The ce­real en­tre­pre­neur

Irish Independent - Business Week - - BUSINESSWEEK - Sarah McCabe

Busi­ness­woman Maria Betts finds a new niche with her gluten-free range My Big Idea,

MARIA Betts, orig­i­nally from Wick­low and now liv­ing in Rath­farn­ham, Dublin, runs gluten-free gra­nola busi­ness Maria Lu­cia Bakes.

“I worked in ex­ec­u­tive coach­ing for many years be­fore this, work­ing with CEOs and se­nior ex­ec­u­tives on lead­er­ship skills and ca­reer de­vel­op­ment. I ran my own com­pany, so Maria Lu­cia Bakes isn’t my first foray into en­trepreneur­ship. But it is the first time I have had a tan­gi­ble prod­uct to sell, which I love.

I have al­ways adored cook­ing and bak­ing. It is in my DNA. My fam­ily ran a tea­rooms and guest house in Glen­dalough when I was small and my mother made all the food from scratch. She was an in­tu­itive cook, the kind that never needed a recipe. I’m not quite that ad­vanced but it is def­i­nitely a pas­sion.

I came up with the idea for a gluten-free gra­nola busi­ness in June 2013, when a friend of mine who is coeliac (in­tol­er­ant to gluten) came to stay. I made her up a big batch of gluten-free gra­nola, which is an oat-based dried ce­real, to make sure she had plenty to eat for break­fast.

She took a bag home and shared it with an­other coeliac friend, who liked it so much she asked to buy it. Sud­denly I saw a busi­ness op­por­tu­nity. I went to my lo­cal en­ter­prise board and then to Bord Bia, who had great re­search on gluten-free prod­ucts in other mar­kets.

The re­search showed that de­mand for gluten-free goods is grow­ing around the world as the middle classes swell and peo­ple are in­creas­ingly con­cerned about their health. In Italy, for ex­am­ple, the num­ber of peo­ple di­ag­nosed as coeliac has dou­bled since 2007. Saudi Ara­bia has a huge num­ber and Ire­land would be quite high too.

By Novem­ber 2013 I was ready to go, hav­ing de­vel­oped a range of recipes and got­ten my pack­ag­ing right. All of my gra­nolas are wheat-free, dairyfree, high in fi­bre and rel­a­tively low in sugar; honey is used spar­ingly as a sweet­ener.

I started out sell­ing at farm­ers’ mar­kets in Dublin, which was a great way to get feed­back. Then I started sell­ing to a few spe­cial­ist food shops. Next I joined the Su­perValu Food Academy pro­gramme run in con­junc­tion with Bord Bia and the Lo­cal En­ter­prise Of­fice net­work. That has been fan­tas­tic.

My prod­ucts are now stocked in 150 Su­perValu stores and more than 100 health food shops and in­de­pen­dent re­tail­ers, plus I re­cently got a list­ing with Dunnes. I have also re­cently started ex­port­ing to my first over­seas mar­ket, Nor­way. I have out­sourced all my pro­duc- tion to a gluten-free bak­ery. I knew from the be­gin­ning that I couldn’t make the prod­uct and build the busi­ness at the same time. Get­ting my own com­mer­cial premises wasn’t for me. Al­most ev­ery­thing is out­sourced, in fact, from the com­pany’s so­cial me­dia man­age­ment to ac­count­ing.

This model al­lows me to grow in a lean way and ex­pand us­ing my own funds, rather than re­ly­ing on loans or grants. How­ever I did re­cently take on my first em­ployee. AIB also gave the busi­ness an over­draft which was great.

Next on the agenda is to ex­pand the Maria Lu­cia Bakes prod­uct range. I brought out a sugar-free ver­sion this Jan­uary that is prov­ing very pop­u­lar.

This year I plan to roll out a pa­leo gra­nola, a toasted muesli and pour-in pots which peo­ple can eat on the go. Af­ter that the fo­cus will be on brand build­ing and ex­pand­ing the ex­port­ing side. I am at­tend­ing the Free From Expo in Am­s­ter­dam this sum­mer with that in mind.

Wick­low woman Maria Betts with her prod­uct range

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