Crunch time

From a recession to a pandemic, one Irish company is turning times of crisis into opportunity

Article appeared in issue 5, 2021

Dairy Concepts is fast becoming an innovator in the dairy snacks market and its latest ambient snack has global potential. Ahead of its introduction at Anuga, we speak to Paul Simpson, commercial director. “We developed a ‘world-first’ category of hand-held dairy snack bars with the help of the Food Works programme, a joint initiative from Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board), Enterprise Ireland and Teagasc to develop projects in the food and drink sector that had potential for international export.”

The chilled bars are high in protein, made from all-natural ingredients and are ideal for on-the-go eating. The range was launched in Ireland and France but the onset of the pandemic made security additional retail listings difficult. So, the company looked to its pipeline and accelerated the development of its next product range: ambient snacks made from Irish cheese. “We take cheese and cook it gently in a way that maintains its colour, flavour and nutrients, to create a crunchy puffed ambient snack. We have two brands: CheeseOs and Moorepark. The CheeseOs range is made from mild cheddar which is then seasoned to create a range of familiar flavours – salt and vinegar; cheese and onion; cheddar, sour cream and onion; sweet chilli, and cheddar and pickled onion, – all sold in individual 25g packs with nearly 10g of protein per pack.

“The Moorepark Crunchy Cheese range, named after our site in Fermoy, is a more premium offering and is made using speciality cheeses such as mature cheddar, chilli cheddar, smoked cheddar and black pepper cheddar. It’s perhaps more appropriate for fine food outlets, Duty Free and hamper companies. Both ranges are made from 100% Irish cheese.

“We believe we have two advantages over our competitors internationally; the technology, and the quality of the raw material. Irish cheese is, in our opinion, the best cheese in the northern hemisphere due to the high-quality milk from grass-fed cows that are out in the field all year long. It results in high quality cheddar. Add to that the expertise and experience of our cheese supplier and you can really taste the difference in the final product.”

The reaction, so far, has been encouraging. “We researched the CheeseOs proposition with Bord Bia’s support, in Ireland and UK, and we got a really positive response from consumers. Two weeks ago, we started placing CheeseOs in local stores. With a product that nobody has seen before in Ireland, a brand that nobody has heard of, at a price point that is more premium than potato crisps, we sold fifty-plus packs per store in the first week, which is a fantastic start.”

Targeted marketing

Learnings from the dairy bar range will help to inform the marketing strategy for the new products. “We think of ourselves as Europeans and being very similar, but we can actually be very different in our attitudes to food and snacking from one country to another. How we market our dairy bars in France is so different to the Irish market where we target consumers of all ages; in the French market we are appealing to children for the afternoon ‘goûter’ snacking occasion.”

For this new snack range, he says they will take a market-by-market approach. “As an example, in France the consumption occasion is probably as a snack to serve when you have guests. That might require a share size bag not the individual portion size bags that we have for Ireland and the UK.

“In the UK we might position it as an alternative to nuts. Nuts are known for being high in protein, but they are also high in fat: our product has less fat and more protein than peanuts and a more satisfying crunch.

“The UK, France and Germany are our biggest targets, and beyond Europe, we can go wherever Irish dairy has a strong reputation. We know there are crunchy cheese products available elsewhere, but the reputation of Irish dairy gives us both a proposition and a product advantage over competitor products. The likes of the Middle East and Asia and even North and South America and Australasia become very achievable possibilities for export, particularly because the product has a long shelf-life.”

Reeling in retailers

Offering a product with a sense of familiarity and a multitude of uses may sway retailers, suggests Paul. “Retailers always say they want something new but when you bring them something completely new, they’ll say it’s untested, it’s unproven. You need to be rooted in a proven proposition which, for us, is savoury snacks. By offering CheeseOs in flavours that are readily identifiable – salt and vinegar, cheese and onion – you demystify and de-risk it for everybody. Our product represents a more premium product than crisps so even if the consumer consumption is a replacement of crisps, it’s more money through the till for the retailer and it becomes an attractive proposition for them.

“The beauty of CheeseOs is, because we are adding the seasoning ourselves, we can make it any flavour we like. If we need a specific flavour for a new market, we can probably create it.”

The snacks could also be used as a salad topper or as a crouton in soup. “CheeseOs in a bowl of French onion soup is delicious. Our primary opportunity is as a snack, but once it’s in the household, those secondary opportunities open up and they drive the frequency for repeat purchase.”

The Moorepark range will be unveiled at Anuga, alongside CheeseOs, and it’s an exciting opportunity for the company, one they are ready to run with. “We’ve got fantastic expertise within the team, and we constantly surround ourselves with great partners, whether that is the equipment providers, ingredient providers, or the technical expertise of the people in Teagasc. The challenge in any project is making it happen and we’re well placed to succeed.”