WOMEN OF THE IRISH FOOD INDUSTRY – KAREN & NATALIE KEANE, CHOCOLATIERS
You think now that Easter has come and gone, you won’t hear about chocolate for a wee while? Well let me tell you how wrong ye are, because not only are we talking about chocolate, we’re also talking about chocolatiers. If you’ve ever bitten into a Bean and Goose sharing bar (perfectly fine to share with you, yourself and you by the way, no judgement here), you’ve tasted the work crafted by Karen and Natalie Keane.
Famous in Ireland for their complex, texturised and visually stunning sharing bars, Karen and Natalie Keane are urrently launching a new cafe sized bar into coffee shops around the country so you can have a mini sized hit of their amazing chocolate with your favourite brew. Each flavour has been developed to pair perfectly with coffee and comes in an 18g snack format, packaged in fully compostable packaging which reflects their sustainable agenda. Flavours are: Almond & Cardamom, Toasted Coconut & Rose, Irish Oats & Apple Treacle and Malted Barley. I already know I’m going to be an Almond & Cardamon kinda gal… you?
How did your career path bring you here?
Natalie K: Karen and I have always had a love of good food. Growing up, we were surrounded by great cooks using good local ingredients to create beautiful meals. We also became proficient home cooks, although our palates are more savoury in nature which is why I think we gravitate towards using salt and herbs such as rosemary and thyme in our chocolate making. Some of our earliest childhood memories involve chocolate. We both have vivid memories of spending summers in Wexford with our Grandad, collecting our Saturday pocket money and running to the local sweet shop to pick our chocolate for the week ahead. Career-wise, I have always had my own business but never anything with the potential of Bean and Goose. Karen oversees the production and day-to-day execution of our business and I keep one eye on our future plans making sure we are always moving forward.
Karen K: My career path has been varied. I graduated in computer science, and software engineering in London. Although I enjoyed my degree, I loathed working in an office environment. One Saturday afternoon, I met a headteacher in my local library. The education department was seeking people qualified in IT that wanted a career change. They were offering a fully paid work experience position while you undertook a higher diploma in secondary school teaching in IT. I was hooked and never looked back. Fast forward to 2007, I moved home to Ireland where my skills were not transferable – IT was not a core subject in Ireland. I spent the next few years working freelance while building our house. In 2010 I started working for The Blue Haven Collection in Kinsale. At the time of leaving in 2013, I was overseeing their HR and was ready for a new challenge. Natalie suggested it was time we started our own business together and felt there was a gap in the chocolate market. That chocolate was not special anymore, that there was better chocolate to be made – from its sourcing and flavours to how it was packaged. Bean and Goose was born and we have been on the journey ever since. We had to learn how to make chocolate and learn how to build a business from scratch!
How does your career fulfill you?
Natalie K: We have created a brand that allows us to be fully creative. We come from a long line of story tellers and those stories are in every product that we create. From the flavours we dream up to the forms we make our chocolate in, and to the illustrators that we work with on our packaging. We get to build our dream chocolate brand, a brand that we would love to discover and be proud to support.
What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Karen and Natalie Keane?
Natalie K: We have huge ambition for Bean and Goose. We are constantly scaling what we do. We take a little extra time to make sure that each step of the scaling process does not compromise the brand’s sustainability and quality. Next is the release of four new products that continue the Bean and Goose tradition of telling a contemporary Irish story. Each one has been a long time in development. Nothing is ready until it is perfect!
Karen K: My professional ambition is for Bean and Goose to be a successful business. Success to me means that we make beautiful chocolate every day, that is enjoyed by customers all over the world, made by a team of people employed in Wexford, that supports growers and producers in a fair and sustainable manner. On a personal level, as Bean and Goose grows, I would like to free up time to continue studying.
Tell us of one woman in the food industry who consistently inspires you and why?
Natalie K: The Irish food industry is full of inspiring women. Mary Ann O’Brien from Lily O’Brien’s is a woman we admire. Mary Ann built a successful chocolate brand pushing through every obstacle that would have come her way. She has taken the time to meet Karen & I and has offered invaluable business advice. We also would have admired Myrtle Allen from Ballymaloe. Myrtle built a business centred around excellence and sustainability much like Bean and Goose. We also love Jess from Kai Galway – Jess is full of energy and a great supporter of women in the food industry.
Karen K: I admire Eliza and Evie from Nutshed. We have worked with them on a number of projects over the years. They have that refreshing mix of being really easy-going and friendly but at the same time, they are incredibly hard-working and passionate about their business. They have created a space for Nutshed within an already established category using superior ingredients – not an easy thing to do, especially in these times.
Sally Barnes from Woodcock Smokery is another Irish woman in business who is an inspiration in pure excellence and her expertise. Sally is a reminder that to excel you have to put the time in, learn your craft and never compromise on your vision or values.
In your opinion, what challenges face women in the Irish food industry?
Natalie K: The biggest challenge is to be taken seriously. Defying social expectations. When you walk into business events most other entrepreneurs will be male. This can be unnerving. Also accessing funding. Raising finance is difficult for all start-up businesses but is even more challenging for female-founded businesses.
Karen K: I agree, not being taken seriously is a big problem for women in the food industry. The combination of women and food seems to lead people to think you are just doing it to ‘keep yourself amused or as a hobby. It is extremely difficult to raise finance as a female-led food business. If you do not look, dress or talk a certain way in the business community it can be more challenging.
What do you think can be done to raise the profile and visibility of women in the industry?
Natalie K: Peer-to-peer recommendations can be very powerful. Continuing to increase awareness online. Even a simple like, a share or a comment can be so effective for that brand or person. We will raise our collective profile by supporting and championing each other.
Karen K: For companies and brands to make women visible. If they are visible, they have a profile and are participating. If you own a food business, ensure that there is at least 50% women employed in every area of the business.
What is the proudest moment of your career so far?
Natalie K: The most important thing we have is the connection with our customers. Meeting Bean and Goose customers and hearing how much they enjoy what we do will always make me proud. Our sustainable and ethical credentials are a source of pride and joy. All of our choices make sure that everyone along our chain wins – the cocoa farmer, our suppliers, and our customers too. There is no room for more things in the world that don’t do things better.
We have new products launching imminently. Each product involves the hard work and talent of so many people that seeing these now appear in stores will be a cause of great pride.
Karen K: I agree and right now, for me, it is also when I’m at work and look around at the wonderful team we have. The passion, drive, and commitment of everyone, every day is just incredible.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Natalie K: Believe in your ability to build this business. Your instincts with the brand are always correct, trust them and act quickly.
Karen K: That is such a hard question. I would have so much advice to give my younger self. But would I give it? I don’t know if I would. I have learned more by my mistakes than my successes. Maybe that’s the advice – own your mistakes – it’s what is going to give you grit.
What are the top skills required to do your job and why?
Natalie K: You have to be a quick-thinking problem solver. Every day is different and brings new challenges. You must be solution driven.
Karen K: I also think you need to be creative and analytic. Both skills are required. The business world is full of spreadsheets – but you need innovation and creativity to bring an idea to life. To be solution-focused, decisive, and be a complete finisher. You may not always be right, but you need to keep moving forward. To be able to build and motivate a team as the people you surround yourself with are on the journey with you. To be customer-focused – there are lots of people that you have to deal with every day, but the customer is the most important one.
Are you a savoury or sweet kinda person? Please tell us about a real treat?
Natalie K: I prefer savoury. See answer 1 😊 A real treat would be the first bite of the season of a Bean and Goose winter or summer sharing slab. Heaven.
Karen K: Savoury would be my preference – most of our chocolate bar creations have a savoury flavour profile. I get great comfort, excitement, and enjoyment from food. It’s my happy place. The ritual of making food calms me, it is mediative. I would travel long distances to enjoy a good Indian restaurant. My go-to sweet treats would be chocolate, crisps, popcorn, ice cream, and hot chocolate. Preferably all together in front of Netflix!