Oonagh Monahan is fiercely passionate about food and the Irish food industry. She works tirelessly through the food consultancy business she set up back in 2008 and she has enjoyed working on projects big and small. Much like her clients, she does it because she loves it and it shines through what I see of her, from the other side of the country on social media. I first came aware of her when her book Money For Jam was recommended to me when I was considering opening a food business quite a few years back now!

You will catch Oonagh Monahan online or in person (in a post Covid world) at one of the many public talks she gets invited to give. But for now please read about her here.

I’m talking to women in the food industry. How did your career path bring you here?

My initial love of food was fostered by my parents. My mother was very active in the ICA, and she was in the final of the Housewife of the Year in 1980, so was always cooking for our typically Irish large family or baking. My father grew veg and berries in the garden so we always had fresh potatoes, tomatoes, onions, peas and blackcurrants.

I started off with a science degree and then went on to study Food Science & Technology at DIT followed, after a short spell working in the pharma industry, by a Masters in Food Engineering at UCD. My first food sector job (apart from Summer jobs waitressing) was with Mr. Kipling Cakes in the UK where I worked in two bakeries, first in their product development kitchen and then as Quality Manager. The bakeries were so big that one of the production managers used a bike to get around inside it! After that I moved to Kerry Group and was the Quality Manager at Grove Turkeys in Monaghan for 3 years. Grove was great, work hard, play hard! I then spent 8 years making vaccines (of all things) before moving back into the food sector and took over as General Manager of the Food Technology Centre at St. Angela’s College in Sligo. In 2008 I left to set up my own food business consultancy.

How does your career fulfil you? 

I absolutely love working with food producers. I don’t use the word lightly, but food people are so passionate about what they do. You cannot be involved in the food sector unless you love it and are committed to it. No one is in it for the money! I work with producers of all sizes from pre-start up producers right through to international exporters and everyone in between, and every day I’m impressed by their enthusiasm, dedication and innovation, no matter how long they’ve been in business.

What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Oonagh Monahan?

In 2020 I started working with European food innovation projects such as EIT Food and I really enjoy it. I led me to work with a group of female founders in Serbia who have developed a science based food-as-a-supplement and I’m hoping to do more of that in 2021. I’ve also got plans to work further afield with food producers in the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean to Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Closer to home, a pet project has been to convert my book into an online training course, and maybe a podcast. I keep putting it on the long finger but 2021 might be the year. I’ll always keep working with food & drink start-ups and our established Irish producers though, I enjoy it so much.

Tell us of one woman in the food industry who consistently inspire you and why? 

I’ve found it hard to pick just one woman when there are so many who inspire me! Straight away I think of Birgitta Curtin of Burren Smokehouse, Siobhan Lawless of the Foods of Athenry (who really picked herself and the business up after their bakery fire in the early days and got back on the horse!), Rhoda Kirwan of Rhoda Cocoa in Wicklow, Aisling Flanagan of Rockfield Dairy in Mayo who make the wonderful Velvet Cloud sheep milk yogurt (Aisling is a great example of how to use social media to promote your food business and was one of the fist out of the starting blocks to get their shop online when the pandemic closed so many of their customers’ businesses in 2020), Brid Torrades of Osta Café in Sligo who is always thinking up something new to do, Prannie Rhatigan of the Irish Seaweed Kitchen….it’s hard to stop (& I’m in danger of falling into the trap of naming lots of people yet leaving out so many!!).

What do you think can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry? 

Talking about, interviewing, awarding and promoting female chefs and producers in the press, media, and everywhere (blogs like this are great). Inviting women in the food industry to speak at events, comment on issues, and to offer their knowledge on matters of interest to both the industry and the public. The phrase “if you can see it you can be it” is true and important for encouraging young chefs and entrepreneurs to see a career in the industry.

What was the proudest moment of your career so far? 

In 2015, the first edition of my book “Money for Jam – the Essential Guide to Starting Your Own Small Food Business” was published by Oak Tree press and the 2nd edition in 2017. I never thought I’d be an author so I was really delighted to be taken on by a publisher.

In early 2020, in response to the challenges which food and drink producers faced as a result of the impact of COVID-19 and the loss of customers and routes to market, I set up a new directory resource which lists, by county, food and drinks producers who are selling via an e-commerce shop, with delivery.  While there were lots of supports being offered such as free online seminars, funding, training for remote working, etc., I thought that something was needed to help them replace lost income by attracting consumers directly and encouraging them to buy Irish. I started with 40 one Saturday morning and there are over 250 listed today. I was awarded the Irish Quality Food Awards Frontline Hero – Community Champion for this work.

What advice would you give your younger self? 

It’s the same advice I’m trying to give to my two teenagers now – do your best, try not to worry too much about might lie ahead. Just work hard at whatever it is you’re doing, something you enjoy. You never know where it might lead. Every day’s a school day, no experience is ever wasted.

What are the top skills required to do your job and why?

Listening to people is always important, understanding their needs and the needs of their businesses and working out a plan to help them get to where they want to be while keeping it real. Accountability is a great tool, so I try to make sure my producers stick to the plan or make adjustments as needed. Specifically, knowledge is at the heart of it, so having a really good understanding of food trends, routes to market, product development, innovation, packaging, legislation and links to sources of information is key. It’s a skill in itself to keep on top of a constantly changing environment!

Are you a savoury or sweet kind of person? Please tell us about a real treat. 

I’m definitely more savoury than sweet but it’s a close call. I don’t have a favourite food (I pretty much love most things), but fish is my favourite dish for sure, anything from the sea (or lake) in fact. One of my earliest memories is eating trout, freshly caught by my friend Maria’s father in Lough Corrib and smoked on his small homemade smoker. I absolutely loved it and smoked trout always brings back happy memories of that house when I was a teenager.

I do love really good ice cream though. And chocolate (of course). Definitely my guilty pleasure!

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