Michael Heaslip had
just signed a signifi-cant deal to supply his Cloud Corn popcorn when we met in Belfast last week. He was understandably thrilled by the interest in his three-strong range of the tasty snack from such a dynamic and huge marketplace.
“We are supplying our salty, sweet and salty and chilli BBQ popcorn to a distributor there to market the snacks across this vast marketplace,” he says.
“It’s very significant business in North America, a market which has an appetite for tasty snacks,” he continues.
It’s another substantial success in global markets for the enterprising business, Food Stories, which is focused on exports from a strategic decision to look beyond near shore markets such as Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
And it’s a strategy that’s producing tangible benefits for the company which has won sales in key European markets as well as exotic locations such as Tahiti, where Air Tahiti Nui, the Pacific island’s international airline, is now serving the popcorn to passengers.
Another recent success abroad was a deal to supply Cloud Corn to a distributor in Stockholm, Sweden’s capital, the result of a contact made at a major food trade show in Europe.
Helping to win business abroad is the popcorn’s features which include being gluten-free, high in fibre, suitable for vegans and made only from natural ingredients.
Michael formed Food Stories in 2014 as a distributor for Northern Ireland’s burgeoning artisan food industry and enjoyed considerable success for his local clients with independent retailers here in particular.
Experience gained dealing with retailers led him to set up a production arm of the business and to invest in popcorn, a snack category in which he had considerable expertise.
“We launched the Cloud Corn range in March as the first branded product under the Food Stories corporate identity. Cloud Corn was chosen because it reflects the light and fluffy characteristics of the popcorn,” he explains.
He had also come to appreciate the importance of participating in major trade shows in Europe such as the two biggest – SIAL in Paris and Anuga in Cologne.
The company has also developed a range of veggie crisps, a variety of which was listed for the prestigious innovation award at the recent SIAL food show in Paris. Invest NI weighed in with advice and support to enable him to carry out essential market research that confirmed his believe that opportunities existed for healthy snack products.
As part of his focus on exports, Mr Heaslip decided that all the nutritional information on the packaging should be in six languages – English, French, Spanish, German, Dutch and Italian. “While this required con-siderable investment at the outset, I reckoned it was essential for growth in these markets, and it has proved the correct decision.
“We put the money in up front to avoid having to spend on translations for individual markets later when sales were secured,” he says.
Much of the firm’s exports have come from contacts made at trade shows, including the deal with Air Tahiti. “We met the airline’s representative at a show in Europe. He liked the popcorn and asked us to provide samples for evaluation by the procurement team in Tahiti.”
They subsequently placed an order and are now the company’s most distant market. “It really was quite a boost for the business. I’d have loved to have delivered them myself,” he laughs.
Another potentially very important development for the company was the shortlisting of one of its recently launched veggie crisp products under the quirky Pinkfinch brand at the SIAL expo in October.
Experts at the global show listed the Pinkfinch Crispy Green Bean and Sugar Snap Pea crisps.
While the crisps didn’t win the top award, the shortlisting raised the global profile of both the originality of the product and the enterprise of the Belfast company.
He describes the SIAL shortlisting as a “huge bonus”. “It was a marvellous endorsement by a panel of expert judges of the quality and innovation of the product.
“We were really excited about the shortlisting, our first time at SIAL. It will be enormously beneficial as we seek to grow our sales in Europe and further afield.
“It’s already produced a number of really interesting contacts which will lead to sales, especially in our target European markets,” he adds.
The SIAL Innovation Award recognises and celebrates original food products from across the world.
The recipe for the Crispy Green Bean and Sugar Snap Pea and other veggie and fruit crisps was developed by Michael for processing by a leading snack food manufacturer in Britain, where the popcorn is also produced.
“My aim was to develop a healthier crisp, one which could contribute to the five-a-day diet recommendation. We developed a unique cooking process that maintains the benefits of the fruits and vegetables,” he explains.
“This means, for example, that they are a healthier snack for children in particular. They are also based on real fruit, are also gluten-free and high in fibre.”
In addition to the Crispy Green Bean and Sugar Snap Pea, the Pinkfinch range includes Apple and Banana. Green Bean also won a UK Great Taste Award this year.
“I am really excited about the prospects for 2019,” he says. “We’ve been following up contacts in markets, including Canada, and have solid interest from major retailers in Europe,” he adds. “With a bit of luck I might even get to Tahiti!”