Lir Chocolates has grown from humble beginnings to become a leading producer of premium artisan confectionery
Lir Chocolates was founded in 1987 at a kitchen table by Connie Doody and Mary White. The company is now located in state-of-the-art facilities in Navan where it produces over 100 million individual chocolates a year. Simon O'Keeffe, export account manager, details the markets in the chocolatier’s sights.
“We won a contract in the Irish market in 1991 and that kickstarted the growth of Lir as we know it today. We pride ourselves on the high quality of our products: the chocolates are handmade and hand-decorated, the ingredients are top quality and freshly sourced. It’s not a kitchen operation anymore, we have scaled up for high volume operations to make it a commercially viable export product.”
The business is divided between the Lir brand, its private label business, and its licenced brands: Baileys and Guinness. “Lir is predominantly an Irish brand, we have some business in export, and we are looking to increase that. We make premium private label ranges for the top retailers across the UK and Ireland. M&S is our key partner, and we work with Sainsbury's, Tesco and Waitrose. Due to their high-quality nature and innovations in flavour and packaging design, our products are the standard bearer for private label in the UK and Ireland.”
In 1993, Lir began working with Diageo and now has the Baileys and Guinness licences to make chocolates. “Lir has been a massive success story for Diageo: we are their most long-standing licence partner, and they are our hero export products. Our chocolates help to drive penetration and sales for the Baileys brand and helps in markets where there may be challenges around advertising: we can help keep Baileys on the shelf.
“We make alcohol chocolates really well. Including alcohol in the recipe and delivering it at the level that we do is a real art form, and it’s taken a number of years to get our recipes to this stage, with a good shelf-life that consistently delivers that taste and quality. We have a unique proprietary process that gives us an advantage.”
That unique advantage has helped Lir’s Baileys and Guinness chocolate ranges to secure stockists in 26 countries. “It’s been a whirlwind of growth for Lir in the last number of years. Export is really exciting, and we have a really strong range that has proven itself. We have the product and packaging standardised to a point where we are confident we can export to most markets.
“We’ve focused on European growth; the core markets are Germany and the Nordic countries. There are a couple of gaps that we are hoping to plug through Bord Bia’s (the Irish Food Board) virtual sourcing fair, including France.” Mr O'Keeffe continues: "We’ve got good coverage in Australia and New Zealand, and we’re growing well in Asia. There are gaps in the UAE and the Gulf due to obstacles around alcohol in those regions, but they have eased in the last year, so we feel there are opportunities there for the Lir range.”
There is room for growth, too, in the US. “We have a good and growing business in the US for our Guinness chocolates range and we’ve worked hard on getting Lir right for the US. We feel there is a lot of more scope in the east and southern states.”
When it comes to identifying new export markets, the key qualifiers, he says, are brand recognition for Baileys and Guinness, and a good retail supermarket infrastructure. “Our products are predominantly aimed at retail. In Europe, it’s Rewe, Edeka, Aldi, Lidl, Penny, Carrefour, Auchan, ICA, Coop,
S Group, Coles, Woolworths, and Spar.
Our strategy is to work with distribution partners that can help us reach key retailer chains in their market.”
Bord Bia’s virtual sourcing event will help Lir to reconnect with current customers, as well as reach new ones. “A big loss for us has been the lack of trade fairs and trade shows. They have been really important, not just in growing the brand, but for meeting our existing buyers where we can discuss changes and new products. This event is brilliant, and we are excited to see how it will work out. It’s been a really challenging environment over the past year and this event is a perfect example of where Bord Bia has found a solution to keep Ireland Inc going.”
New on shelf
“We have some really exciting launches that will be hitting markets coming into Christmas 2021 and Valentine’s Day 2022. We have a Baileys Strawberry and Cream Hearts collection made using Baileys’ Strawberry and Cream liqueur. It’s an ideal Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day gift. We also have Baileys Cupcakes, incorporating four different Baileys flavours.”
There’s innovation in the packaging department, too. Mr O'Keeffe notes: “Sustainability has become a key call-out with retailers and consumers, so we have developed all of our Lir products with that in mind. In the last number of years, we have redeveloped a huge amount of our packaging. Where we may have had components that weren’t recyclable, for example, we have reduced the level of plastic in our packaging. Of the plastic we use, 90% is fully recyclable and we aim to make that 100% by 2022. We have two Lir Collection boxes coming through in the second half of 2021 and the packaging is 100% sustainable, recyclable, and plastic-free. We will launch those to the Irish and UK markets first and then they will be available to the wider export markets.”
“We are a Gold member of Origin Green, Ireland's food and drink sustainability programme, receiving top scores for our work across water, waste, and health and nutrition. We subscribe to Cocoa Horizons from chocolate supplier, Barry Callebaut. This means the cocoa we use for our chocolate is from sustainable sources, and growers are paid a fair price.”