I recently spoke to Claire Dalton of Dungarvan Brewing Company which is a relatively new company started in a recession and proving to be very successful. It is a small family business run by Claire, her husband, Tom Dalton, her brother, Cormac O’Dwyer and sister-in-law, Jen Uí Dhuibhir. We discussed what prompted them to start the business, how they manage it as a family, the recent rise in popularity of Craft Beers, their use of Social Media and future plans. Plus some useful suggestions for start-ups.
When did Dungarvan Brewing Company start, how did it come about and what was the inspiration?
Our official launch was in April 2010, which is when the beers became commercially available but we were about two years setting up previous to that – researching, testing brews, getting finance etc.
It all stemmed from Cormac’s home brewing hobby, which he got Tom involved in and the two of them always bemoaned the fact that there wasn’t more Irish craft beer commercially available. It was a ‘what if’ dream for a long time then they decided to start looking at the feasibility of setting up. During this time first Tom and then Cormac were made redundant from their jobs so it was a question of driving the brewery idea forward or looking at other options. If it weren’t for the redundancies we may never have gotten going!
Testing and research started in our garage. The market research was mainly visiting off licences, restaurants and pubs to see if they would stock it and we wanted their feedback on the beers and labels. This feedback was the groundwork for the business plan we put forward to the Enterprise Board. Once the grant was approved it meant we could buy equipment, get a lease on an industrial unit and get the ball rolling. We began in April and by the summer we were getting enquiries, mostly generated by the initial marketing. Off-licences in Dublin which include craft beers were wanting stock before we could provide it so we had orders waiting which was a great start.
It is completely a family business – that is a brave decision to make, how did you all come to that decision?
Initially it was Cormac and Tom, with Cormac working on the brewing side of things and Tom looking at the business side. Although Cormac has a passion for brewing he would never have had the business acumen to drive it on on his own (I can say that because he’s my brother!) so he and Tom complemented each other well in that sense. In the initial stages Jen and I did a lot of the research, including researching grants, doing market research, hosting tasting sessions and focus groups and doing the website, social media and other marketing work. Between the four of us we were able to split the work out and also work well together so it just all sort of gelled in to place. We are now also employing 3 staff and hope to increase this as the business grows.
What work/business/brewing experience did you all bring to the company? How do you split the work now?
Cormac was working as a production manager in a local electronics firm and he now runs the brewing and production end of things with two staff. Tom was a Quantity Surveyor so he brought the financial planning and budgeting experience with him, which he is still responsible for along with all the sales and delivery of the beer. Jen is a primary school teacher – she’s not involved in the day to day running of the brewery but works on PR and events. I came from a background in multimedia so look after our web and marketing work, but I had also run a family shop for the previous three years so brought that experience in as well so I do all our day to day accounts and run the office side of things in the brewery. We all have our strengths and weaknesses but I think between the four of us we have most bases covered.
How and where do you all brainstorm and be most creative?
Cormac, Tom and I meet up every Monday for our “Monday Meeting” – in theory we review the previous week in terms of production, sales and accounts and plan our week ahead, but more often than not we veer well off track and end up having rambling conversations from which ideas emerge which vary from the sublime to the ridiculous! Some of these are followed through on, some are shoved to the back of a drawer never to be seen by human eyes..! A lot of the time is spent reining in Tom who has at least 3-5 ‘brainwaves’ a day.
The four of us would also socialise together so there would always be ideas thrown out and bounced around between us, and probably because we know each other so well we can be open with our ideas.
Are you able to switch off from work when you get home? Do you have any rules to keep work apart from family life?
Not really, when you’re self employed the two become very absorbed – if the business isn’t going well the bills don’t get paid at home so it’s hard to disconnect the two. Also, as Tom is mostly on the road it’s our chance to catch up and share how things are going with each others’ side of the business, as well as for me to find out where’s he’s going to be and when I might see him again J Having said that, we have two very young children so until they’re in bed our time is theirs in the evening, but after that we would often have work to catch up on at home and we would spend time talking about the brewery. Tom often works weekends as well, going to events or catching up with deliveries at busy times, but we do try to keep Sundays as ‘our’ day and spend time together as a family and go off and do something together for the day.
Do you have any role models in business?
Starting out we probably looked a lot towards the American craft brewery founders, particularly Tom Potter and Steve Hindy who founded the Brooklyn Brewery as there are a lot of similarities in the business models that we were employing and the sense of the breweries being rooted in our areas.
On a local level I think I would look towards Paul and Máire Flynn of The Tannery, as we all have a huge amount of respect for what they have achieved in their own field and also for the town of Dungarvan. We would have the same sense of pride for Dungarvan and are honoured to be tied in to the food culture that they have established here.
Has the recession affected you at all? I was wondering if pub sales (“on trade”) are down and direct to the public sales (“off trade”) are up if more people are staying in?
Well, we started in a recession so we can’t say that we know it to be any different! There is a much bigger off trade business via off-licences these days, and that is where a lot of our business is – with those who would sit in with a few good quality beers at the weekend rather than go out. There is also a greater trend towards drinking beer in restaurants, it has become validated and people are realising that beers can be paired to food in the same way that wine traditionally has and as a result customers are looking for a better choice of beer in restaurants so the market for craft beer is up in that sector as well.
Recently John McKenna of the Bridgestone Guides has commented extensively in the media on the growth of the craft beer market even mentioning us in the introduction in the recent edition of The 100 Best Restaurants in Ireland 2012. He believes that restaurants should stock craft beers as they complement food the same way as wine does. In fact The Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore is running a Tasting Menu in February matching craft beers to their food rather than wine and of course including our beers.
Besides restaurants and pubs stocking our bottled beers we also now supply our cask ale via the old fashioned hand pumps in pubs. Although these are quite common in the UK they haven’t been in Ireland so it’s good to see them appearing in pubs here and providing some diversity to the normal pumps.
We started the business when craft beer wasn’t that well known, maybe just two others in Ireland were bottling at that time. The market has grown a lot in the last year as the recognition of craft beers is more widespread.
Does Social Media work for you? What do you do and do you split the job? What marketing do you do?
We used social media from the start and were probably the first Irish brewery to be actively using it. We use Facebook and Twitter and find it great as a means to talk directly to the beer drinkers. As we sell to retailers and publicans we wouldn’t otherwise have so much direct contact with the end drinker. Initially we all monitored and posted on the sites but now it’s generally me who does the updates, although any of us would respond to a query or comment, depending upon the nature of it.
As with most start ups and small businesses, social media makes up a large part of our marketing due to financial constraint. Most of our other marketing would be through going to festivals and events and doing tastings which give us a great chance to interact with the public. We also do press releases when we have any news to share and this has yielded us a good bit of media attention, and we do a small amount of paid advertising when the funds are there for it. Other than that it’s mostly word of mouth and the great promotion done for us by a lot of the people who sell our beer for us. We are sometimes overwhelmed with the support given to us both by those who sell the beer for us and those who drink it.
Can you tell us anything planned for the future of Dungarvan Brewing Company?
We are just entering our third year in business, and our plan for this year is to start exporting. We had initially planned for this to happen in our second year but the craft brewing scene took hold in Ireland last year and due to the growing market here we had to keep up with demand domestically first before looking further afield – this was not something we initially planned for but are delighted with! We are at the moment in discussion with importers and distributors in several different countries and hope to have further news on that front soon…
What advice would you give to a new company starting up after your experience?
- We received lots of support from the Enterprise Board besides the grant, so we made the most of their courses, advice and networking.
- Be prepared for everything to take a lot longer than anticipated, we thought we would be launched a year earlier than we were.
- Expect knock backs and disappointments, have a plan B, C and D.
- Research – the market and your products. Take time and don’t rush into things without having done lots of research.
- Be persistent, until you are told an outright no it’s always worth making another call.
- Set time aside for marketing work and stick to it, it can easily be overlooked in the day to day running of the business.
- Get as much sleep in now as you can!
I know Dungarvan Brewing Company as a great local business that has “done good” and is growing nationally and hopefully soon internationally. Support for and from the Dungarvan community proves them to be a great boost for the area. They are helping other start-ups with advice and talks at Enterprise Board meetings and they even recycle the grain used in the brewing process by supplying it to local cattle and pig farmers.
After the interview I was given some bottles – purely for tasting purposes of course – and I can say I will be stocking up again soon from the off licence because they were very tasty. I especially like this success story and hope it inspires people who feel they have hit the bottom in this recession or been made redundant. Thank you for a great interview Claire.