This year Focus Friday is teaming up with the SuperValu Food Academy to bring you the best new Irish food producers, and tell you all about their products. Today, we chat to Maria Lucia Betts of Maria Lucia Bakes. Maria grew up in Co Wicklow, where her family had a guesthouse and tearooms. She grew up helping her Mum in the kitchen as she made soda bread, scones and cakes, instilling in her a lifetime love of baking. Just over a year ago she decided to follow her dream and Maria Lucia Bakes was born.

Can you tell us a bit about your products?
We produce a range of hand-baked luxury granola cereals in three flavours; cashew almond & cinnamon, cranberry coconut & chia seed and apricot walnut with treacle. They are gluten wheat and dairy free and just lightly sweetened with a little honey, so they are a healthy tasty cereal. Delicious served with cold or warm milk, layered with Greek yoghurt and fruit, sprinkled on creamy porridge or mixed in with bread or muffin mixes. Available in 400g retail packs and also in 1kilo bags for food service.
What inspired you to create your product and how did you decide on the flavours?
The summer before last i had a friend with a gluten intolerance staying with us for a couple of days, so i adapted my usual recipes to make meals she could enjoy. I had been making granola breakfast cereal for years so it was simply a case of making a gluten free version. My friend was delighted to eat ‘real food’ again as she hadn’t eaten anything like it for a long time. When she was leaving i gave her a bag of granola to take home with her which she shared with her coeliac friend back home. This friend got in touch and asked if she could buy it from me. The word spread! A few months later i started selling my granola from two farmers markets in Dublin and shortly after sold to health stores and specialist food shops.
Cashew almond and cinnamon is the original flavour, the one i have been making for years. I knew i needed to offer variety, rather than just one flavour so i set about trialling recipes in my kitchen with my (Gluten intolerant) friend’s help and after many hours of experimenting with different nuts, seeds, spices and natural flavourings we came up with two other unique combinations. We wanted them to taste different from each other, be healthy and to be visually appealing as the feedback i was given from coeliacs was that a lot of gluten free food looks bland.
How has your product evolved since you have started this process?
When i started selling granola at farmers markets in November 2013 i got a lot of feedback from customers, mostly the feedback was great, we also heard what they didn’t like, for example lots of people don’t like dried fruit in their granola and this feedback has been used to create our new granola products which we hope to launch in the next few months. Our packaging has evolved as well, we are just about to roll out our new boxes which we’re delighted with. I was on a programme called the Food Academy last year, sponsored by SuperValu, Bord Bia and LEO’s. As part of this initiative we had the opportunity to meet with buyers from SuperValu and we got invaluable feedback on our product and packaging. We got assistance also from mentors who guided us along the way. Getting their input in the early days of the business meant we adapted our packaging before we started selling in big volume.

Who is your customer?
Coeliacs and people with a gluten intolerance are our regular customers. Some people are adopting a gluten free diet as they feel better when they remove gluten from their diet. Many people are very health conscious now and are buying our product because it is lower in sugar than most granolas and they can see from the list of ingredients that it is a natural product packed full of good ingredients. Sporty people like our granolas as they like the slow release of energy from the oats nuts and seeds, they want to avoid the crash in energy levels that sometimes lead to making the poor food choices later in the day.
What tips would you give to someone who is starting out and wants to launch a food-related product / business?
Make an appointment to see a mentor at your Local Enterprise Office and have an initial 30 min chat to discuss your business idea. If it is a good prospect then book a few mentoring sessions to tease out your idea and get started. I can’t recommend the Food Academy highly enough, it is four fairly intense days that will tell you all you need to know about growing a food business. We were lucky enough to get a listing with SuperValu as a result of this programme, something that would have been impossible to get without the Food Academy as such an early point in the business. Finally i would network as much as possible with other food businesses as you will learn so much from them and their mistakes and successes. If you live in Dublin, join the Dublin Food Chain as its a great way to network and they have guest speakers who are experts in their areas.

Where can you buy this product and how much will it cost?
Our granola is available in select SuperValu stores, health stores , specialist food shops. Retailing €5.95 – €6.25 for a 400g pack.  Check our website  as the list of stockists is growing daily.

What does the future hold for your business?
As one of thirty companies selected to go on the next stage of the Food Academy Programme, we hope to supply more SuperValu stores on a regional basis this year, and beyond that our aim is to be available in stores nationwide. We also plan to start exporting to the UK and beyond this year. We are taking part in Marketplace 2015 organised by Bord Bia whereby  Irish food producers get to meet overseas buyers in a one day event filled with prearranged one-to-one meetings
We have two new products coming out later this year, an even lower sugar, fruit free granola and a granola bar.