Posted on Wednesday 1 January 2014 by Ulster Business


In this age of celebrity, famous people will put their name to almost any product.

But it is rare that celebrity endorsed products are any more than a short-term cash-in designed to capitalise on the person's fame, with quality often not high on the priority list.

One partnership that does not fit into that quick win bracket is that of local company Irwin's Bakery and television chef Paul Rankin. The two first worked together over a decade ago to introduce their range of Northern Irish breads into the British marketplace, first tapping into the market for Irish expats before converting local consumers.

Since its introduction in 2002 the range – which includes Soda Farls, Wheaten bread, Potato Farls and more – is estimated to be worth over £16m at retail per year to the Portadown-based bakery.

Great Britain is Irwin's largest export market and Rankin Selection products make up 80% of sales in the region. Sales in GB have grown by almost 30% since 2008 and have also more than doubled in the Republic of Ireland.

To ensure that success continues, the bakery recently invested £250,000 to refresh the Rankin Selection brand, completely redesigning its packaging, and is now targeting further sales in its key export markets of GB and Ireland.

Michael Murphy, commercial director of Irwin's Bakery (pictured), says 15 years ago only 1% of its trade was in GB. Now almost a third of its trade is in the GB market, with the size of the business having doubled in that period.

The breads are stocked in major retailers Sainsbury's, Tesco, Waitrose and Morrison's and Murphy believes the market for premium products is strong.

"The rebrand was about how we take the range on to the next platform of growth," he says.

"There's still scope to grow. If you take brown soda bread or potato bread, which are the biggest sellers, we're in around 1,000 Tesco stores. Tesco have another 1,000 stores we could get into. It is about making our products relevant to the consumers that shop in those stores, whether they are the big supermarkets or smaller convenience stores."

The company has previously exported further afield, sending bread to the US, but Murphy says it makes sense for Irwin's to focus on sales of fresh bread to GB and Ireland.

"We do frozen bread as well so we've sold bread to America, to Spain, to Italy, to Australia at one time. But our core competency is that we are primarily a fresh loaf baker that happens to be able to sell stuff a bit further afield than Northern Ireland," he said.

"We've looked at countries like China but we realised there were 50-60 million people in GB who've never had potato farls and soda farls, so we decided to concentrate our efforts there," he adds.

"We looked at our speed to market and decided bread had to be on shelves within 14 hours of being baked. We have concentrated on key customers who we can find a supply chain solution for. You won't find us in a Spar or Costcutter in England because getting to smaller stores on a daily basis is not do-able with fresh bread."

Murphy says Irwin's does not rule out going to other countries in future if there is a clear route to market and a market for products with a longer shelf life. But he says the firm's focus is on being sustainable, not looking for short term wins.

"A lot of celebrity endorsements don't go beyond the product launch but Paul Rankin was very clear he wanted to have a sustainable brand and that fitted with our way of thinking. It has been a good partnership for us as he was and is seen as the face of Irish cooking in GB," he adds.

"There's plenty of competition out there and you just can't get complacent. The bakery industry in Northern Ireland is fiercely competitive and there's no such thing as bad food any more. So you have to be ahead of the trends, you have to have an excellent supply chain, you have to deliver customers what they want on time, in full. And quality, well that's a given."


Follow us

Subscribe to Ulster Business Magazine

View Our Digital Library

A L Top 100 2019 button