The Big Interview

‘What’s the breaking point? How long can we absorb these increases?’ – Ciara Troy, food entrepreneur

The Dublin-based founder of Oishii Foods built her successful Japanese cuisine company from scratch, but is concerned now about the impact of inflation on her growing business

Ciara Troy, founder and managing director, Oishii Foods: ‘You’re standing right in front of the customer, and they’re very quick to tell you what they like and what they don’t like.’ Picture: Bryan Meade

In 2006, Ciara Troy found herself at Shibuya crossing in Tokyo, one of the busiest junctions in the world. The 26-year old Dubliner was in the Japanese capital as part of her university course, and says she felt “like an ant” as people swarmed around her.

“I had gone in to explore Tokyo on my own, no mobile phone or anything, and I just thought, ‘Oh my god, nobody knows where I am’,” Troy says. “There were so many people compared to Dublin. It was overwhelming in some ways, but exhilarating as well.”

Going solo in the Japanese capital turned out to be one of the standout moments of a four-month study trip that would ultimately shape her career. “I just loved the Japanese culture, the food, the people, it was amazing,” she says.

A few months later, Troy was sitting in Dublin’s Abbey Street Food Emporium and thinking about how much she missed Japanese food when the idea for Oishii Foods took shape – oishii being the Japanese word for delicious.

“I really missed the diet, so it stemmed from there and I registered the company name in July 2006,” she says. “I bought a second-hand canopy from a farmer down in Limerick for about 40 quid, and a few other bits and bobs, and started making everything at home.”

Troy had just graduated from Trinity College at the time with a degree in business and sociology and Oishii Foods was about to become a one-person, one-market stall operation. Fast forward 16 years, and it now employs 28 people. Troy’s kitchen table has been replaced by a production unit in Dublin, and her products sell under a series of canopies including those of retailers such as SuperValu, Centra, Dunnes Stores, Lidl, Tesco and Applegreen.

So how did she go from the farmers’ market in Greystones to a established food business? What did she learn along the way? And, more importantly, what did Irish people make of sushi in 2006?

The answer to the second question probably starts with the subject of the former. Having started her business at home, Troy needed to find somewhere to sell the sushi she was making.

“I put my name down for the market and went from there. It was €60 to have a stall for the day and it was tough going, I’ve serious, serious respect for the trade. It’s hard work: the preparation, the loading up, setting up, standing in all elements throughout the day, and then packing up and doing it all again for the following day,” she says.

Hard work it might have been, but it was also the source of priceless consumer feedback and “brilliant” learnings as Troy was perfectly placed to find out what people thought of her efforts.

“You’re standing right in front of the customer, and they’re very quick to tell you what they like and what they don’t like,” she says. “And if they come back the following week, they’ll tell you how they got on or what they’d like to see differently. So really, it was very motivating, and the customers came back week after week, and I just couldn’t make it fast enough.”

While sushi was not particularly mainstream in Ireland in 2006, people were “really enthusiastic” to buy what Troy was making.

“I think there was an appetite for something new, and maybe they just admired my bravery, I mean, I can’t imagine that my first few attempts at making sushi were that brilliant.”

Growing the business in the early years was hard work, with Troy “operating on a shoestring”.

“I was cold calling, putting my mobile number on the homemade labels, and it just grew very organically, stores would contact me, I’d add them to the list and give them a try.”

The biggest challenge for Troy was “wearing every hat” from making and selling the food to trying to get money in and bills paid.

“It was very physically exhausting. And I had no money. I was paying people on credit cards, I hadn’t a bean, every penny I had went straight back into the market,” she says. “That’s a tough starting point, but you learn from those experiences and you take them with you.”

While operating the market at Greystones, there was a fish stall next to hers, where Troy was able to get some of the main ingredients used in her produce.

The same fishmonger, run by O’Meara brothers, Bill, Tadgh and Damian, continues to supply her business to this day. “It’s lovely, the long-term links that have been developed over the years,” she says.

Learning curve

Oishii Foods is currently the largest supplier of fresh Japanese food products to the retail sector in Ireland. From its commercial kitchen in Smithfield, a skilled production team hand-prepares a range of sushis.

It prides itself on the level of service it provides, and Troy is keen to work with retail partners to grow the business’s ‘Food to Go’ sales offering.

“We’re pretty much working seven days a week,” Troy says, describing Oishii Foods as a “back-end” operation in the food sector.

“We have no restaurant or outlet of our own. Not very glamorous, but we make everything from scratch. We buy the fish whole, gut it and take it from there. Every topping, every mix is prepared by ourselves in house, so we put a lot of care into sourcing our ingredients and building relationships with suppliers.”

The main focus is fish-based sushi, but it also does a range of duck and chicken options.

Before moving to Smithfield 11 years ago, Oishii Foods was based in a prep kitchen in Kilcoole and then a larger unit in Bray. The company’s first big breakthrough came in 2008, when it was listed in what was then Superquinn, after Troy made contacts with other suppliers at a trade fair.

It was initially a bit of a learning curve because of her lack of experience in retail, but the supermarket sector proved to be very supportive, and by 2011 the company had won a contact with Tesco Ireland. In March this year it was listed in both Lidl and Tesco Northern Ireland.

The impact of this has been “phenomenal”, Troy says and she thinks she has Brexit to thank for breaking into the North. Although Brexit has also created difficulties.

“There was a gap in the market, I would say it was down to a combination of things, obviously,” she says. “I’m very proud of the product and its quality and we put a huge effort into that, but I think market forces had something to play in that role, as well as there’s been a lot of gaps on supermarket shelves due to Brexit.

“The [Brexit] challenges have been unprecedented in every respect, I think for both suppliers and retailers alike. We knocked on doors, we tried to see where we could fill a gap in that demand and tailor an offering that would suit. It seems to be working well, touch wood.”

Negative impact

The other, more negative, impact of Brexit for the business was that it had a number of British suppliers.

“It was very unknown territory, both on their side and on ours,” Troy says. “There were tariffs, timelines were extended, and minimum order quantities were increased.

“To try and establish relationships outside of the UK seemed like a workaround, and actually, that has its own challenges, but we’ve overcome it and we’re still dealing with a lot of the UK-based companies in some shape or form.”

Like many other businesses operating in the food space, the Covid-19 pandemic had an impact on Oishii Foods too, and as Troy says, “when you’re a small business, it doesn’t take much to rock the boat”.

Troy, who had her third baby the November before the pandemic hit, spent “about two years not setting foot on the premises”.

Looking back on how the business fared, she calls it “the hardest time, but maybe the best thing that has happened to us in a very long time”.

She adds: “If you look at our pre-Covid business model, it was a wasteful beast, to be honest. We were supplying stores on a sale or return basis. If the food didn’t sell, we took the hit on it, we had to take it back. At one stage, we could have been averaging 25 per cent wastage, which means that one week in every four was going in the bin.

“It was only when I looked at it in those terms that I was pretty horrified. So Covid allowed us to stop in our tracks and think: ‘Hang on a minute. Okay, what are we doing?’”

The company also availed of a strategic marketing review with Enterprise Ireland, something Troy found useful, as it meant taking a very hard look at what was working well for Oishii and what needed to change.

“As things began opening up again, and we started getting inquiries from stores again, I had to say, ‘Well, hang on a minute, I’m not sure I missed that waste, I don’t think I want to do that any more’.

“From that point of view, I think it was one of the best things for us to take that hard look and actually say: ‘No, that’s not what we want to be, we want to make quality sushi that is an order that will be actively sold.’ And so that’s what we do, we make to order and we send out what was ordered, and we get paid for what was ordered. That works much better.”

Things have improved considerably since then, and Troy is keen to tell a positive story. Back from maternity leave, she is working hard. Compared to May 2021, she says the company’s orders are up 91 per cent this year.

“I feel really positive and spurred on about what we can achieve over the next 12 or 24 months. I’m extremely motivated, I’m loving Oishii. My kids are so proud of the business and of seeing the products on shelves, and the team is very motivated at the moment,” she says.

In addition, since the company entered the market in the North, the feedback has been “very positive.”

“We’ve only been supplying there for three months. I see huge growth opportunities to expand further and get more brand awareness in those new spaces. Also, they were just with initial product lines [launched in Northern Ireland], so I see further opportunities for other variations, probably still sushi-based.”

Inflation challenges

While the future is looking very exciting for the company, Troy says there is no denying the current challenges posed by inflation, the price of salmon, a key ingredient used by the company, is up 70 per cent at the moment.

“And as a food supplier, we’re kind of a middleman, so we’re getting hit with the increases of raw materials. Everything from the price of cardboard, fuel surcharges, salmon, rice, wages, you name it, we’re taking it all on board. But what’s that breaking point? How long can we continue to absorb these increases?” she asks.

“And then, what’s the timeframe in which we’re able to pass them on? It’s not that easy to pass them on, and nor do we really want to, so then what do we do? What is the solution or the plan B?”

Oishii makes all its products from scratch and very much values what it puts into them. To respond to rising costs, it’s looking at finding efficiencies in a variety of ways, including different ordering patterns and looking at whether or not it can make some products in larger, bulk size.

“We’re trying to find workarounds, and we haven’t passed on any costs up to this point. But I couldn’t guarantee that we won’t have to in the future, there will only be so long we can carry on absorbing the costs ourselves, but hopefully things will stop being so volatile,” Troy says.

Going forward, transparency will be key for food companies as they navigate the current environment.

“Whether it’s a buyer or a supplier, we just have to keep an honest communication about the situation everybody’s in.”

Chatting with Troy, it’s clear she loves what she does and loves the food industry. In the early days of the business, switching off was something she found very hard, but when she does take time off, it’s very much devoted to her family. “I just love nothing more than having a bounce on a trampoline or going for a cycle with the kids,” she says.

When not doing so, however, she is, as she happily admits herself, someone who can spend a “ridiculous amount of time in supermarkets”.

In her own words: ‘The deal that changed everything’

The deal that really brought Oishii to life was when we landed a listing with all of the Dublin-based Superquinn stores in 2008. Not only did the listing put us on the map, so to speak, it was also a vote of confidence that people saw potential in the business – that was a pivotal moment for me. I was in a couple of more artisan stores before that listing and I began cold-calling into various outlets; that gave me the encouragement.