Meet the farmer's son behind the Guinness burger (he's also fed the Queen!)
“By working at Avondale and understanding the retail and restaurant side, I figured out that there was a break in the chain: farmers knew about factories and factories knew wholesalers but wholesalers didn’t know restaurants. I decided to go right to the end-consumer – the restaurant.”
The eureka moment
Kettyle’s eureka moment prompted him in 2003 to create Kettyle Irish Foods, a craft butchery brand that now sells hand-selected cuts of dry-aged meat directly to retailers – including M&S – and to more than 700 restaurants across Ireland, the UK and Europe, 28 of which are Michelin-starred.
By marrying his veterinary training with his farming background and knowledge of the meat industry, Kettyle set out to collaborate with the small farmers supplying his business in Lisnaskea on his standards of animal husbandry, nutrition and slaughter procedures for grass-fed animals raised around the island.
He could then give chefs what they wanted – consistent quality and unusual premium cuts of meat from his nose-to-tail butchery approach.
“Every chef wants their own cut of meat and they don’t want it to be same as that sold in the restaurant next door,” Kettyle says.
The fledgling business’s unique selling point was its dry-ageing facility at its Lisnaskea factory. The only purpose-built facility in Europe, it boosts the flavour of the meat, tenderises it and ensures it doesn’t shrink when cooked.
Salt and moss-aged beef
Kettyle Irish Foods also added a salt-and-moss ageing “cave”, or chamber, that uses bricks made from salt from the Irish Sea, seaweed and carrageen moss to dry-age the beef.
Kettyle says: “People didn’t really understand dry-ageing in 2004 and it seemed quite a niche. But that year I joined up with some star chefs coming on the scene, like Paul Rankin and Michael Deane in Belfast, Ross Lewis in Chapter One in Dublin, and began supplying them and restaurants like The Lanesborough in London and Guilbaud’s in Dublin. As chefs moved through, the word started to get around and the trend started to evolve.”
As Kettyle Irish Foods began to expand, it took on Pallas Foods as a partner to distribute its products all around the island. It also increased its product range from dry-aged beef to include Lough Erne lamb, Fermanagh free-range chicken, seaweed-cured bacon, and naturally reared Irish rose veal. Employee numbers swelled from three at the outset to a current 75 people.
By 2011, the company had supplied ribs of beef from a farm in Co Wexford for the state dinner held in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Ireland. Two years later, Kettyle Irish Foods won a contract worth £1m (€1.14m) to supply dry-aged beef to affluent Gulf markets such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
‘We needed a lot of cash’
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing for Kettyle. Just as the company was in growth mode, the global credit crunch hit in 2008. “There was a lack of available credit but there was still demand for our product and we were growing fast,” the 46-year-old says. “We needed a lot of cash.”
Into the vacuum stepped Dungannon-based fresh meat processor Linden Foods, which acquired a majority stake in Kettyle Irish Foods. Linden, along with Wexford-beef supplier Slaney Foods, is part of the Linden Food Group, which itself is owned by the Northern Irish agribusiness co-op Fane Valley. In June, Fane Valley and Goodman’s ABP announced they would extend their joint-venture relationship to include Linden Foods, with ABP taking a 50pc stake in the company.
Kettyle is also mindful that a hard Brexit may pose a challenge for the Fermanagh company. The business is about 12 miles from a border once marked by checkpoints and watchtowers during the Troubles. The possibility of another frontier that would hamper the free movement of goods and subject them to World Trade Organization tariffs would affect agriculture and the food industry the most, according to commentators.
“We don’t really know what’s going to happen and you can only prepare yourself by hedging your bets,” Kettyle says.
To do so, he has been entering new markets like Dubai, Singapore and Macau and, over the medium-term, plans to export to the Philippines, Vietnam and the US.
“In America, the market is very driven by grain-fed meat and consumers are becoming much more health-conscious, so there’s demand for grass-fed meat from Ireland,” Kettyle says.
Another avenue for securing the business’s prosperity is innovating to cater to changing food trends, such as by embracing other Irish flavours in a bid to gain an edge in the market.
In April, Kettyle Irish Foods linked up with Diageo to launch a high-end beef burger laced with Guinness flavours (albeit alcohol-free). The Kettyle Guinness burger, which is being sold both fresh and frozen in two, four, eight and 20-unit packs, has been rolled out to retailers and hospitality venues across Ireland and other parts of Europe. It’s also for sale at the Guinness Storehouse, which, with 1.7m visitors last year, is Ireland’s biggest paid-for tourist attraction.
Kettyle says: “Brexit wasn’t an impetus for the venture – it was in progress long before the referendum. But the Guinness brand is a hell of a lot bigger than us, so the Guinness burger is a benefit with Brexit coming down the road.”
The product also taps into the millennial market for artisan food products that are sustainably and locally produced and have an interesting back story.
The pitch to this generation of 21- to 35-year-old consumers was evident at the launch of the burger. It was held at the Open Gate Brewery, a bar at St James’s Gate selling Diageo’s small-batch experimental brews. Guests were given a bespoke craft apron and served a four-course tasting menu, with Instagram-friendly dishes such as Kettyle malt-cured meats with crusty sourdough bread and spiced cabbage salad, all teamed up with the Open Gate Amarillo Pilsner.
Kettyle says the burger is among a variety of products from his craft butchery business that will likely be combined with Guinness in the future over the next two to three years.
“Hopefully that will strengthen our case on the global market,” he says.
Sunday Indo Business