Elaine Lavery, BBL '12 & Hannah O’Reilly, BComm '12
Since leaving UCD two years ago, best friends Elaine Lavery (BBL 12) and Hannah O’Reilly (BComm 12) have converted their shared love of food into Improper Butter, a start-up business that received an offer from two of RTE’s Dragon’s Den investors in March and will begin supplying products to Tesco and SuperValu stores on a trial basis from September.
About Elaine Lavery, Hannah O’Reilly & Improper Butter
Lavery and O’Reilly met towards the end of 2009 when they were both part of the UCD Choral Scholars chamber choir. By the time they graduated, Lavery had interned with Goldman Sachs in London and Deloitte in Dublin while O’Reilly had gained experience working in her accountant father’s office. “A lot of people coming out of Quinn were going down the accountancy or finance routes but that didn’t really appeal to either of us,” says Lavery. “I took a year out and so did Hannah. I went to the French Alps and worked as a chalet chef as I was always interested in cooking.”
At the end of the year, Lavery knew she wanted to continue working in the food area. “Because of my business and law degree, and because my dad has always been an entrepreneur I think I had that bit of ambition to go out and start something. So the idea of a start-up in the food space appealed to me.”
Meanwhile, O’Reilly spent her year at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin training to be a soprano. “Hannah was really considering a career in music before she started in UCD,” explains Lavery. “She enjoyed the music for a year but I think she realised that she’d face major uncertainty for the next couple of years, which I guess you do starting a business as well! “She was at a crossroads when I told her what I was doing and said she’d love to try to get started with me. “It was the luckiest thing really because I don’t think I would have stuck it out by myself. All the best businesses we see seem to have two or three partners. It’s great to have someone to bounce ideas off and we do have complementary skills, even in terms of the roles we’ve taken on.”
Lavery’s idea for the business was flavoured butters to be used in cooking and in June 2013, the pair started experimenting with different variations, making them up in the kitchen at home, and selling them at farmers’ markets. “We didn’t have a lot of money starting out and we didn’t have experience either,” she explains. “If we had to compete with another ready-meal, another soup or something that had already been done, we wouldn’t have got attention from buyers and retailers and we wouldn’t have been able to compete on price. “So I wanted to think of something that was a little bit innovative and different. Flavoured butter is quite niche: it’s something that people who cook might whip up, but it wasn’t really something that was done in retail.”
Based on customer feedback at the markets the pair settled on a range of four flavours: Garlic, Chilli and Basil Butter; Garlic, Flat Parsley and Lemon Butter; Sea Salt, Chive and Black Pepper Butter; and Improper Butter with Cashel Blue. While the product is not unique, Lavery says Improper Butter – to which they’ve given the tagline ‘improperly delicious’ – stands out because of its quality and the fact that it uses real Irish butter together with a high concentration of fresh herbs. “We would pitch ourselves as being premium, up-market, authentic and artisan, compared to the competition which uses more dried herbs and may have margarine added.”
Early on, they got an Enterprise Ireland innovation voucher which they used at the College of Agriculture, Food & Rural Enterprise in Northern Ireland for nutrition analysis, shelf life testing and taste panels. A feasibility grant from Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Enterprise Board was used to begin a trial supplying a number of gourmet food stores last November. With the enterprise board’s support they were also able to move into a unit in the Spade Enterprise Centre in Smithfield.
Scaling up for supermarkets
“Now we are gearing up quite a lot,” says Lavery. “We’ve done our trials with gourmet shops. We’re maintaining those orders and we have good traction there. The supermarkets are the next stage.”
Good progress has already been made on that front and Improper Butter will begin supplying to a number of local Tesco and SuperValu stores in September. Lavery says that while they will be able to meet demand during the trial period, they are currently seeking an outsourcing partner to scale up production.
“We’re still doing it in-house but that will hinder our growth,” she explains. “We need to be less focused on production elements, which are quite burdensome and require a lot of investment.
“Supervalu and Tesco will probably review after around 12 weeks and if they want to roll out further we’ll need to have somebody in place to scale our production and also so we can go to the UK.
“Our first priority is to get the roll-out in the Irish market. But as soon as we have a contract manufacturer we won’t have those limits on production so we can go out and win new business.”
New brand identity
September will also see the launch of a new brand identity. Lavery says the Improper name will remain but the brand will be more cohesive.
“We want something that’s going to stand out on the shelves and that’ll get you to buy it because it’s a great brand and product and not because it’s two girls in Ireland making it,” she says. “We want to look bigger than we are at the moment so we can grow into those boots. So we have aspirations to develop a brand around Improper. Doing business we always learned that brand equity was where the value of your business really was, especially in consumer products.”
Lavery and O’Reilly appeared on Dragon’s Den on RTE in March and received a joint offer from Eamon Quinn and Ramona Nicholas of €37,500 in return for 20pc equity based on the achievement of certain milestones. “We did take a deal when we were in the pitch for the TV cameras,” says Lavery. “Afterwards, we decided we wanted some space. We are maintaining a relationship there but we haven’t signed or handed over any equity yet.
“There will be a time that we will need an outside investor and expertise, but at the moment there’s a roadmap for us that we have drawn out ourselves and we’re managing it okay with some outside consultants. We decided that it wasn’t really the best time to go ahead.”
According to Lavery, the highlights of the last year have included a hugely positive response from customers and the help and advice offered by other food producers and business people. “I’ve a list of contacts in my phonebook that I wouldn’t have been able to approach a year ago and now they know who I am and they’re very supportive,” says Lavery.
“In terms of the things we’ve learnt, it’s a whole other world. The first year for us was like a master’s degree in food production and retail and we still have so much to learn.“From the outside, you don’t really think of all the steps along the chain and we’ve learned a lot about the back office side, such as software for receiving orders and sending invoices and dealing with barcodes. Then there’s been turnover of stock, shelf life, margins and so on. You have to have your eye over every element. “But it’s great being able to do everything because you learn a broader set of things which I don’t know that a lot of young graduates get the opportunity to do. “When I started the business I thought I might miss the boat if it didn’t work out. I was seeing my friends starting work and thinking they’d all be qualified as solicitors and accountants. But now I think we’ve gained so much experience and we’ve come on so far in a year. And that offers some security.”