In our new Meet the Maker series, we're shining the light on the many gifted producers behind some of Ireland's best food and drink brands. Today, we chat to Aisling from Velvet Cloud
Could you tell us a bit about the history of Velvet Cloud?
Velvet Cloud is a small specialist sheep dairy business in Co Mayo just outside the town of Claremorris, it was founded just over three years ago by Aisling and Michael Flanagan.
Both of us grew up in homes where good food was appreciated, however back then it was fairly basic Irish food when the norm was the typical Irish diet of meat and two veg. In our early twenties having met in college while studying Agricultural Science in UCD we were both lucky enough to live and work in Italy and then in France for over a decade and it was during these years that our real passion and love of good food was fostered.
Aisling is originally from Dublin and Michael grew up on a traditional dairy farm in the west of Ireland and kept sheep. So he had always had an interest in dairy and sheep. But it was while we were living in Italy and then in France that we noticed the prevalence of sheep dairy products. We often asked ourselves why, with so many sheep in Ireland, there weren’t more people milking them. When we came back to Ireland to live on Michaels family farm to give our expanding family a better lifestyle, we started to look into the potential for sheep’s milk dairy products a bit more.
What makes Velvet Cloud unique?
Velvet Cloud is the only Irish made yogurt commercially available here. It is also unique in that the sheep’s milk products come from the same farm where the milk is produced and this milk comes from a flock of grass-fed ewes. There are other sheep’s yogurts produced in Europe and in the UK, however, for the most part, they don’t come from grass-fed flocks. This is a huge advantage living in Ireland as we are able to keep our animals outside on grass for almost the entire year.
Other Velvet Cloud Products
We also produce both fresh and frozen sheep’s milk, and last year we launched our first few batches of “Rockfield” by Velvet Cloud our sheep’s milk cheese. This is a semi hard 90 day old sheep’s cheese, it is loosely based on a French Pyrenees style Osseau Iraty type cheese. When deciding on what cheese to produce we had a look at what was already available in Irish sheep’s cheeses on the market and decided to go for something different.
Previous to the pandemic Velvet Cloud appeared on many of the menus of the best restaurants in Ireland and was available in over 100 retailers.
However, COVID hit us badly and we lost 50% of turnover overnight when restaurants were forced to shut. We decided to try selling directly to the consumer online and launched www.velvetcloud.ie/shop at the end of March. We were surprised and delighted with the uptake, and now consumers from Donegal to Dingle can buy, whereas previously as a small business, with limited distribution, we were only available in retail shops Dublin and the West. However, it's going to take us some time to get back to pre-COVID levels.
Why is using Irish ingredients important to your company?
We are a 100% Irish owned and run business, we need the support of the Irish consumer and other Irish businesses (suppliers and buyers) so wherever possible we use Irish. However we only use two ingredients in our yogurt our own fresh sheep’s milk from our own farm here in Mayo and Live yogurt cultures.
What is the biggest challenge that you face as a food producer in Ireland?
Access to funding – We’ve sold out of our Rockfield sheep’s cheese every year and our yogurt sales are increasing year and year. Therefore we have been trying to expand (get bigger vats and a larger cheese room) however the banking system doesn’t support small businesses like ours and it has been extremely difficult to access funding to grow despite a demonstrated demand.
What new trends do you see that are emerging in your industry?
There is definitely an increase in the interest in and understanding of the importance of gut health for overall physical and mental wellbeing which helps us enormously, because our sheep’s milk yogurt has live cultures in it, has a higher nutritional profile than cow’s milk and is easier digest, so it fits perfectly with this trend.
COVID has also resulted in a significant demand from the consumer to deal directly with the producer, whether that is directly via online shops or through vegetable and produce boxes ordered online but delivered to homes.
More and more chefs are vocally and commercially supporting small Irish producers, and going out of their way to deal directly with them, rather than purchasing based solely on price.
Are there any major changes you would like to see in your industry?
See point above, about lack of available funding. Would like the banking system to be fixed. Money is available cheaper than it has ever been before from the ECB, our government should look to refinance loans and borrow to get our economy going again. SMEs employ 50% of the Irish workforce the focus should be on encouraging, motivating and getting them back on their feet. The hospitality industry is on its knees, but if they don’t survive many food producers selling to them won't either.
What has running your own business taught you?
Resilience! You have to be able to change quickly and adapt without warning and to never be afraid of hard work. Also the importance of networking and learning from others all the time.
Who are some other Irish foodie brands you draw inspiration from?
The Strong Roots brand has achieved enormous success very quickly, by paying attention to macro trends but also the very clever use of design-led branding. Also the Glenillen Farm yogurt brand is a fantastic story and Valerie and Alan Kingston the founders are very supportive and giving of their time to younger start-ups. We would love to be like them one day !
What’s next for the company?
Our next focus is on export markets. We have had interest from the UK, Asia and Germany.
Find out more about Velvet Cloud by clicking here