Bringing home the bacon

Europa Foods has been producing and distributing quality bacon for some 20 years. Now, MDs Brian Kelly and William Bamford get a grilling from Neighbourhood Retailer about the company’s new direction.

The world’s first commercial bacon company opened almost 250 years ago in Wiltshire, where imported Irish pigs were often rested on the long journey to the west of England.

But the industry’s 18th century founder, John Harris, would never know the full cultural impact of his business; the beloved rasher has gone on to become one of the most popular meat products in the English-speaking world.

Now companies such as Europa Foods – launched in the rural town of Kilrea in 1995 – carry on the tradition for today’s modern market.

The family-ran bacon slicing, packaging, and distribution company was started by former financial services specialist, Brian Kelly, and former sales director, William Bamford (pictured above).

Both friends since their days in Dalriada High School’s rugby line-up, their successful business partnership has led to a thriving company supplying hundreds of customers throughout Northern Ireland and the Republic.

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One of the Europa Foods’ distribution fleet

Europa Foods is now one of the largest bacon processors in Northern Ireland with a fully refrigerated fleet of vans, and a range of valued customers and suppliers, to which both men are keen to attribute much of their success.

“The company works very much as a partnership among all the staff and family members,” William told Neighbourhood Retailer, explaining the company included his son, son-in-law, and Brian’s son and daughter.

“We all pitch in, and do whatever is necessary to get the job done, whether that is answering the telephone, or driving a forklift truck,” he said. “We all work as a team.”

 

Beginnings

Speaking about the company’s humble beginnings, Brian said the duo had worked day and night when the company first launched.

“At the beginning it was very difficult,” he said. “When you look back you can see that we really started from nothing.”

The two-man team worked over 90 hours per week in the early months, carrying out all the slicing and packaging in the evening and delivering the products in the morning.

“It was what we wanted to do,” Brian said. “We didn’t mind so much, we knew what needed to be done, and we did it. We weren’t complaining. We knew what we were getting into.”

Europa Foods took on its first employee after several months, and grew steadily over the past 20 years, now employing 20 people.

“It’s been a process of gradual progress,” Brian said. “We’ve been building up our customer base and productive capacity steadily.”

While modest about the company’s success, Brian reveals Europa Foods’ turnover was £100,000 in its first year. Now it stands at £7 million, while the company now also distributes a range of pork and beef products.

William too is proud of what the company has achieved, and speaks of his and Brian’s appreciation of the support Europa Foods has received over the years.

“We’ve had so many valuable customers that have stuck by us over the years, and I’m also very appreciative of all our suppliers and the close working relationship we have with them,” he said.

Inside the Europa Foods factory

Inside the Europa Foods factory

New look

With the business growing year-on-year, both Brian and William are embarking on a new direction for the firm.

While still ensuring the food-service side of the business continues to operate at the highest standards, the company is now also targeting retail markets.

“We’ve invested heavily in new slicing equipment, which will increase capacity from 30 tonnes per week to 50 tonnes and we’ll be trying to work through Northern Ireland’s symbol groups,” Brian said.

The new direction is being helped along with a fresh look, with Europa Foods sporting new packaging and a crisper logo.

“We’ve brought our logo and signage all up-to-date,” Brian said. “It hadn’t changed for 20 years, so it was about time.

“It’s more modern and the new labelling is much more appealing for the retail trade. We brought in a company to help with the new designs, and spent much of last year getting it right.”

Brian explained it was the opinion of the company’s younger generation that persuaded him and William to go through with the rebranding.

“The younger members of our team had thought the label and packaging was out-dated and so we decided we wanted a more modern look to compete with the rest of the market,” he said.

“The reaction so far has been very positive, and we really think it stands out.”

Despite having the same labels for 20 years, Brian doesn’t miss the original look the two men had devised in the mid-90s.

“I’m happy to see it go,” he said. “We’re trying to move with the times. We’re not sentimental about it. We have younger family members in the business and we took what they had to say on board. Hopefully the business will be theirs one day.”

The team: Family members Michael Bamford, Gavin Glendinning, Joanne Kirgan, and Shaun Kelly

The team: Family members Michael Bamford, Gavin Glendinning, Joanne Kirgan, and Shaun Kelly

Streak of luck

Despite having worked so hard making the company a success, Brian believes that luck also played its part in the company’s growth.

“We’ve been lucky in that the company performed better than we had hoped for,” Brian said. “You can put a lot of energy into a business and it doesn’t work out, but it’s gone very well for us and has kept us occupied for 20 years.”

William added: “The company got much bigger than we had expected or intended. Brian and I have worked very well together, and all the staff have contributed immensely to the company’s continued growth.”

Europa Foods’ products have made it quite some distance around the world, with the company having enjoyed recent export deals to Turkey and even West Indies.

But now its main focus is the Irish and Northern Irish markets.

“Our export deals were set up through contacts we’d made, but at the minute most of our exports are mostly to the South,” Brian said, adding that exporting can be a complex process.

“It requires a lot of paper work, but that’s not to say we won’t do more in the future. At the moment we’re concentrating on developing the business closer to home, at least in the short term.”

And at home, bacon remains a popular choice among consumers, according to Brian, mostly because of its convenience.

“It’s quick and very easy to cook,” he said. “Our sales in bacon have increased every year.”

Brian explained that its low cost and ease of use makes bacon somewhat impervious to economic instability.

Referring to the recent recession, he said: “We weren’t affected by the downturn. Bacon is easy, convenient, and very cheap. And when people don’t have much money, they can always afford to buy bacon.”

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Quality Assured

Europa Foods’ bacon products are both UK and EC quality approved, while the Kilrea factory is fully-approved by environmental health, holding a full EEC licence, with all the necessary systems in place to give full traceability.

The company has also achieved the Safe And Local Supplier Approval (SALSA) accreditation, which is recognised as the leading food safety certification scheme for the UK’s small and medium sized food and drink producers.

Speaking about the accreditations, Brian explained the business was independently assessed and monitored to ensure it met rigorous annual standards.

“There is a lot of record-keeping required,” he said. “It means we maintain full traceability. It takes up a lot of time, but it’s worth it.”

Now the company is looking ahead to its future, and along with targeting the retail sector along with expanding its current food-service side, William unveils that new product development is also in the pipeline.

“We’re developing a new product with Ballyclare pork processor FC Robinson,” he said. “We hope it will add a new credibility to Europa Foods’ offering, as far as the local market is concerned. We’re very excited about it, and it could take our company to the next level.”

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