Cool Beans - Special Irish Foods & The People Who Make Them

Sarah O’Connor & Isolde Johnson, Cool BeansDee Laffan chats to the two entrepreneurial women behind Irish food company Cool Beans about their success story, love of beans and their desire to start Ireland’s Bean Revolution!

There’s no doubt that the enthusiasm around food in Ireland has mushroomed in the last couple of years with new start-ups popping up across a broad spectrum of fields – new product development, technology, hospitality, etc. New product development is one of the areas that has given birth to some of the most exciting start-ups with innovative and clever products making their way onto supermarket shelves.

One such product that I came across earlier this year is Cool Beans. As described on the pots, they are ‘Very Fancy Beans’ that are presently available in three flavours – Tomato, Smokey Paprika and Hot Chilli. The funky bright packaging caught my eye in the chilled aisle and upon reading the label I was delighted to see it was made in Ireland, Dublin to be precise. Cool Beans is the lovechild of two friends Sarah O’Connor, from Cork, and Isolde Johnson, from Tipperary.

“Sarah and I were working really long hours and were becoming more and more conscious of the food we were putting in our bodies and our desire to eat healthily, but not having enough time to cook and prepare food in advance,” explained Isolde Johnson, co-founder of Cool Beans.

“When we would both get home at the end of the day around 9pm and go to the local shop to get food, we weren’t inspired by any of the available meals on offer. Everything was full of preservatives or sugars and we really just wanted something healthy and convenient. We both love beans and we had noticed a trend of gourmet beans popping up on brunch menus around Dublin eateries, e.g. Cake Café and Herb Street. We even noticed Gordon Ramsay was selling them in his restaurant for £20! We felt that there was a gap in the market, and supermarket shelves, for a product of that kind.”

Cool Beans Dish“After identifying this gap in the market, we started doing lots of market research. Beans are really good for you because they are full of protein and soluble fibre, which is really good for your digestive system, and they are proven to lower cholesterol and to help fight against obesity and diseases like cancer. There are so many benefits of eating beans and adding them into your diet, but people just don’t really know what to do with them. What we tried to do with Cool Beans is create an accessible product that people could eat that is really healthy and tasty, but also to get them thinking about adding beans to their diets. We have created a term for it Beaneology, which is about educating people on the benefits of beans.”

“Unfortunately we can’t get Irish grown cannellini beans. We try to use as many Irish ingredients as possible, but the beans, chilli flakes and spices come from abroad. When we were sourcing beans, which we get from Italy, we realised there is a massive variation between price and quality and we tried lots of different combinations, but we are really happy with our supplier at the moment. The beans are very high quality and give amazing flavour and texture to the product.”

Sarah and Isolde both come from business backgrounds. In their former jobs, Sarah managed the Ernst Young Entrepreneur of the Year programme and Isolde worked for an investment company that specialised in the food sector, which meant doing research into the food industry in Ireland, UK and across Europe and the various trends that were coming up. It is obvious speaking to the girls, who are so full of fun and enthusiasm, that is their passion of food that has quickly turned them into ambitious food entrepreneurs.

“We’re not trained chefs,” expressed Sarah. “But we do love food and we’ve both cooked all our lives. When we came up with our idea, we tested it hundreds of times until we got recipes and flavours that we felt really worked.”

Cool Beans - Chicken Dish“We initially wanted to trial the product so we pooled all our savings together and bought a mobile catering unit called The Bean Machine. It was tiny! We brought it around the Irish music festivals, e.g. Body&Soul and Electric Picnic and got brilliant feedback. People are very honest, especially at 4am when they are hungry after a few pints! After that, we made the product gluten free. We took out ingredients like Worcestershire Sauce and we also replaced sugar with honey because, again, people are so conscious of refined sugars. We really cleaned up the ingredients list and changed some of the flavour profiles. We were then eager to take it from there onto the supermarket shelves as a retail product.”

“At this point, we were both still working full time and using all our spare time and annual leave to work on Cool Beans. We were wrecked, Sarah admits honestly. “Something had to give, so Isolde quit her job and joined the business full time. People thought we were nuts starting a baked bean company, so we stopped telling people what we were doing!”

“Our whole ambition is to do what Cully & Sully did for soup, to take it out of the ambient, tinned aisle in the supermarket and on to the fresh chilled aisle. They’ve actually been amazing to us. We contacted them and they asked us to come down and spend a day with them going through everything. We spent time in their kitchen working with their development chef Ivan, who is so nice and helpful, it was incredible. We can’t thank them enough for the support.”

As mentioned already, it was the unique and fun branding of Cool Beans that made it stand out on the shelf and peak my attention. The branding is thoughtful and you get a sense of the producers’ personalities and story before you even get a taste!

“We knew early on that we were going to have to invest a lot in the branding,” said Isolde. “It is such an important part of the whole product and we did so many focus groups on the various elements, so much research went into it. We knew we wanted the product to be a reflection of us and our ethos and values and the finished branding is amazing – we still love it so much!”

Cool Beans

“Our heart and soul went into the branding, even in terms of the tone of voice and the animations/illustrations on the packs. The latter are so great because a friend did them for us. We sat down with her and told her our entire story, the highs and lows, the people who have helped us… We poured our hearts out to her! She then created animations for all of that, even the people we mentioned are represented on there. It’s literally our story!”

So what’s next? Sarah has just joined the business full time also so now both girls are fully committed to making Cool Beans a global revolution.

“2016 is the International Year of the Pulse, so we have created a hashtag around that #beanrevolution and we are setting up the Irish committee for the International Year of the Pulse, which we hope to chair and organise some great events. We’ve been talking to the guys in New York who organised it to see how we can start the bean revolution in Ireland and convert everyone!”

“We’re also always working on new flavours and there are many in the works, but we want to wait and see what comes out best in testing and focus groups. We do have a lemon, basil and garlic bean hummus in development at the moment that we are excited about. It has 100 calories less than normal hummus.”

Cool Beans has just launched in Waitrose stores throughout the UK a few weeks ago and is available in Ireland in SuperValu nationwide. Plus, you can find it in some independent food shops.

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Dee LaffanDee Laffan is a freelance food writer and editor. Formerly editor of Easy Food magazine, she has written for the Irish Independent and Sunday Independent. She is a proud supporter of Irish producers and their products, and takes part in judging for food competitions including Blas na hÉireann and the Great Taste Awards. She is a member of the Irish Food Writers' Guild and secretary for Slow Food Dublin. Twitter @deelaffan


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