Improper Butter – Ireland

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Today, we meet Hannah O’Reilly and Elaine Lavery of Improper Butter, a business (suitably) from Ireland. The best friends met whilst studying business at University College Dublin. Despite neither of the duo having what might be described as a food background, their business now ships in excess of thousands of units of a week to delighted customers.

College Beginnings

Upon graduation from UCD, Elaine or ‘El’ finished her final set of exams at UCD in May 2012, whereupon she completed a summer internship at Goldman Sachs in London. The experience in a first-tier financial market environment was compelling, yet she couldn’t help wondering what “I could achieve if I was working 15 hour days for myself rather than for somebody else”
As many adventurous college students do, Elaine took herself off to the European ski slopes, where she spent a season as a chalet-chef in the French Alps. “I wanted to buy myself as much time on the slopes as possible. So, in the morning I used to wake up early and make a range of flavoured butters and have them prepared in the fridge, so that in the evenings all I had to do was cook off a piece of meat or fish or add the flavoured butters to vegetables to create a simple delicious fmeal for the guests”.
In the meantime Hannah was busy training as a soprano at the Royal Irish Academy of music. When Elaine returned from Europe in 2013, she approached Hannah with the idea of building a business producing a range of flavoured butters for sale in retail outlets. Hannah thought, “that it was too good an opportunity to pass up, to work with your best friend on a great idea.” With that, Improper Butter was born.

Market Research

The girls began to conduct market research in the summer of 2013. They visited supermarkets and spoke to managers about consumer trends. They conducted focus groups and investigated selling their embryonic range at farmers markets across the country. All in all, Hanna believes, that “starting the business has been mainly about getting up early in the morning and going to bed late at night.”

In no time at all, the girls have managed to get their products into some major retailers across Ireland including Tesco (an international chain of supermarkets) and over 100 Super-Valu stores (a chain of grocery stores in Ireland) across the country. Furthermore, Improper Butter can be found in a range of national gourmet food stores including Avoca and Donnybrook Fair.

The girls a trio of butters including real garlic butter, sun-blushed tomatoes and basil butter, and garlic chilli and basil butter. As Elaine points out: “Ireland is known for its dairy. We have got the best quality butter in the world. Yet nobody is adding real value to butter in this way.” Hannah believes that although eating clean and the interest in Palio diet are becoming more popular, the consumption of butter is definitely back in fashion.

Improper Butter goes to Market

In visiting the website at improperbutter.com, the first thing one sees is an embedded YouTube video featuring the butter in all its uses, with close-ups of it being used to season steak. As Elaine says “Improper Butter is a convenience product to aid the home cook. It is a butter for spreading on your bread, melting on your fish or meat or your vegetables”.

In June 2015 the girls launched their latest flavour of Improper Butter with “Sunblest Tomatoes and Basil” at the annual Board Bia “Bloom” show in the Phoenix Park in the heart of Dublin, an event, which is becoming one of the high profile events in the Irish foodie calendar, attended by many inspiring success stories from the Irish food startup scene.

Approximately 100,000 people attended the show. Cleverly, the girls collaborated with the neighbouring food stand of Keogh’s Farm, a producer of a range of gourmet potato crisps. People visiting the Keogh’s stand were more than impressed with the butter spread on Keogh’s potatoes. They visited Elaine and Hannah’s stand in droves. Elaine reckons that they must have interacted with approximately 10,000 people over the course of the festival, giving them superb brand-exposure.

Enter the Dragon

With no small amount of courage, the girls took part in the Irish version of Dragons Den in 2014, a television show where startups seek investment from a live panel of successful entrepreneurs. The girls pitched their idea looking for Euros 37,500 for a 15% stake in their business. During the broadcast, one of the potential investors challenged the girls, whether the name “improper butter” might give diet-conscious consumers food for thought.

Hannah thoughtfully replied that the word ‘im’ is actually the Irish word for butter. She also pointed out that people are increasingly turning away from low fat margarines and spreads and returning to the wholesome goodness of best quality Irish butter, an observation, which had the panel nodding their collective heads.

Viewers’ hearts were in their respective mouths as the girls’ bid was turned down by two potential investors almost immediately. Two more banded together to present the girls with a take-it or leave-it offer. Nevertheless, the girls stood their ground. Where others might have shrivelled in the glare of television cameras, Elaine and Hannah insisted on the investors agreeing to reduce their equity stake over time, causing one of the panel to remark that the girls had negotiated extremely well and impressed the investors with their business acumen.

Business Partners

So, what’s it like to work side by side with your best friend? Elaine and Hannah insist that it sits very well being business partners as they are both headstrong and have a clear shared vision of where this entrepreneurial journey will take them. They work 12+ hours a day, six days a week. The girls find it hard to ‘switch off’. Interestingly, the pair are convinced, that in the first four months of Improper Butter, they learnt more lessons than they did in four years at college in Dublin.
By their own admission, Elaine and Hannah balance each other out and have a great working relationship. They have different personalities and different strengths which compliment them. Elaine remarks that the number one outstanding positive aspect, is the opportunity to work with her best friend every day. There are constantly in contact, if not in person then by phone or WhatsApp.

Lessons Learned

Elaine and Hannah are adamant that the only way to start your own business is to just do it. You need to take action, conduct research to find out about your customer and what appeals to them. The girls have shown that age and experience are not  barriers to entry. With more than a passing interest in good food, a solid awareness of what consumers are seeking and a firm belief in yourself, you can start today!

*Photo courtesy of Improper Butter

Links & Resources

  • Improper Butter – Company website
  • Facebook – Improper Butter on Facebook
  • Twitter – Improper Butter on Twitter
  • Bloom – Bord Bia Annual Garden and Food Fair (Ireland)
  • Keogh’s – Family owned and run potato and potato crisp business (Ireland)
  • Avoca – clothing manufacturing, retail and food business in Ireland.
  • shopify* – online e-commerce platform to sell your food products online
  • 99designs* – start a contest where designers compete to design your logo
  • LivePlan* – start your food business plan from 100’s of templates – USA

*This is an affiliate link, where we enjoy a small commission at no cost to you, should you sign-up with our recommended providers. Whenever we stand to make any dough (excuse the pun) from an affiliate, whose services or goods we have used and recommend we will proudly mark this with an asterisk*

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About Author

Mark Hayes - Editor

Graduating after 4 years at Shannon College of Hotel Management in Ireland, Mark worked in hospitality and restaurant management roles for ClubMed, Disney (in both Florida and Paris, France), Sheraton Hotels (Frankfurt, Germany) as well as management positions in restaurant chains in the UK. Mark completed an MBA in 2010 with a master's thesis focused on food franchise operations. Through interviewing food business owners, franchise-holders and food-vendors, Mark found that he really enjoyed finding out exactly what compels people to start food businesses and what it is they do to make them profitable and rewarding. In recent years, Mark has also run a successful farmer's market business with his parents, both of whom are passionate 'foodies'. From sourcing ingredients to making food by hand, packaging it, pricing it and selling it in a competitive marketplace, Mark wants to help you to make your food startup a success.