Today we meet David Keeling of Keelings. Keelings is a 100% Irish-owned family business, focused on growing, sourcing, shipping, marketing, sales, distributing fresh produce and supplying first in class produce specific ERP software solutions and consultancy. Its head office is located in FoodCentral, St. Margaret’s, Co. Dublin. Keelings started producing fruits and salads in the 1930’s supplying produce to local Dublin markets. The company currently employs approximately 2,000 people across 5 business units.
Can you tell us a little about Keelings’ history, and how you have managed to stay a family-run business in today’s difficult marketplace?
Keelings is a family business and I am the third generation to be working in the company, along with my brother William and my sister Caroline. The current farm was established in 1926 and, in the 1930s, my grandparents began growing fruits and salads and supplying them to local Dublin markets. They first planted strawberries in 1937, with Bramleys following in the 1940s. My father Joe and his brothers expanded the business in 1973 by marketing other growers produce, as well as our own, in the Dublin market. The business has gone through some good times but it has also gone through some very tough times. There was a period where everyone had to make sacrifices but it’s testament to our team that we managed to come through it and out the other side. It’s still a family run business but we realise we don’t know everything and have brought in top talent from outside to ensure we have the correct strategy, and people, in place.
How has Keelings diversified over the years and what inspired these changes?
Here at Keelings there’s a definite focus on innovation and diversification. We look to constantly innovate across the business, whether that’s looking at our internal processes, in our farming methods or under the Keelings brand.
From a farm that started with a focus on rhubarb, Keelings have continuously diversified over the years. As a business we wanted to grow and we had to find a way to make ourselves more competitive and become less reliant on a narrow range of produce. In 2000, the business heavily invested in growing Strawberries, Raspberries, Blackberries, Blueberries, Peppers, Apples, Pears, Lettuces, Pumpkins, Cherries, Aubergines and Flowers.
One of the biggest changes for the company was launching our Keelings brand in 2010. At this time produce was an unbranded category and the market was in decline. In response to market conditions, we commissioned both qualitative and quantitative research with the support from Bord Bia in order to understand and address the situation. The research highlighted that consumers wanted to increase their knowledge of the growers, the health benefits and increase the variety of fruit into their diet. This lack of knowledge was also coupled with a desire by consumers to buy Irish produce and support a local brand in a category that is heavily driven by own label products. Customers had a passive relationship with the category, consuming 23.5% of their “5 a day” requirement and resulting in over 80% of customers buying the same fruit each week. The brand objective was to combine the generations of experience and passion for fresh produce to grow Keelings business by growing the category and increasing the consumption via education, awareness, trial and penetration. We launched the brand in 2010 and it has gone from strength to strength ever since and is now ranked number 22 in Kantar’s top 100 Brands in Ireland.
One of the key market trends at the moment is Snacking and there’s been a noticeable trend towards healthy convenience foods. For years, the term convenience food was associated with processed foods, and on-the-go snacking meant crisps, chocolate bars, sugary drinks. There’s been a shift towards whole fruits, smoothies, yoghurts and other healthful alternatives. One of the latest innovations under the Keelings brand is our Keelings Snack Pots. They’ve proved very popular as a healthy portable snacking option for our consumers.
Who is the Keelings customer and how do you connect with them?
We’ve two customers – the retail customer and the end consumer. Understanding our retail customers’ businesses is key to helping them drive their success. We’ve great relationships with all our customers and we strive to become category partners with them rather than just suppliers. It’s not just about the Keelings brand but we assist them with their own label innovations and provide them with high quality product and attentive customer service.
With regards our end consumer, we connect with them through a variety of channels and in a number of ways. The Keelings consumer is health conscious and family focused. We try to support them in their efforts to make healthy choices by offering high quality produce at a reasonable price. Our social media activity is proving successful as we’re offering nutritional tips, recipes ideas and insights into how our fruit and salads are grown in an engaging and informative way. We also love to meet our consumers face to face and find events like Bloom and Flavours of Fingal the perfect opportunity to connect with consumers. We offer fruit sampling, growing demonstrations and our team is on hand to answer any questions visitors have on our fruit or growing it yourself.
What tips would you give to someone who is starting out and wants to launch a food-related product/business?
I’d advise anyone starting out to become very self-aware very fast. Understand your own strengths and weaknesses and know when you need to get in the experts. You can’t do everything yourself so ask for help. Get as much help as you can from the Government agencies, particularly in training, which we have found very useful. Ask for advice from all you think can help you as you’ll be amazed at how helpful people are willing to be.
Keelings are returning to Bloom this year; what can we expect to see/experience?
We’ll be returning to Bloom this year with our growing tunnel which proved very popular last year. The tunnel allows visitors the chance to see exactly how fruit is grown on the Keelings Farm, with the tunnel full of colourful fruit and flower plants growing naturally. We’ve extended the size of the tunnel to 20m and we’re excited to be brining peppers into the tunnel for the first time this year.
Our growing experts will be on hand to offer useful tips and answer any questions about how to grow fresh produce at home. Children will also just love the opportunity to plant their own strawberries in the “Love to Grow” area of the tunnel. We want our love for growing to rub off on visitors to Bloom so we hope to provide all visitors with a wonderful experience.
Finally, what legacy would you like to leave with Keelings?
I’d love Keelings to inspire people to make healthier choices. I hope we do this currently through product offerings and innovation like our Snack Pots. There’s an increased awareness among consumers of eating well and they are selecting products based on health and nutrition. I hope Keelings will continue to provide consumers with delicious healthy solutions.
Keelings returns to Bloom this June Bank Holiday Weekend and will reintroduce the popular 20 metre growing tunnel with a few very tasty added extras. The growing tunnel proved a favourite last year, in particular with families, as it allows visitors the chance to see exactly how fruit is grown on the Keelings Farm, with the tunnel full of colourful fruit and flower plants growing naturally. This year, Keelings’ seasonal peppers will also feature on the menu for the first time.