Ann Marie Collins loves baking and grew up watching her mother making a range of meals and foods at their home outside the County Antrim village of Portglenone.
And this passion for good food with locally sourced ingredients led Ann Marie to set up Annie’s Delights, a small bakery and producer of jams, relishes and chutneys, in 2016 alongside her day job.
The success of the part-time business encouraged Ann Marie to quit her job and to focus on the small artisan enterprise.
She chose the name Annie’s Delights because her family and friends have called her Annie “all through my childhood and still do”.
“I gave up my job in September last year to pursue my dream of running my own small food business. It’s now my only source of income.
“The timing, of course, wasn’t great because the Covid-19 outbreak and subsequent lockdown came so soon after the launch of my start-up business.
“I don’t regret it now and I certainly wouldn’t go back. I love baking and making other artisan foods by hand,” Ann Marie says.
Many of her original products are influenced by her upbringing in rural County Antrim.
“My boiled cake, for instance, is from mum’s recipe,” she continues. “And I remember baking this with her as a child. I also started making jams and wheaten bread, as my family love nothing better than bread, butter and jam,” she adds.
Ann Marie then moved on to Christmas hampers under the ‘Ann Marie made it’ label. These included the traditional handmade mince pies, cakes and puddings.
She continues: “People around the town and wider community then started asking me for these and other handcrafted products.
“I started doing local food markets, including the popular Causeway Speciality Market in Coleraine every month … until the lockdown inevitably led to their closure.
“I just love what I do. This is so important to me. Of course it is such hard work with being a single handed maker, no one else is involved in the making or finishing of the products.
“My parents help out at markets, and without this I couldn’t do it as I bake everything fresh daily for markets.
“Customers, therefore, can count on the wholesomeness and quality of everything I make. All the products and ingredients have total traceability. I make them at home in my kitchen in small batches to ensure quality,” she continues.
Her original products have won acclaim over the past two years from the influential UK Great Taste and the Blas na hEireann Irish Food Awards.
Ann Marie won two silvers at Blas na hEireann for her pear, apple and apricot chutney and her lemon curd. The latter also gained a UK Great Taste Award.
“I was thrilled to receive the awards because they are a marvellous endorsement of the quality and taste of the products,” Ann Marie adds.
She also recently gained an award for innovation during the lockdown. The small bakery, a Food NI member company, gained a gold level award from Innovate NI for ‘thinking outside the box’ to keep the business trading during the pandemic.
The Innovate NI award recognises her response to the serious setback to her business by the closure of local farmers’ and food markets due to the virus outbreak in mid-March.
“Around 90 per cent of my sales revolved around trading at markets,” continues Ann Marie. “I was devastated because I didn’t then sell to stores.
“I had introduced new labelling in a plan to develop sales to these outlets when the virus reached Northern Ireland and my cashflow virtually dried up.
“I quickly decided to launch a home delivery service to existing and potential customers from markets. I then decided to invest in my website (www.anniesdelights.com) for online sales.
“It’s now generating sales and is proving itself as an immensely important and timely investment.
“So, although it may be small, a sole trader, in the way of innovation compared to bigger companies, it has turned my business around and is now generating cash to keep it going.
“I can see online sales becoming an important part of my business in future when the virus eventually disappears,” adds Ann Marie, who creates most of the recipes for the products herself.
Ann Marie was encouraged to contact Innovate NI by the Foodovation team at the North West Regional College in Derry.
Foodovation helps smaller food companies, including Annie Delight’s, in a range of areas such as new product development.
Innovate NI is an innovation and management consulting company headquartered in Derry. It supports small business development, entrepreneurship, as well as digital and social innovation projects.
The consultancy specialises in business mentoring and advice support, project management, business planning, event and conference development/management.
Innovate NI said it had “recognised this small business because Ann Marie has adapted, changed and innovated by developing an order and home delivery service, as well as launching a new website with an e-commerce platform – well done to all involved”.