Katy McGuinness finds five successful food businesses who demonstrate great community care and sustainable focus in their work
Main Image; Ruairi Dooley and Niamh Dooley of Biasol Foods.
In a recent speech, President Michael D Higgins stirred up – not for the first time – some controversy, on this occasion by questioning the morality of the pursuit of growth at all costs. And while the capitalist model is going nowhere, his comments were timely, as businesses are increasingly keen to demonstrate a sense of purpose and values that go beyond the bottom line. In 2023, bringing benefits to people, communities and the planet are aspirations that needn’t be incompatible with making a profit.
In the food sector, it’s now so commonplace for restaurants and other businesses to tell us about the strategies they have in place to limit their carbon footprint and minimise food waste that it comes as a shock when they don’t tell us about their sourcing of local and seasonal ingredients, and how they use their coffee grounds to grow mushrooms. Or something like that.
But other food businesses are going a little further. Here are five of them.
If you’re a coffee nerd, you’ll be familiar with Imbibe – a Dublin roastery which operates at the upper end of the market, roasting some of the very best beans in the world.
Founder Gary Grant set up his coffee business 14 years ago, initially operating as an importer and distributor of roasted coffee. He established his D8 roastery five years ago, in the wake of Brexit. Imbibe now donates one per cent of its turnover to Women’s Aid, one per cent to projects at origin (including two bridges in Columbia at the co-op from which Imbibe sources) and shares another one per cent between its staff. Last year it also donated over €30,000 worth of coffee to local hospitals.
“The principles we operate by started with the roastery,” says Gary, “it was an opportunity for a reset. I’m not a fan of big business and I wanted to be wholly transparent. Every roaster says they are roasting the best quality beans, but the absolute best in the world, the very top fraction, simply weren’t being sold here. Even though it was a very small niche I thought why not do something genuinely good, and alongside that I committed to donating one per cent of turnover to Women’s Aid. Profits can be manipulated but when you relate the percentage to turnover that’s very different.
“After Year One I thought it was doing no harm and in Year Two I added another one per cent to projects at origin and another one per cent to staff. Now we are looking at making some local grants in D8. I don’t think what we do is a big deal at all, lots of businesses could do this. If we can’t afford to, then the business is not robust.
“I’m not a radical lefty but my personal opinion is that the capitalist growth model ends up with people like Bezos and Musk having too much money. What’s the point after you hit a certain level? I thought: If I can make a good living, what’s the point of growing for growing’s sake? There are no 500-seat Michelin restaurants. I saw the limit to the authentic true thing. But I would like a large business to see what we do and do the same.” www.imbibe.ie
TOO GOOD TO GO
Too Good To Go is an app launched in 2016 by a group of entrepreneurs from the UK, France and Denmark as a means of combating food waste. They had been at a buffet together late one evening night and witnessed unused food being poured into a bin. Now Too Good To Go is in 17 countries.
“We launched in Ireland in September 2021 and went nationwide in 2022,” explains Sophie Trueman, Country Director for the UK and Ireland. “The concept is the same everywhere. The app is free and when you log in you can see the participating stores, pubs, bakeries and supermarkets and you can sign up to purchase a Surprise Bag at a specific time. For a spend of €5, you are guaranteed a minimum of €15 worth of goods – it’s like a lucky dip. For the businesses, there is no fee to join, and any business can sign up. It’s very simple, and we take commission on each sale. One of the reasons businesses like it is because it gives them access to new customers.
“Too Good To Go is a for profit business, but we are proud of being part of the BCorp network which is committed to making business a force for good and of having strong business ethics. Globally, one third of food produced goes to waste. So far in Ireland 1,500 businesses including Spar, Aldi, KC Peaches and Rolling Donut have signed up. There have been over 400,000 app downloads and 400,000 surprise bags have been saved. 94 per cent of the bags offered are saved, which is a major indicator demand is there. The well-known ones sell out very fast if the collection window is attractive to customers. Food waste causes more greenhouse gas emissions than the aviation industry and this is a fun way to help combat climate change.” www.toogoodtogo.com
Before the pandemic, food scientist Niamh Dooley had been working with Bord Bia on the Food Dudes education programme, but lost her job when the school visits at the core of the initiative couldn’t happen. At the time, her brother Ruari, with a background in finance and IT, was working in Melbourne.
“We decided to do a project together,” explains Niamh, “and to develop a food product that was nutritious, delicious and zero waste. It was really a way to keep us talking during the pandemic. I came across the concept of upcycling byproducts of the food and drink industries and in Ireland spent grains from brewing was the obvious choice. I rang about 30 breweries to pitch the concept. They were very supportive which was vital because this is all about the circular economy and we need partners. When we dug deeper, we realised that spent grain is a nutritional powerhouse, full of protein, vitamins, minerals, prebiotics and polyphenols, and with 40g of fibre per 100g. It was a no brainer.”
Initially, Niamh and Ruari intended Biasol to be a B2B operation, but found it hard to engage with chefs and bakers during the pandemic.
“That led us to develop a branded range for retail,” says Niamh. “It includes different grain blends for adding to your breakfast cereal or yoghurt as a sprinkle, and soda bread, protein pancake, scone and cookie mixes. We’re now stocked in around 150 mainly independent shops in Ireland, and we will be exporting to the UK by the end of the year.
“Our vision is to grow into the B2B space and now we are looking at other surplus fruit and vegetable products to grow our ingredient portfolio. We want to help the food business use more sustainable ingredients. Our aim is to be the Kerry Group of upcycled ingredients.” www.biasol.ie
Based in the clubhouse of Wanderers rugby club in Ballsbridge, the Together Academy is a unique training cafe for adults with Down Syndrome set up by founder Therese Coveney, motivated by the wish to make a better future for her daughter April and other people with DS.
“Currently, 90 per cent of adults in Ireland with DS are not in paid employment,” says Therese, “but students graduating from the Together Academy’s certified training course, which includes outside work placements, emerge with the skills needed to work in the world of hospitality and benefit from a social support network.”
Ballymaloe graduate Ali Gaw oversees the kitchen and the Together Academy is already a popular coffee and lunch spot with local residents and workers. Its sausage rolls, chicken sandwiches, cheese toasties, gooey brownies and lemon slices are the stuff of D4 legend, and the students’ exemplary barista training is in evidence. The feelgood factor is hard to beat.
Next month the Together Academy will open its second cafe at the newly reimagined Dun Laoghaire Baths, in partnership with Happy Out which already has branches at the Bull Wall in Clontarf and in Donnybrook. With smart branding, delicious food and a prime location, it’s bound to be a summer hot spot.
The Together Academy is a social enterprise offering a unique vision for truly inclusive employment which could be rolled out all over the country. www.togetheracademy.ie
Five years ago, Brian-Michael Thornton and his partner decided to start following a vegetarian diet for environmental reasons.
“The standard rotation of ten to 15 meals we cooked regularly was suddenly all gone and we found it difficult to ramp it back up. We found variety really challenging, unless we were prepared to go out and buy the 20 new ingredients we needed to try an Ottolenghi recipe which we might then not use again; the extra cost and shopping were a roadblock. I wanted to make it easier and to cut down on waste.”
Brian-Michael and his business partner, Bernard Grandjean, a chef, have spent the past six months beta-testing their Feeds app – ‘more taste, less waste’ – which launched earlier this month.
“For a monthly subscription of €9.99 after the first month which is free, Feeds offers recipes and meal plans,” explains Brian-Michael. “Each week there is a new set of recipes for four dinners, with a few favourites appearing more often. The recipes are seasonal and vegetarian, with 80 – 90 per cent of the ingredients locally sourced in Ireland, and come with a shopping list which makes four dinners and ideas for leftovers.
“I felt we needed support to eat better for the planet, as there is an inevitable switch coming. For me the motivation was very much environmental, but the app isn’t specifically designed for vegetarians or vegans, but is instead for anyone that wants simply to eat more vegetables with more flavour, be it for environmental, health or cost reasons.”
50 per cent of the profits of the company go to climate positive projects, with the balance ploughed back into growing the business.
“As a social enterprise,” explains Brian-Michael, “Feeds operates a conscious capitalism model similar to that of a B corporation, whereby the focus is not on profit or growth, but instead on the positive impact it can have on society.”
Feeds is available on the App Store. @feeds.mealplans