A series of measures introduced to lessen the impact of Brexit has seen Oakpark Foods, the Tipperary meat company, expand into new markets, invest in new facilities and develop new products aimed at health-conscious consumers.
The Cahir-headquartered company opened a second production facility in Clonmel in 2018, at a cost of €3 million, to produce a turkey-based alternative to its branded bacon products.
The move followed a lengthy R&D project with a US company in Chicago and coincided with the company’s first deal in Holland with Albert Heijn, the largest supermarket chain in the Dutch market.
Now the main focus for Oakpark is on protecting its supply chain in Britain, where its retail clients include Morrisons, Waitrose, Sainsburys and Farmfoods.
“Brexit is a problem,” David Brett, general manager at Oakpark Foods, said. “Everything we can do, we are doing. We can’t miss a beat.”
Oakpark felt the first effects of the Brexit vote almost as soon as it happened in June 2016.
“There’s nothing like a potential crisis coming down the line to refocus minds,” Brett said.
“At the time the vote happened, for every pound we were generating in the UK, we were getting €1.30. Two months later, that had dropped to €1.12. We knew pretty much straight away that we needed to expand beyond the UK.”
Oakpark Foods is a client company of Enterprise Ireland and enlisted the help of the state agency to research potential new markets.
“We focused on Holland, because the level of bacon consumption there was ahead of other European countries,” Brett said.
At the same time, Oakpark sought to diversify its product offering, so it could stand apart from competitors in the Dutch market.
“We didn’t want to go into the Netherlands with a ‘me too’. Our focus initially was on higher-protein lower-fat bacon,” Brett said.
“We started to develop lean bacon medallions and then went over to the US to look at American-style bacon.”
While there, Brett spotted another potential opportunity. “We could see just the bacon category had evolved a lot in America. Forty per cent of the product on sale there was actually made from non-pork bacon.
“The majority of that is turkey bacon. We wanted to bring that back to Ireland initially and then target it at mainland Europe.”
Oakpark Foods is owned by Brett Brothers Ltd, the fourth-generation family business established in Windgap, Co Kilkenny, in 1939. An animal feed and agriculture merchant, Brett Brothers bought Oakpark in 1992 and also runs Sunglen Pig Farm in Threecastles, Co Kilkenny.
David Brett joined Oakpark in 2005 and runs the business with his brother John, who is the company’s chief executive.
The company has undergone significant growth since 2013, increasing headcount from 47 to 155.
“New product development is absolutely essential in our business,” said Brett, who is 37 and grew up in Kilkenny.
“You could say we produce bacon products, but actually we do a lot more than that. We’ve taken it to the next level by bringing new products into the mainstream.”
Having introduced a series of Covid-19 safety measures to protect staff at its facilities in Cahir and Clonmel, Oakpark is now moving ahead with plans to Brexit-proof its export business in Britain.
“We have an efficient, well-oiled distribution set-up for our UK stockists, which our business is absolutely reliant on. Any disruption to that could be detrimental.”
Oakpark Foods has secured AEO status, which will allow the company to fast-track exports through customs in Ireland and Britain.
“We’ve set up British Vat and EORI numbers, so we can act as an importer into the UK,” Brett said.
“We also know that we’ll need to hold more stock in the UK, so we’ve increased our warehousing capacity over there. Everything we can possibly do, we’re doing.”