Starting a food business? An experienced food business development consultant has revealed a number of essential insights for food producers.

Oonagh Monahan, of Ireland-based Alpha Omega Consultants, uses her knowledge of areas including food science and quality management to help food companies achieve success.

Oonagh introduced herself and her work by outlining the range of professional experience clients can access through her consultancy.

“I’ve been working in, and with, the food industry probably for about 20 years now. I started off as a a microbiologist then specialised in food science and technology.

Starting a Food Business

“My very first job in the food sector was with Mr Kipling in the UK, I worked there for a number of years then came back and worked with Kerry Group for a few years. I was Quality Manager based in Monaghan.

“I took a detour into pharma for a little while but then I came back to the food sector and have been working with small food producers for many years.

“I do love the startup side of things, but I also work with some very big producers.”

How does working in the UK food market differ from being part of the market in Ireland?

“What struck me was how much cake people ate!

“The big difference was the population size, they have ten times the population we have here. It’s only when you begin to see the scale of things you realise what a large country the UK is compared to here.

“When I came back to Ireland I worked for Kerry Group, most of the turkey sales every week went to the UK. It’s a huge market.”

Oonagh’s support for food producers can vary depending on the stage they have reached in developing their business.

“I do a lot of work with small startups, pre-startups even, to help them work out what their idea is in detail.

“Most people would say they want to set up a food business because of their love of food, or making or baking or growing food, and want to commercialise that. But they have no clue how to go about it or underestimate what’s involved or are afraid of asking the agencies or authorities for help as they think they might come down on them like a ton of bricks!

“At the other end of things I work with large companies like the Irish Bread Bakers Association. I’m Technical Consultant for them.”

Part of the consultancy involves dealing with some of the common myths around food.

“The thing with the Internet is that it’s open for any person to put up their opinion and the difficulty for the average person is to tell what’s opinion and what is fact.

“For me, with my background in science, if it’s not based on evidence I’m not interested in hearing it really.

“Some of the talk around food has people’s best interests at heart but is a little bit misguided, to give you an example you often hear that bread is bad for you, you shouldn’t be eating bread or if you’re trying to lose weight you should stop eating bread. Which is all completely incorrect.

“I am speaking as the Technical Consultant for the Irish Bread Bakers, to put my hand up and be honest about it, but there’s no fat in bread. As with everything if you eat it as part of a balanced diet it provides loads of nutrients.”

Oonagh explained that scaling up is consistently a challenge for food producers due to one particular factor businesses can struggle with from the very start.

“The big issue from day one is distribution. You’re trying to run a food business and a distribution business at the same time.

“There’s a lot of talk about people sharing distribution routes but that takes quite a lot of work to try to co-operate with other producers.

“I do know there are a few programmes running around the country to try to look at that to see if there’s some way of helping people collaborate, or having distribution hubs, but so far there really isn’t anything.

“The other thing is that trying to find a distributor is a black art. If you see a van parked outside a shop go up to them and say ‘who are you, what are you delivering, where do you go and do you have any space to take me on?’.

“Van drivers and truck drivers are always looking for more produce to carry. Always.”

To hear more expertise from Oonagh explore our full video interview.

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