Self-con­fessed choco­holic tick­ling taste­buds with Wilde At­lantic flavours

Aine O’con­nor meets Tricia Far­rell, who’s rais­ing the bar with her hand­made choco­lates firm in the West of Ire­land

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Business & Appointments - - FRONT PAGE -

TRICIA Far­rell says she and her hus­band Con have three ba­bies — a choco­late com­pany, a son and a daugh­ter. Tricia, who is orig­i­nally from Ringsend in Dublin, met Con at UCD in the 1990s and af­ter their de­grees they moved to Clare to work in the Bur­ren. It was Con who had the ini­tial urge to run their own busi­ness, but Tricia took to the idea “with great alacrity”. Tricia is a life­long self-con­fessed choco­holic and the ad­vice to stick to what you know led the Far­rells to com­bine their work in the tourist in­dus­try and that love of choco­late in a busi­ness that over 20 years has seen a ma­jor change in Ire­land’s re­la­tion­ship with choco­late.

“As a child my first dream would prob­a­bly have been to own a choco­late shop but when we were think­ing of run­ning our own busi­ness we thought, ‘Why choco­late shop? Why can’t we make our own?’” At the time, just be­fore the mil­len­nium, there were a few Ir­ish com­pa­nies mak­ing choco­late like Lily O’brien’s, Lir and But­lers but there were none in the West of Ire­land.

Due to the size of their premises the bean-to- bar op­tion was not a prac­ti­cal one for them so they de­cided to work us­ing Bel­gian cou­ver­ture choco­late, which they still use to this day.

“We started mak­ing it in the kitchen in Kil­fenora. I re­mem­ber mess­ing with an old banger of a fridge we had, with a ther­mome­ter in one hand, open­ing and clos­ing the door of the fridge try­ing to get the tem­per­a­ture to stay at about 10 de­grees [op­ti­mum for choco­late].”

Their ini­tial prod­ucts were for the tourist mar­ket, “Ir­ishy but not lep­rauchany”, and this did well but they be­lieved there was a big­ger mar­ket for their prod­uct. The de­ci­sion meant mov­ing from North to East Clare to ac­cess a suit­able food pro­duc­tion-ap­proved unit. The cen­tury was turn­ing and Tricia re­calls be­ing in their new house on a hill in the mid­dle of Kil­laloe, “with a six-month-old baby un­der one arm and a choco­late fac­tory un­der the other”. They now had a 1000 sq ft pro­duc­tion space and what she be­lieves to be one of the keys to choco­late mak­ing. “Re­ally the only limit is your imag­i­na­tion.” At the time choco­late in Ire­land was rather lim­ited, but all has changed and one of their cur­rent bestsellers is seaweed and lime oil. They of­ten take sug­ges­tions from cus­tomers; the only real limit is that it must con­tain choco­late.

“We have a huge range, over 80 dif­fer­ent choco­late things, about 35 dif­fer­ent bars, we do fudge and rocky road, things like that. I have a team of girls work­ing with me, we’re a lit­tle like the Wild Bunch, and they’re as in­ter­ested as com­ing up with con­coc­tions as I am.” They have six full-time em­ploy­ees and up to three more dur­ing the sum­mer months in their re­tail out­lets, a shop in Doolin — “we al­ways had a han­ker­ing to be back in north Clare” — and a stand in the Milk Mar­ket in Lim­er­ick, but their main cen­tre is in Tuam­graney.

“Within a year of open­ing the new fac­tory, say around 2001, peo­ple just started knock­ing on the door, ‘Are you mak­ing choco­late, can we have a look?’. That grew and grew and this year we’ve had more vis­i­tors than ever be­fore.” The vis­i­tors helped the busi­ness grow in more ways than one, there were sales and there were sug­ges­tions. “Peo­ple have a choco­late soul, a lit­tle dream of some­thing they would like to taste with choco­late, it’s all back to the imag­i­na­tion.” There were also will­ing tasters. “We do loads and loads of tast­ing be­cause it’s very help­ful to get peo­ple’s feed­back. Like with the seaweed and lime, that was just a mad fancy but we got great re­sponses from our hu­man guinea pigs who came to visit. You can’t just rely on your own taste buds.”

One recipe that was not so pop­u­lar was choco­late with garam masala, “I loved it but no­body else did. I think it was just a bit ahead of its time but I can pre­dict in a few years’ time it will be a thing. I also did choco­late-cov­ered ba­con for a demon­stra­tion, but I was a bit pre­ma­ture with that!” Tricia laughs. Much of their busi­ness is in con­tract man­u­fac­tur­ing for com­pa­nies who want to sell Ir­ish-made choco­late un­der their own brand. They have also been ap­proached by large re­tail­ers but price point is an is­sue.

“When you are mak­ing gen­uinely by hand the price point is go­ing to be higher. If you have 10,000 sq ft fac­tory you can cut the price but when you’re em­ploy­ing hu­man be­ings for every step, from mak­ing it to pack­ag­ing it, it’s a dif­fer­ent sce­nario.

“We have five dif­fer­ent ma­chines at the mo­ment, wheel ma­chines that keep the choco­late at the right tem­per­a­ture, and mov­ing. They’re all for dif­fer­ent kinds of choco­late so we can make any com­bi­na­tion and do a run of a type. But choco­late is very sen­si­tive to en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions and even within that, it’s alive. It’s re­ac­tive, it gets moods and some days it doesn’t want to do things.”

There is more to run­ning a choco­late com­pany than just mak­ing choco­late. Like any small busi­ness there are a lot of balls to jug­gle, pro­duc­tion sched­ules, pack­ag­ing de­signs, so­cial me­dia. Thanks to Clare En­ter­prise Of­fice they made their de­but at the re­cent Plough­ing fes­ti­val and have also at­tended the Craft Fair, ex­cel­lent op­por­tu­ni­ties that re­quired much prepa­ra­tion.

They are cur­rently up­grad­ing their web­site with a view to grow­ing web sales. It is some­what of a Catch 22 sit­u­a­tion be­cause ship­ping costs are quite high for on­line pur­chases, some­thing that can only change if on­line sales in­crease.

Al­though very happy to re­main a small ar­ti­san busi­ness Tricia says: “We are keen on be­ing a lit­tle less small”. They are there­fore de­lighted to be ex­pand­ing their pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties with an ex­tra 1,500 sq ft. “We’re be­side our­selves with ex­cite­ment. We should have done it two or three years ago but we were ner­vous about ex­pan­sion af­ter the re­ces­sion. Our busi­ness held up OK ac­tu­ally and we didn’t owe any money but it made you very, very ner­vous about ex­pan­sion. But we’re at the point where we lit­er­ally have no choice. The busi­ness has grown or­gan­i­cally, with­out a huge amount of debt, we wanted to grow it with a solid base rather than be very brave and brash be­cause it is a bit dif­fer­ent when you have kids re­ly­ing on you. That does take a bit of the risk­i­ness out of your ad­ven­tures in en­trepreneur­ship.”

Just as their sales were not par­tic­u­larly af­fected by the re­ces­sion, nei­ther have they been hit by con­cerns about sugar con­sump­tion. Tricia be­lieves this is largely be­cause in many re­spects high qual­ity choco­late is so rich as to be self-lim­it­ing, a treat that peo­ple can savour. There have also been stud­ies high­light­ing health ben­e­fits to very dark choco­late. “The ap­petite for high qual­ity, well-made choco­late is big and where once milk choco­late would have out­sold dark by a long stretch, it has caught up a lot. It will never be more pop­u­lar but we even do a 99pc bar now.”

Al­though ex­pand­ing, the Far­rells be­lieve it’s im­por­tant to stick to what you’re good at. “If you get re­ally good at mak­ing cer­tain things in a cer­tain time frame and with your own pro­duc­tion method you just get bet­ter at it and you get more ef­fi­cient. Some­times you won­der how you sur­vived in the early days when you didn’t know about lots of things. They say if you can sur­vive the first year in busi­ness you’re do­ing very well, but I think if you sur­vive the first five years of any busi­ness then you’ve got a good busi­ness.” www.wildeirish­choco­lates.com

‘Peo­ple have a choco­late soul,’ says Tricia Far­rell of Wilde Ir­ish Choco­lates, Tuam­graney, Co Clare. Photo: Ea­mon Ward

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