Raised on a dairy and pig farm in Cavan, Annie Dunne has spent over 20 years working in food manufacturing and retail, from Kerry Foods and Superquinn to leading the product development team for the world-famous food halls at Harrods in London.

In 2020, however, Annie established her own food consultancy and product development business, The Art of GRATE Food, with a mission “to help food businesses unlock innovation potential and to inspire creative solutions to spark growth”. She is now based in her native Cavan with her husband and their two daughters, but works with clients throughout Ireland and London.

Annie shares her career highlights, her top tips for farm start-ups, the food trends for 2022; and the importance of “the rule of three”.

Visit www.theartof gratefood.com

Raised on a dairy and pig farm in Co Cavan, Annie Dunne's career has included highlights like leading the product development team for the food halls at Harrods.

1 My earliest food memory is…

The smell of my mum’s brown soda bread through the house. A fresh loaf every morning before we woke. She spoilt us with fresh bread, cakes and treats every day growing up.

2 The best lesson I learned in my first job was…

I was lucky enough to have breakfast in the canteen of Kerry Foods, the Freshways site, once a week with Flor Healy, the then-CEO of Kerry Consumer Foods Division. We were both early risers and got to the office before others. His advice will always stay with me, but the one thing that sticks out is the way he listened. He didn’t just hear what I was saying, but he took it in, digested it and understood it. It didn’t matter that he was the CEO and I was just a graduate. Since then, I’ve always consciously tried to listen, make people feel listened to, enhancing my ability to understand better and ultimately make me a better communicator. Great communication is key to success in business.

3 The highlight of working with Harrods was…

There have been so many amazing moments during my time at Harrods; from getting sign-off for the capital investment on the food halls to bumping into Jennifer Aniston! But my proudest moment is probably the unveiling of the fresh market hall in 2018, which showcases fresh prepared meals and food-to-go products by Harrods’ chefs, and the highest quality fruit and veg, fish and meat from all around the world.

4 The reason I set up The Art of Grate Food was…

The number one reason is to strike a better balance between family and work life. Family is number one for me and my husband Derek. Our girls are growing up so fast and I want to be there for them more on a daily basis.

But I am also privileged to have built up a wealth of knowledge in the food industry, in particular in product development and innovation. At Harrods, I worked with over 150 food producers, from small start-ups to large corporations, and helping them to grow their business gave me so much joy. I want to be able to do that in a way that avoids companies making costly mistakes, but also identify opportunities that they may otherwise have missed.

5 My top three tips for start-up farm food businesses are:

  • Know your market and your differential: Start with testing your product at farmers’ markets, with friends, families or local stores. Gain as much feedback and insight about your product, and then hone it so you have a clear point of difference versus your competitors. Apply a “test-and-learn” mentality.
  • Build a purpose-led business: Stand for more than just profit. There’s no room in the future for landfill or empty noise. So think about what and how your food business can make a difference to the community, environment and society as a whole.
  • Resilience: Every day will bring different challenges, so be prepared to work hard, make mistakes, learn from them and move on.
  • 6 The opportunities I see for Irish farm food brands abroad are…

    As part of the Food Vision 2030 Strategy, there is an ambition to grow agri-food exports from €14bn to €21bn by 2030. With high-quality raw materials, health and nutrition at its core, combined with food safety and quality, Ireland has a huge opportunity to achieve premium position in key markets, such as China, the Middle East and the US. Ireland is in a very strong position to become a world leader in sustainable food systems over the next decade, and it is a very exciting time to be in the food industry.

    7 Irish food brands I really admire are…

    Long-standing businesses such as St Tola’s Cheese, Burren Smokehouse and Donnelly’s Foods have continued to adapt, expand and build their reputation for exceptional quality. Newer brands (set up in the last 10 years) such as Lismore Food Company, Galmere Foods, Velo coffee in Cork and Áine’s Chocolates in Cavan, have truly found their niche in the market place, and built a reputation by delivering consistently great products and exceptional customer service. And there is a new wave of food entrepreneurs that are really pushing the boundary on innovation and quality, doing things differently and with a real purpose eg Valentia Island Vermouth, Love A Little dessert sauces from Donegal, Five Farms Irish cream liqueur, Nobó, Savage Sauces… my list could really go on!

    8 The food trends I predict for 2022 are…

  • Products that deliver additional benefits; for instance, we’ll see a lot more products based on mushrooms, given the power of the health benefits of this ingredient. Improving cognitive/brain health is also a big area of opportunity, with products that promote mood, good sleep, focus and stress relief.
  • Greener credentials, forcing food manufacturers to increase their responsible sourcing and decrease their carbon footprint.
  • Cleaner ingredients. Expect increased scrutiny for plant-based items, which have exploded as a trend in recent years. With extensively long ingredient declarations (lists on labelling), there are questions whether prepared plant-based products are really good for you. So watch out for a new wave of cleaner products.
  • Shopping local will continue and regional brands will prevail.
  • Less meat, but higher quality. Campaigns such as “meat-free Monday” and “fish Friday” will become part of weekly schedules.
  • Snacking and self-treats will continue to be demanded, but with eco-conscious and healthy credentials.
  • Colourful aperitifs will continue to flourish, with low ABV (alcohol by volume) a big focus.
  • 9 My signature dish is…

    Grilled aubergine with whipped feta, harissa oil, dill and pine nuts, served with warm pittas.

    10 The best business advice I ever got was…

    Focus on doing the three most important things per day. It’s called the rule of three. It’s been a game changer for me, as it’s helped me to recognise that you can do anything, but you can’t do everything. Reflect on the three things you’ve achieved every night, and not on the long list of things to do. It really helps focus me on building that big picture.