In addition to Aldi, Supervalu and Kelkin, we also make products for Il Fior in Italy and Supernature in Dubai as well as our own brand which goes to distributors in Ireland.

What are your product development plans for the future?
We have just taken on a new customer who is based in the UK and we are making two wonderful savoury biscuits for them. They have just told us that the Olympic committee has expressed an interest in these biscuits for the two weeks of the Olympics later this year. They also have a range of sweet biscuits that they want us to take on so life looks as though it will be busy. We would also like to expand the bread business to include a seeded bread and perhaps rolls.

What changes have you seen in the demand for Gluten Free products over the years and how have your changed your products to suit this demand?
The gluten-free market still seems to be rising at about 11% per annum but the bulk of the customers seem to buy these products as a diet of choice. A number of sportsmen have come out and said they are on gluten-free diets; Novak Jokavic and Jensen Button to name just two. The choice of products has certainly grown over the years but the main complaint from our customers is that gluten-free has a large premium. We are happy that Aldi are able to sell the bread at €1.99 per loaf, which is very competitive.

Do you also make products for people suffering from other health problems/ allergies?
Some of our products are lactose free, but we try to concentrate on the gluten-free market.