Owner of Bia at Home Michele Kerrigan won’t forget the night Leo Varadkar made his lockdown statement. “My phone never stopped ringing. Before I knew it, I had 40 orders and my back-up stock of homemade frozen meals was sold out in a single day. I just had to put my head down and start cooking.”

But even that wasn’t simple, as Michele explains: “I found it hard to get deliveries of fresh vegetables, as so many businesses and hotels just shut their doors. Working here in Ballinrobe, I was the only business open on the delivery run. It wasn’t worth their while coming this far.”

She solved this by sourcing vegetables from across the country herself which were collected by her partner Tommy and by growing her own leaves and herbs. With just one other person. And, as luck would have it, Michele had recently upgraded her website and was ready for an upturn in online sales. She even spoke with the environmental health officer to be reassured that everything was as it should be.

Wide-ranging experience

A native of Cong, Co Mayo, Michele has worked in catering since she was 15. She started with summer holiday work in local coffee shops and then went to work in Ashford Castle. While there, she developed an interest in cooking and started an apprenticeship as part of her course at Killybegs Catering College.

After completing training, Michele worked in the White Gables and The Malthouse in Galway before leaving the nest and moving to Australia, where she and her partner Tommy lived for the next 10 years. The couple, who have known each other since they were 16, settled in Brisbane and worked in Irish gastro pubs serving what she calls “homesick food”.

“All people wanted was bacon and cabbage, Guinness pie and Irish stew.”

But time passes and life plans change. With the addition of two young children – Conor and Tom – to the family, it was time to come home to Mayo: “Work-life balance was very important to me. I had done my share of late nights and what I wanted was family-friendly work. It was a scary move, but we had done our research and knew there were opportunities to be had in Mayo.”

Opportunity knocks

They made the move home to Mayo three years ago and it was purely accidental that Michele found work with Bia at Home – a job that matched her ambition for a work-life balance perfectly. “The job was all about cooking good home-style dinners from scratch. These were then frozen and delivered countrywide. The hours were perfect for family life and I was still able to be creative and keep cooking.”

Two years into the job, Michele was made an offer she couldn’t refuse. “The owner said she planned to go travelling and asked would I buy the business. It was a scary move, but when the opportunity presented itself I asked myself what had I to lose? That was three years ago and the business has grown steadily every year since.”

She credits the Mayo Local Enterprise Office (LEO), who helped with social media training and granted her an innovation voucher to work with St Angela’s College in Sligo. LEO also helped with an online voucher to upgrade her website and a business loan to get her up and running. “I’m a chef – that’s not the same as running a business and LEO filled that gap for me. They were amazing.”

Who are her customers?

Her big break came at last year’s Ploughing Championships, where she represented Mayo on the LEO stand. “The exposure was unreal and it delivered great business. I’m still getting orders from it. Many of the calls are from men living alone who can’t cook, but who were used to home-cooked meals and want to have them again.”

Prior to COVID-19, the majority of their customers were young professionals who were too busy to cook and older people living alone. Since COVID-19, the biggest group of new customers are the children of cocooners who are living abroad or are away from home and want to do something to support their parents.

“Every two months or so, we advertise on Facebook in Australia and the US and the orders just flow in. It attracts the ‘guilt market’ and it is a really practical way of helping parents at home.”

Another popular order is the “new arrivals” package, which is a very useful gift to anyone who has a new baby and no time to cook. For €99, you get 12 meals that you select from a wide-ranging menu. The “busy family” pack includes 28 meals for €199.

“It might sound expensive, but there is no waste whatsoever when compared to buying fresh food. So often we buy meat and vegetables and they are gone off before they get to be used, so there’s a lot of waste in that.”

Regarding the future, Michele is confident that post-COVID-19, her new customers will stay with her and hopes to employ an extra chef. She also plans to expand the range of fresh vegetables she grows for the business. “With the bigger market, I’m getting a clearer idea of what our customers want. I don’t ever intend to go into mass production. This is a pot and wooden spoon business and that’s the way I want to keep it.”

Call 094 9510994 or email biaathome1@gmail.com

Nutritional values

'If frozen within a liquid, such as a sauce or gravy, then Irish stew, curries and casseroles will all hold their nutritional value'

The business is about more than cooking and Michele has worked with St Angela’s College to test the nutritional value of her frozen meals.

“For instance, we test to see if the nutritional value has changed after freezing for a month. We’ve found that if frozen within a liquid, such as a sauce or gravy, then Irish stew, curries and casseroles will all hold their nutritional value. Likewise, if you freeze beef with gravy, or say salmon with lemon sauce, the same applies. It was important that the nutritional claims we made for our meals stand up to scrutiny and that work continues.”

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