Gutsy Kerrywoman Mary-Thea Brosnan left her job as an Optometrist to focus on the magical world of fermented milk. In 2020, she won the ‘Best Start-Up’ award and a gold for her product from Blas na hÉireann. Presently, her Castleisland based food business Kerry Kefir is the only milk kefir in Ireland made the traditional way.
We say, well done Mary-Thea! Tell us more about your organic product and start-up story…
Our kefir is the most natural form of a probiotic that you can get- it’s packed full of beneficial bacteria and yeast for your gut health. Kerry Kefir is the only ‘milk kefir’ in Ireland made the traditional way by using the living organisms i.e., kefir grains. These are symbiotic cultures of yeast and bacteria, living in harmony together. The grains themselves have existed for over 2000 years, being passed down from generation to generation. As they ferment the milk, they feed off the lactose and break it down into its component parts, making kefir even suitable for those with lactose intolerance! The grains grow and multiply themselves as long as they are well looked after and happy.
Our product has the most diverse range of bacteria and yeast to aid in digestive issues from IBS, acid reflux, constipation, ulcerative colitis, bloating, indigestion etc. By ingesting these naturally healthy bacteria and yeast, you will assimilate your food better, thereby absorbing more vitamins and minerals and getting the most out of the food we eat.
Fermented foods like Kerry Kefir, are on the rise. Studies are showing that having a more diverse set of healthy bacteria and yeast in our gut contributes positively to our overall health.Mary-Thea, Kerry Kefir.
What’s your favourite thing about running your own business?
Working for yourself is great; you can make all the decisions; you don’t have to run things by a manager before you do something and you can start as early as you want in the morning so you can finish earlier. It’s the freedom of it that I enjoy. That and not being stuck inside all day- I get to go in and out to shops and different retailers daily.
Working for yourself is great…it’s the freedom of it that I enjoy. That and not being stuck inside all day.Mary-Thea, Kerry Kefir.
And what do you find is the most frustrating?
As a start-up, I’m always focussed on the money side of things, as you need to have adequate cash flow to keep things moving. It can be difficult to manage that side of things. You have to make decisions based around cost and how it will affect your cashflow.
Another pain point, is not having enough money to do big marketing campaigns to get the product out there. I find it difficult to reach new customers to promote my message of how, “Kerry Kefir is the only real kefir available in Ireland”, and to disseminate the product’s proven benefits to a wider audience also. But that’s ok, slow and steady wins the race!
Describe an average workday.
We rise at 7am and take our two golden retriever dogs for a walk- Ben (7) and Obie (2). The first part of the process is to strain the kefir from the jar, so this happens every morning around 8am (after 24 hours fermentation). The strawberries are washed and chopped for the second fermentation (which takes 6 hours). Derek continues to work in the production facility; putting on the first fermentation for the following day; washing the returned bottles and sterilising the bottles and caps for the days production. Then, he prepares the boxes for our online delivery orders which go out with DPD couriers.
I use this time to catch up on emails, issue invoices, create content for social media, analyse and review my marketing strategy, create plans, jump on zoom calls, order packaging supplies, create the DPD online order labels. Most days, I deliver the stock to my local distributor in Tralee who deliver my product to most of the SuperValu stores around Kerry. I deliver to SuperValu Castleisland myself, as well as some independent stores in the local area too.
After the second fermentation which takes 6 hours to complete, we get to bottling the kefir. The kefir is strained from the jar once again, the strawberries are removed and then the product is bottled by hand. Tamper stickers and labels are added to each bottle by hand. We have a refrigerated storage unit outside our kitchen which has ample storage space for our product. Then, the container is thoroughly cleaned so the process can be repeated the following day!
What keeps you going or inspires you?
I believe completely in the magic of kefir. It helped me with my IBS symptoms so much that I decided to start a business selling this magic fermented milk!! I struggled for years with my IBS symptoms and nothing seemed to work; I tried everything! Then, I discovered kefir. I started making it myself and within a week I couldn’t believe the difference it made. I told everyone about it!
I noticed that, none of the milk kefirs available on the shelves were made using the living organisms. They were made using powdered, lab-manufactured cultures. I decided to create a premium product using the kefir grains to make the best milk kefir available to anyone who needed it, for their digestive issues. The feedback I get from my customers is what keeps me going. I know I’m helping them by making this powerful natural product. And I want to reach anyone who, like me before, suffers with digestive issues.
The feedback I get from my customers is what keeps me going. I know I’m helping them with this powerful natural productMary-Thea, Kerry Kefir.
Initially, did you manage to get any support or funding for your business?
No, unfortunately not. I didn’t qualify for any funding. I continued to work as a part-time Optometrist for the first 16 months to fund the start up.
Can you see your business expanding further?
The traditional kefir making process is a very manual process, we do it all by hand. As such, we do not have much capacity to expand our range or offering just yet. The core of our business is the natural milk kefir made with our happy, healthy kefir grains. And we are happy with this.
However, now that I can deliver the product via the DPD courier company I have the ability to reach more people all over Ireland who could really benefit from taking a real milk kefir made the natural way. I just hope these people who need it, hear about Kerry Kefir– word of mouth is so powerful!
Do you have any ‘time saving’ tips for business owners?
Lists are essential! If I don’t create a list, I am unable to decide what takes priority for that day. I re-do my list every morning, so I know what needs to get done that day.
Did you embrace or dread the shift to online (further induced by the COVID pandemic)? Does having online presence help or hinder your business?
I actually always wanted to be an online kefir business from the beginning but finding suitable packaging for my product was difficult. It’s taken me a long time to get it right. I only launched my ‘online’ business mid November 2021. Being online has definitely helped my business. It’s essential in my opinion, particularly, during the pandemic. Without an online presence, I wouldn’t have been able to reach any potential customers to tell them about Kerry Kefir and all its benefits.
I began supplying to SuperValu in February 2020, but I’ve not been able to do any in-store tasting sessions since I started! These would have been hugely valuable in meeting new customers and telling them about my product. Instead, I’ve had to rely on my digital presence via social media (Instagram and Facebook) to get my message across. But now because of the delivery service available on my website, my product can physically reach even more people. I’m thrilled!
Being online has definitely helped my business. It’s essential in my opinion, particularly, during the pandemicMary-Thea, Kerry Kefir.
How do you engage with your online customer? -What’s your favourite digital channel?
I would love my website to be the main point of engagement with my customers, but I haven’t put in enough work on that side of things just yet. Having only recently launched online, my intention is to definitely focus on the website this year.
Otherwise, Instagram and Facebook are my main points of engagement with my customers. Social Media is such a tricky medium- but absolutely essential. I enjoy creating content. I enjoy seeing my following grow. Hopefully, I can focus more on that this year too.
What advice would you offer someone who is thinking of starting their own food business?
If you are passionate about the product you want to produce and you fully believe in your idea, then go for it! Go all in! But, if you’re just doing it for the money and the ‘freedom’- don’t bother! Margins are so tight in the food industry and it’s a tough market. As for the ‘freedom’…when it’s your passion, working 6-7 days a week doesn’t feel like a burden, right? 😊
Tasteful Tips from Mary-Thea
- It’s so important to have a support network. You need people around you who believe in you and who you can bounce ideas off. It would be extremely difficult to try do it all on your own, all of the time. There are so many support networks out there from your Local Enterprise Office to participation programmes like ACORNS. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
- Ensure you are looking after yourself every day. You have to make decisions every day so if your tank is empty, those decisions seem a lot harder to make.
- Keep your vision alive! Don’t let go of it.
We think Mary-Thea is a natural on social media so be sure to follow Kerry Kefir’s social accounts for her quirky, fun and informative reels and stories– Instagram: @kerrykefir , Facebook: Kerry Kefir and Twitter: @kerry_kefir
Get a supply of Kerry Kefir delivered straight to your door by ordering from the website.
See a list of stores that stock Kerry Kefir here
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