A food company founded over bowls of cereal is re-branding - with help from Coca-Cola

As part of our weekly Startup Spotlight series, we profile the Cool Beans Company.

By Conor McMahon Reporter, Fora

AN IRISH STARTUP that sells pots of ready-to-eat, fancy beans is set to branch out with a new range of products – and will undergo a rebrand to boot.

The Cool Beans Company will soon rename itself the Cool Food Co to coincide with the launch of a new baked potato and beans product that’s expected to hit shelves in September.

Co-founders Sarah O’Connor and Isolde Johnson are mooching further into the healthy convenience food space in a bid to capitalise on the rise of so-called ‘flexitarians’ – a buzzword for meat-eaters who dabble with vegan or vegetarian diets.

The launch is being partly funded by a €300,000 private investment round that closed last year, which included €150,000 of matched funding from Enterprise Ireland.

“Cool Beans has only been three products since launch,” O’Connor tells Fora. “We’ve been doing a lot of research and we’ve constantly been doing new product development.

“We’ve been trying to become a more diverse and sustainable business.”

The company also recently rejigged its recipe so it could claim the ‘vegan-friendly’ title and capture a piece of the market.

sarah and isolde vegan launch (1) Sarah O'Connor and Isolde Johnson
Source: Shane O'Neill Fennell

Long hours

Founded in 2013, O’Connor and Johnson came up with the idea for Cool Beans while they were both working at professional services firm EY.

“We were both working really long hours and finishing work at 9pm or 10pm and having cereal for dinner,” O’Connor says.

The pair had a hard time finding a convenience food that they felt was healthy, so they decided to make their own.

They settled on a beans-based product because it didn’t carry the same cumbersome health and safety concerns as meat, and it was a space that had remained largely unchanged for decades.

O’Connor says they wanted to mimic what Cully & Sully had done with tinned soup by using fresh ingredients while also ticking the convenience box.

“Beans were a really accessible kind of product and we felt that people could identify with very fancy baked beans,” she says, “but they would be willing to take that step into something that was better quality and fresh and a little bit different as well.”

Over the last four years, Cool Beans’ range has found its way onto the shelves of a number of Londis and Mace stores, as well as Supervalu and Fresh shops.

A few months ago, it launched in select Dunnes Stores and was part of a big promotional push by Spar.

As a result, the company is projecting sales of €500,000 for this financial year – more than double last year’s figure. The business delivered a net loss of around €130,000 to the end of October 2016 but expects to be profitable by 2018.

O’Connor says coupled with customer feedback from in-store tastings, the startup’s stockists have played a part in helping reshape Cool Beans as the Cool Food Co.

“We’ve built some great relationships with key retail customers,” she says, adding that more supermarkets will be added to the line-up over the coming months. “They’re really open to us coming to them to add new products.”

Boot camp

The company has also benefited from being part of Enterprise Ireland’s ‘Thrive’ project, a six-month boot camp that was organised in partnership with Coca-Cola.

Cool Beans and six other food startups travelled to Atlanta in the US this week to meet with senior figures from the soft drinks giant.

Coca-Cola says it will begin cutting 1,200 jobs later this year Coca-Cola's Atlanta headquarters
Source: TNS/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

“That’s been really interesting and has helped us think about our wider strategy of where we want to be as a business with multiple products,” O’Connor says.

She says Cool Beans is constantly experimenting with new products, many of which may never make it to market.

“We’ve been looking at other verticals like snacking. We’ve made the weirdest stuff in the kitchen; we’ve whipped up a batch of bean bars and chickpea brownies.”

‘Co-ompetition’

O’Connor sums up Ireland’s healthy convenience food space as “a bit of a ‘co-ompetition’”, with rivals collaborating with each other in their marketing messages.

For example, it’s not uncommon for Cool Beans to tweet about other products that might complement its beans range and vice versa.

“You’re right next to each other on the shelves, within inches of each other,” O’Connor says. “You need to look at how you can market and differentiate yourself, but also how you can grow the category in general.”

In terms of their short- to medium-term plans, O’Connor and Johnson are looking to launch overseas, starting with the United Arab Emirates.

“We’re excited about that and we’re finishing our final offering,” O’Connor says. “We’d like to do the full range with the potato product.”

Tweet by @Cool Bean Company
Source: Cool Bean Company/Twitter

Brexit

Nevertheless, O’Connor says the UK has fallen off the hit list thanks to the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, which has already hurt the food sector.

“It’s very upsetting and I personally think it’s a very negative thing for both of our countries,” she says. “I am hopeful that over the next 18 months people might cop on a bit about some of the realities of what’s going to happen to the average Joe.”

The company is also looking to reach into European markets like the Nordic countries, France and, in particular, Germany.

“In Germany, they have a vegan supermarket. When could you see a vegan supermarket in Ireland?” O’Connor says. “It’s interesting that they are the leading market in some of those spaces and our product fits into that market.”

To fund that rollout, it’s likely that Cool Beans will launch a fundraising round by end of this year, or early 2018 at the latest.

Company records show that it has already received €70,000 in backing from businesswoman Rosaleen Blair, who sold her recruitment firm in 2013 to Alexander Mann Solutions for nearly €315 million.

In the meantime, O’Connor says she will be hoping for rain to help ease the summer’s typical lull in sales.

“All the salad guys are praying for a sunny summer. All the soup and chill people are praying for rain,” she says. “I’m that person who prays for bad weather in an Irish summer.”

This article is part of a weekly series featuring Ireland’s most promising startups. If you would like to see your company featured email news@fora.ie.

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