Knowing your niche
Where some see a crisis, others see an opportunity, and Oakpark turned the twin threats of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic into new market expansion. Irishfood speaks to managing director, David Brett, about the company’s move into the Middle East
Oakpark is a fourth-generation family-owned pork and poultry processor. Founded in 1940 by Bridget Brett and her four sons, it has grown into an award-winning company servicing multinational customers. Brexit, David tells us, turned Oakpark’s attention to the Middle East. “It was a shock to the system: we didn’t know if we could trade with our biggest customer outside of the domestic market. We rode the storm and have subsequently grown our business in the UK and made it more efficient, but it made us think about things.”
Enterprise Ireland had encouraged the company to look beyond the UK and Brexit provided the motivation. “We did a bit of research and found that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was one of the higher growth markets for Irish food exports.”
With a dedicated poultry facility, the product concept was in place and Bord Bia (Irish Food Board) was enlisted to aid the process. “Dubai, the UAE, it's a long distance. It's not like the UK, you can't just hop on a flight. We engaged with the Bord Bia office in-market and went on its Plan to Grow programme in 2019. The Bord Bia Dubai office took a huge snapshot of the retail market for us, by retailer and by stock-keeping unit (SKU). It gave us a picture of the market so that we could ask, ‘what can we do here and how do we fit in’.”
If Brexit offered a research phase, a global pandemic was the catalyst for action. “Being retail focussed, Covid was a stressful period for our business, but we also took the time, from a new-product perspective, to decide to go after the UAE market because we wanted to be in a position to dive into something new,” says David.
“Initially, we focussed on developing a halal range for the local Muslim community and decided not to use the Oakpark brand. We wanted something that felt more local, that resonated with people. We worked with Bord Bia on its BI:TES (Better Ideas: Think Evaluate Select) programme, engaged a design agency in the UAE and came up with the brand name, Marbaana. We managed to get our first listing in quarter four. Two years later and we've a decent foundation there to build from.”
Marbaana is sold through retail and the range’s top-selling products are unsmoked and smoked turkey strips. Made exclusively using breast meat, its quality has proved popular over the current market offering. “It's low in fat and much higher in protein versus the highly processed version of turkey bacon. We have brought a new consumer into the ‘strip’ category in the UAE and retailers have responded positively to that, as it's a win for them as well.”
Expansion is on the horizon. “The strategy for Marbaana was the Muslim consumer, and we are leveraging its success in other Muslim countries across the Gulf region. We've done a couple of promotions with LuLu hypermarkets in Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman, and trials in other countries and they've gone positively,” David explains. A move into new channels is another area of opportunity. “We have had a number of requests, particularly from our distributor, to diversify into foodservice with the brand. We are a retail-focussed business but we're open to things. It's something that we are working on in the background.”
With the Marbaana brand established, David saw the potential to explore other audiences within the UAE, bringing the Oakpark range to the large ex-pat community. “We've done a lot of work on our brand in Ireland and the UK over the last number of years: we're now number two within the bacon category in Ireland; in the UK market, we have the number two turkey bacon brand. We're listed in all major supermarkets in the UK, so the British and Irish consumer recognise the Oakpark brand.
“We knew we could launch what people are used to, what they see as ‘home’ when they're abroad in the UAE markets: our Oakpark brand. We developed a couple of SKUs that we're launching at Gulfood 24. There is no difference in taste to the product that you get in Dublin or London. The only difference is it's fully halal.”
The range consists of smoked and unsmoked turkey rashers and the new turkey pudding. “That has been a massive success story for our business over the last two years and we've subsequently launched more pudding products in the UK. This will be our first pudding product in the UAE so we're looking forward to that.”
Routes to market
Through innovation and new product development, the Middle East looks set to become a lucrative market. “We're working on a sous-vide halal range for the UAE market, and a number of meal solutions using pulled turkey and pulled chicken products, all first-of-its-kind.”
It would be easy to assume that the Marbaana launch paved a smooth path for Oakpark’s entry to market, but location and culture remain key challenges. “It's very hard when you're on the other side of the world. Retailing [there] is extremely different to here, there are different consumer tastes, retailers operate differently, different distribution models, and that was a major adjustment for us. We have learned a lot, and we have a clearer vision of how we can get Oakpark to market.”
But when you do arrive, the door is open, says David. “It's a lot easier to get a meeting with the UAE retail trade when they hear you're from Ireland, particularly when you mention Origin Green. Bord Bia does a lot of work with retailers in the region and we're Gold members so that has been a big help.”
Support from Bord Bia continues, with in-store activity planned around uniquely Irish occasions such as St Patrick’s Day. “We met with one of our key customers, Choithrams and we are looking at an Irish week around St Patrick’s Day in 2024 where Bord Bia will work with us on tastings and promotional activity. There are a number of Irish suppliers in that particular retailer so that gets a lot of traction.”
Back home, what does David see as the upcoming challenges for the sector? “We're by no means out of the cost-of-living crisis. It was quite challenging in 2023, we had to look at everything throughout our supply chain to try to ensure that we are as cost competitive as we can be in this environment so that the consumer can still afford our product range.” The can-do attitude prevails. “I tell everyone in our business: the opportunities are absolutely endless if you go into a market with an open mind.”
Work in progress
“We're proud to have been awarded Origin Green Gold membership in 2023. It's testament to the work that we're carrying out. Over the last three or four years, our rasher packaging has moved from zero per cent to 90 per cent recyclable and by the middle of 2025 we'll get that to 100 per cent. That is the target without compromise.
“But we now need to close the loop and use post-consumer recycled material in our plastic. Currently about 35 per cent of the plastic we use is post-consumer recycled. We've set targets over the next number of years to get that as close to 100 per cent as possible.
“We've invested significantly in reducing our Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions. We've put in solar panels on both our sites this year. Our phase two solar panel investment is going in at the end of January 2024. Following that, approximately 25 per cent of our electricity will be renewable, generated from our rooftops. We're using a mixture of natural gas and LPG on our sites. We've just been approved for an investment that will slash our LPG usage in half using a heat recovery system off our refrigeration. Scope 3 emissions are a bigger challenge and we have engaged the industry, we are now looking at our supply chain with our retail customers. The retailer, the supplier, the farmer: we're in it together and the ultimate aim is to get to net zero by 2050. We feel that the government's targets for 2030 are very achievable for our business and we hope to surpass them prior to 2030. We're in this for the long haul.”