A few months after Miena Rust established her nougat business in 2012, she had a meeting with a financial adviser to look at her early sales figures.

“And he said, ‘Well, you don’t really have a business,’” she recalls of how quickly – and heart-crushingly – her hard work was dismissed.

Was she defeated though? Not a chance.

“I said, ‘I’ll show him!’” says Miena, laughing; and let’s hope he has been watching.

Because not only has the former architect gone on to win contracts including supplying Dunnes Stores’ Simply Better range and Harrods in the UK, in 2023, she was named overall Best Artisan Producer at the Blas na hÉireann Irish food awards.

As she recalls that moment, all the emotions flood back.

“I can’t explain,” she says, as tears – the happy kind – fill her eyes.

“What really blew me away was that other people thought that what I do was good enough – and not just good enough – the best. “I take everything very personally. It meant a lot for the business; but for me as a person…” she trails off, lost for words.

It’s easy to understand why: it’s been some journey.

Start-up and stitches

Originally from South Africa, Miena and her husband Jeanne moved to Ireland in 2001 to work in the construction industry. They settled in Donard, Co Wicklow and welcomed their two children, Hannah (now 18) and Ethan (14), but in 2010, Miena was made redundant.

“Which, at that stage, was the right time for me,” she reflects. “I wanted to do something else. So, it was all just a blessing.”

Miena took a year out at home; but soon her hands were itching for a project. “I painted the house outside once and I painted it inside about five times,” she jokes. “I knew then I had to do something.”

That “something” turned out to be making nougat: a popular sweet treat in her native South Africa. It was a humble start-up in her home kitchen.

“A hob and two pots, two thermostats and my Kenwood mixer,” lists Miena; though she could add “12 stitches” after accidently slicing her hand a week before taking her first stand at Marlay Park Market in Dublin (the scar remains).

Before long, however, she had converted her garage into a dedicated production unit, and secured her first retailer in Avoca in 2014: though life threw an unexpected curveball in 2015, when Miena was diagnosed with stage three cancer in her breast, and stage two in her lymph nodes.

A long road awaited in terms of chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, but one thing that helped her focus on the future was planning for her business.

Miena Rust with her nougat produced at her facility in Wicklow. \ Claire Nash

For instance, shortly before starting radiation, she had bumped into the Dunnes Stores team at Bloom, who asked her to give them a call once she felt strong enough after treatment.

“I had my last radiation,” smiles Miena, “and I texted saying, ‘When can I come and see you guys?’ And they were just amazing.”

Nougat produced at the facility in Wicklow. \ Claire Nash

Blas success

It was around this time that Miena first entered the Blas na hÉireann Irish food awards, making the finals on her first attempt in 2015.

“I was hanging up washing and Artie [Clifford – founder and chair of Blas] phoned me. The kids were running around, and the dogs,” she says laughing, adding that at the time “it was mind-blowing” to have made it that far.

“It just gave me so much of a boost to think, ‘I can work on this and it can really be something special.’”

Indeed, in 2016 and 2017, Miena won silver medals; but even greater excitement was in store when she received an unexpected call from a buyer who had tasted her nougat at the awards in Dingle.

“And they would like me to come over to Harrods!” smiles Miena at the memory, which led to her producing a Christmas order for Harrods for 2018, and continued business up until Covid-19.

Such an opportunity would not have come about, Miena maintains, only for Blas.

“I can’t see how I would have gotten in there,” she says simply.

That highlight, however, was topped in 2023, when Miena not only won two gold medals, but took home the overall Best Artisan Producer award. With the closing date for this year’s competition on 16 May, she would encourage other Irish food producers to try their luck.

“Blas is really very special. I think they do much more for the Irish producers,” says Miena, who in addition to her awards, has also secured valuable mentoring sessions through the organisation; most recently with chef Brian McDermott in terms of product development.

Plus – she adds – the weekend itself is great fun; and a chance for hard-working producers to let their hair down. Literally.

“You can dress up,” she laughs. “You don’t have to wear a hairnet!”

Future plans

For now, though, it’s all systems go at Miena’s Nougat, where she employs three full-time and one part-time staff.

As well as the contract for Dunnes Stores, Miena sells under her own label, with nine different flavours ranging from wild toasted almond with rum and raisin to salted caramel and cashew using Achill sea salt. These products are available in independent stores nationwide, while Miena also exports to customers in Denmark, France, Belgium and New York.

We have to wonder, though, what that financial adviser would make of how far she’s come?

“I should actually drive past there,” says Miena, smiling mischievously. “And bring a box of nougat in.”

• Visit mienas.ie

Last chance to enter 2024 Blas na hÉireann awards

•The deadline to enter the 2024 Blas na hÉireann awards is 16 May at irishfoodawards.com

•Once producers have applied online, they will receive a label to send their product in for blind-tasting. Together with the Food Science Department of UCC and the University of Copenhagen, the team at Blas have developed a blind-tasting judging system that is now recognised as an industry gold standard worldwide.

•Finalists will be noticed mid-August, with the awards presented in Dingle on 4 October.

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