‘You’re working till 9pm every day and you don’t get any over time. It just wasn’t for me. I find that office environments can be quite bitchy as well, it’s very much a pyramid structure and people have to almost kill each other to get up that ladder,’ says Shane Bonner, founder of Newmarket Kitchen, a shared use commercial kitchen for small scale food producers.
As you drive from Dublin towards IDA’s Business Park in Bray you are stuck by contrasts. First there is the lush canopy of trees and stoic mountains touching the sky in the background. Then there is the industrial estate which in terms of design is not known as somewhere that espouse a warmness to the eye. So it was a pleasant surprise to find the unit that Newmarket Kitchen resides in warm and welcoming.
Outside there are plants that soften the hardness of the area. The font on the sign is the first clue that branding is something that is very important to this business. Inside there’s a reception with comfortable sofas and palates with fairy lights woven into them. It’s not what you expect, it’s reminiscent of the surprise that Berlin’s vibrant cafés and bars give you once you disappear through the grey façades of the buildings.
‘I got into this business because I was on the dole for way too long and I wanted to get into food.’ Bonner spent several years working with his Dad in construction but left it in 2009 when work dried up and went into accountancy but as the opening paragraph states corporate life was not for him.
His friend had a food stall that he helped with at lunch time markets. ‘I enjoyed the instance gratification of meeting people. I loved seeing the smiles on their faces as they bit into something that they liked. I thrived on the instant feedback about the product and the price point. Writing reports for an accountancy firm is not that same quality feedback in my opinion.’
The idea came to him as he watched his friend with the food stall try to find a kitchen space. He soon learned that a lot of people were looking for space too, he saw an opportunity. ‘I decided to address this need and build one big kitchen.’ With his background in construction and finance he knew that he had valuable expertise that could help small food businesses.
He spent his time on the dole coming up with a business plan. ‘It’s definitely demoralising signing on but I used that time to stay focused on getting the business off the ground.’ His first success was securing a feasible grant for a building in Dublin city. ‘Dublin City Council (DCC) were keen to have me progress in the city. The next stage of grant funding was to secure €60k – €90k but with all grant funding you have to match the amount. That is you’d have to pay €180k and then recoup the €90k. It’s a bit prohibitive especially for small businesses which are fluid and dynamic where you need to make a decision now whether it be a bit of equipment. On the other hand you can understand where they are coming from in terms of their accountability, but it’s still frustrating.’ That’s why he decided to move to Bray which proved cheaper but shockingly they told him that he, ‘fell out of their scope for the criteria to get grand funding even though DCC said I did and it’s the same criteria!’
Newmarket Kitchen is the only one it’s kind in Ireland, being unique is not exactly embraced by some government bodies as Bonner found out. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) inspected the kitchen and told him he couldn’t do it. ‘Their first question was, what is your experience with food? I said I’ve worked in a restaurant before and they said you have no experience managing a kitchen do you? I said is there a law for that? They said no but experience counts. The whole interaction with them was so negative, it got me so angry that I emailed Leo Varadkar (Minister for Health) and Richard Bruton (Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation).
He was surprised to get an email straight away from Varadkar as well as contact from someone in Bruton’s office. They said that they would look into it and contact the FSAI, which they did and came to the conclusion that what Bonner was trying to achieve was a good thing so they encouraged him to continue. ‘It did restore my faith in politics somewhat, I say that because most of my friends had to emigrate, it’s a generation that got wool pulled over it’s eyes. But back to my experience with them, the way I see it, is that there are so many big public bodies with information going in and getting lost.’
Bonner’s tenacity and achievements have garnered the attention of a company in London that is about to follow in his steps, they are in regular contact with him to learn from his pitfalls. In the United States he keeps in touch with Union Kitchen in Washington DC and SF Forage in San Francisco. Below are clips from the inside of Union Kitchen and under a one minute interview with the founder of SF Forage.
‘Big food companies get all the discounts because they buy in bulk or they get all the big contracts because they have loads of financial backing, whereas the small food businesses don’t get much of look in with say a Google contract however collectively we can go to the food supplier and get a good deal. We harness the collectivism to get the discount.’ They currently have fifteen members of which 75% are female owned. All combined they have a member’s turnover of €14m per annum. One member was recently named female entrepreneur of the year – Sara Mitchell owner of Poulet Bonne Femme.
It’s also the shared knowledge of different people with varied backgrounds that he wants to utilise. ‘Someone might have a good marketing background but they may not be good at distribution or logistics. Usually there is just one or two people in these businesses so it’s impossible for them to be good at all business functions. I was really aware that a lot of these small businesses were really good in one aspect but maybe lacking in others.’
When asked about the criteria for applying he laughs and says, ‘ the criteria for applying is that you need to be sound! You also have to have a passion for your product, a bit of a resilience too. I’d say you almost need to have a stall at a market of some kind.’ Bonner’s goal then is to help the business with building their brand so that they sub-contract the production to another company. ‘It’s about branding, until a big supermarket chain wants to take on that product. For every product in the supermarkets I believe there should be an Irish one too.’ Some of the businesses in Newmarket Kitchen are found on the shelves of SuperValu, Dunnes, Mortons also some cater for several tech companies based in Dublin.
Bonner is quick to point out that his drive is not financial as there is no financial reward in it yet, his motivation is to challenge the system. ‘I believe that you should go out and do it, rather then obeying the bureaucratic laws and systems. I was always very cheeky and a risk taker, I would never live within the boundaries of what society says.’