When Vitalijus Sidlauskas helped harvest gherkins in his native Lithuania as a child, little did he expect that one day he would be growing them in his adopted home of Lusk in north Co Dublin.
Vitalijus, who jokes that he is “nearly local”, moved to Ireland in 2000, where his first job was with Domino’s Pizza.
However, with his brother, Aurimas, a director of Lithuanica – one of the biggest Eastern European food and drink wholesalers and retailers in Ireland – Vitalijus soon came on board, selling Lithuanian alcohol to Irish off-licences, as well as stocking speciality sections in Irish supermarkets.
And it was here that he spotted a new business opportunity for himself and his partner, Jekatrina Iltsenko.
I saw how many Polish gherkins they throw away because they’re not fresh, they’re not good.
"I counted mathematically if there is any profit or if it’s possible to grow,” says Vitalijus, who managed to find a small glasshouse of around 100m2 to test the market – though even finding a place to rent initially was a challenge in itself.
“It’s very difficult when you’re coming to some farmers saying, ‘oh I’d like to grow gherkins’, and they have no clue who are you or what a gherkin even is,” he says.
Asked about the biggest obstacle, Vitalijus responds quick as a flash: “Everything,” he laughs. “When you start everything from zero, everything is interesting and everything is a big challenge.”
Gherkin grower Vitalijus Sidlauskas started farming gherkins five years ago \ Philip Doyle
Vitalijus explains that he gleaned much of the information about gherkin farming from the internet, as well as by ringing up growers in his native Lithuania. Local cucumber farmer, Vincent Thorne, was also on hand to help.
Having started with 1,200 gherkin plants, Vitalijus now has up to 10,000 plants on a site of over one acre, which he sources from Hollandplant in the Netherlands, with plantings in February and July, and an adviser from Delphy visiting him every month.
Growing gherkins in Ireland - the challenges
But growing gherkins in Ireland is not easy, due to the lack of sunshine and cooler night temperatures, as well as other issues.
“Humidity is the biggest predator for all growers in glasshouses,” says Vitalijus, who works from sunrise to sunset and can cover up to 30,000 steps a day between tending the vines and harvesting the gherkins.
As well as supplying Lithuanica stores, other eastern European shops in Ireland also buy Vitalijus’ gherkins through the central warehouse. While the season typically runs from March until November, Vitalijus aims to have his first gherkins in shops for Easter.
“Easter is very profitable for me,” he says, explaining that while imported gherkins generally retail at about €1.80, he can charge a premium of €2.50 for his Irish-grown products, though prices vary depending on the time of year.
Planning for the future, Vitalijus and Jekatrina would eventually like to buy one or two acres themselves and establish their own glasshouse rather than renting. But at the moment, he is counting down to December.
“Because from March, I haven’t got any day off!” he laughs.
The Quail Farmers
“Find what you love and it will give you wings.”
That is the motto – quite literally – of Estonian PR executive-turned-Leitrim quail farmer, Tiina Laas.
“If you love what you do, you see less obstacles,” says Tiina.
“Most people are put off because they are afraid of obstacles. But love gives you wings and you kind of go over all obstacles and still are happy because you don’t even notice these obstacles.”
And Tiina has met more than her share with her journey at 12 Quail Farm, which she runs with her daughter Liisa in Foxfield, Co Leitrim, supplying 14 counties nationwide.
A “city girl” with a successful career with the Port of Tallinn, Tiina explains that while she had learned English since childhood, she never had the opportunity to live abroad as a young woman while Estonia was part of the Soviet Union.
“And this has been bugging me all my life,” she says of her decision to move to Ireland in 2003 after visiting on holiday. “I realised I’m not getting any younger and if I wanted to try and have that experience in my life and not get old and whine: ‘Oh I could have – but I didn’t.’”
Having fallen in love with Leitrim, Tiina got a job with MBNA and moved to a house on a hill with one acre. “I was dreaming about a rose garden,” she recalls. “I had no intention of becoming a farmer.”
The recession, however, led to redundancy, with Tiina’s health also suffering after what started out as a frozen shoulder left her unable to do basic things, like drive her car or comb her hair.
“I was in a very bad place,” says Tiina, who as well as chronic pain, also suffered the emotional fallout of being unemployed for the first time in her life. While doing some research online, however, Tiina came across information on the nutritional value of quail eggs and decided to buy 12 birds in 2013.
“The 12 quails literally saved my life,” she states. But not only did she feel the health benefits, she also found a new purpose by setting up 12 Quail Farm from very modest beginnings. “The 12 birds lived in the house with me,” she says, explaining that as she was on Jobseeker’s Allowance, she did not have the money for dedicated cages, instead keeping the birds in her spare room using a recycled box from a local florist.
“I had some plastic trellis for climbing plants, so I put that trellis on top of the cardboard box so that there was light for the birds and put that in and they were happy,” she says.
In the same step-by-step manner, Tiina found her first customers for her quail eggs, starting with Beirne’s Filling Station in Ballinamore. However, she knew she needed to increase her flock to be taken seriously, so bought an incubator and began to hatch her own chicks.
“By the end of 2013, I was covering, single-handedly, five counties,” says Tiina, who received support from Leitrim Development Company for special housing as her flock multiplied, but also credits social welfare staff in Carrick-on-Shannon and Ballinamore, Leitrim LEO, Leitrim County Council, Orla Casey from Momentum Consulting, food safety consultant Louise Kennedy, business consultant Brian Dolan, Grant Connections and friend and environmentalist Noel Kiernan for helping her on her way.
The fledgling business received another boost when Tiina’s daughter, Liisa Keränen, came on board and after joining the Food Academy programme, 12 Quail Farm now supplies its GMO-free quail eggs, enriched with Omega-3 and Omega-6, to 36 SuperValus nationwide, as well as to independent shops. They also supply eggs and whole quails to restaurants, such as the award-winning Oarsman Restaurant.
Today, Tiina has over 2,000 birds, with breeds including Estonian, Texas A&M, Italian, Japanese and English black quails. She does most of the farm work, as well as contacting new customers and designing promotional material, while Liisa looks after online activity, logistics, accounts, deliveries – often driving over 4,000km every month – and building and fixing equipment when required.
“The very first item she bought when she moved to the farm in Ireland was a proper circular saw,” says Tiina, though adds that her other daughter, Ingrid, who lives in the States, also writes and tests recipes for their website.
And at 66, she says she is finally “living my dream”.
“Life is short,” she states, “and it is up to us to do something with it.”
For further information, visit www.12quailfarm.com
The Sausage House
When brothers Maciej, Marek and Marcin Chlebicki opened their small bakery in Castlebar in 2006, they never expected to employ up to 80 people and supply 300 shops nationwide.
“The business plan was that 90% of our products would be sold in our own shop in Castlebar and maybe some small deliveries… but life was kind of opposite,” says Maciej of MMM Family Bakery – AKA “The Breadski Brothers”.
Originally from Gorzow Wielkopolski in western Poland, Maciej explains that while his brothers ran their own bakery at home, he played soccer semi-professionally before moving to Galway in 2004, aged 20.
“I was thinking to myself about trying something different,” he says, explaining that when Marek and Marcin followed suit, they decided to relocate to Castlebar, where they used their savings and a small loan from Bank of Ireland to take over the former Moran’s Bakery. “It was enough just to buy the necessary equipment, which was a 25-year-old oven we bought and a few mixers and that was how we started,” he recalls. “There were very hard times at the beginning for the business because all three of us were doing everything ourselves.”
Indeed, before long the brothers were delivering their traditional breads, pastries and cakes as far as Wexford and Waterford every second day to supply Polish and Eastern European shops – which is when the Irish supermarkets started to take notice, with their products stocked initially by Lidl before moving into SuperValu stores through the Food Academy programme.
With their sister, Barbara, joining the business in 2008, MMM Family Bakery continued to grow and has since relocated to an 800m2 bakery, where they produce up to 45,000 handmade loaves of bread every week, including their best-selling sourdoughs, rye and multi-seed breads, as well as traditional Polish confectionery like their popular cherry cheesecake and sweet quark doughnuts. Last year, they made 61,000 doughnuts in one day for the traditional Polish “Fat Thursday” celebrations before Lent.
They also run three “Breadski Brothers” shops in Castlebar, Ballina and Tuam, as well as a café, La Patisseria diAngelo, in Castlebar, with plans to open a second outlet in Westport. While their flour is sourced from Poland, they also use Irish suppliers such as Cloverhill Foods and Cavan Box packaging, with Maciej now working between the two countries while his brothers remain in Ireland.
Of course, there have been challenges – for example, it’s hard to get their name out in the mainstream without a large marketing budget – but Maciej says they have received great support from the local enterprise board and bank, as well as from their skilled staff and loyal customers.
“It is a very friendly place to do business, if you do it right,” he says. “We always want to be fair to our staff and to the customers and it has actually paid off because if you are honest people, the honesty comes back to you.”
For further information, visit www.mmmfamilybakery.ie CL
It’s a long way from Lodz in Poland to Little Island in Cork, but the Luczek family have found their own recipe for success at The Sausage House.
Agnes Luczek, who runs the business with her parents Kazimierz and Beata, explains that her father, who is a mechanical engineer by profession, first moved to Ireland in 2003, followed by the rest of the family.
“It was quite difficult at the beginning,” recalls Agnes, who was just 12 at the time.
“I learned some English in Poland but it was more ‘British English’ that I’d learned, so when I came here to Cork, most of the accents threw me off and I suppose finding friends when you can’t speak the language is a challenge for a while. But we settled in quite quickly.”
While her father originally worked in factories, the family saw that there was a gap in the market for freshly made traditional Polish sausages and cured cold cuts. Pooling their savings, they opened The Sausage House smokehouse and butcher shop in Ballytrasna, Little Island, in May 2013.
“The major challenge, I suppose, was finding a place that would be suitable with all the HSAP requirements,” says Agnes, who started as the office manager while studying for her law degree. “Advertising was another challenge we found because, as we were gearing towards the Polish community at the beginning, we couldn’t have used radio or newspapers at the start in the same way as though we were gearing towards the Irish community.”
The Sausage House offers a range of 10 smoked, ready-to-eat Polish-style sausages, as well as cold cuts including smoked bacon and turkey. Agnes says that it is “extremely important” that they use 100% Irish meat through their main supplier, Cormac O’Connor & Sons Pork and Bacon.
“When we buy meat off Irish suppliers and Irish meat, we know that it’s fresh and it’s trusted,” she says.
As well as producing for their own shop, the Luczek family also smoke bacon for local butchers, such as McCarthy’s of Kanturk, and recently were approached by Ballymaloe Relish to produce the smoked bacon for their pasta sauces.
And while most of their customers are Polish or continental, word of mouth has seen more Irish shoppers stopping by.
“Somebody has to be a real foodie I suppose to be willing to straight off try it, but what I found is, mostly with the turkey and a few of the sausages, once they try it, they come back to us, so I’m really happy with that,” says Agnes, who recommends the delikaetesowa sausage as a cold cut for first-timers.
Challenges still exist, however.
“There is unfortunately a lot of illegal smokehouses,” says Agnes, “and we have to abide by all the rules that all the big businesses have to, whereas they don’t.”
However, the family hope that their commitment to top-quality traditional products will continue to see The Sausage House grow.
“We would like to expand to get more Irish customers,” says Agnes. “We have been working on getting that smoked turkey into local butchers and local shops, so hopefully that will take off and we will be able to get more of our products out there.”
For further information, visit The Sausage House at https://www.facebook.com/sausagehousecork/
The “Breadski” Brothers