Joe's Farm Crisps - Special Irish Foods & The People Who Make Them

Joe & KidsIn what you might think is a saturated market, one Irish product has managed to find a niche and edge its way into the top ranks of people’s tastes, and is even found as a garnish in a well-known five-star resort in Cork. Dee Laffan gets to know the people behind the successful artisan product – Joe’s Farm Crisps.

Crisps are definitely a part of Irish food culture. More recently it is the artisan variety that has been winning over consumers’ taste buds. Potato and vegetable farmers looking to add more value to their business have turned their home grown produce into a tasty, savoury snack. This is exactly why Joe and Sandra Burns, vegetable farmers from County Cork, started to make Joe’s Farm Crisps.

“We’ve been growing vegetables for about 8-9 years and started selling our first packets of crisps in March 2014,” explained Sandra. “We were only in business two weeks when the head chef in Castlemartyr Resort contacted us to ask if he could use them as a garnish with their sandwiches. We couldn’t believe it!”

“We sell our vegetables at farmers’ markets and it came to a point when we knew we had to do something different to increase our offering. The last straw really was when the supermarkets had given a ‘five cents offer’ two years ago at Christmas and then the weather was bad that year too for growing, so it was the worst Christmas ever for us. We just knew we had to change to survive,” she explained.

Joe's CrispsVegetable crisps are not a new idea, but there are only a few Irish producers making them and with most farmers producing potato crisps, Joe and Sandra identified a significant gap in the market for their product.

“It is something different from potato crisps. We do grow potatoes, but we said we wouldn’t go down that route as so many others have. We got the idea from visiting Boston. Joe’s sister lives there and we had seen and tasted them there, and also in the UK. I guess also we just wanted to do something totally different and a bit off the wall!”

Joe’s Farm Crisps are made up of beetroot, parsnip and carrot crisps, with a sprinkle of sea salt. Hand made and packaged, the product is definitely artisanal with distinctive packaging and branding.

Joe's Farm Crisps“We didn’t want to use a standard bag, so they are actually coffee bags that we hand stamp ourselves. I just wanted something completely different, no bright colours, but a unique selling point. The brown bag has an earthy look and it gives that connection between the veg and soil. They are re-sealable too (although I’ve yet to have any left to reseal a bag!), which is something I really wanted. It just gives people the choice if they only want to use some for a sandwich or have a few as a snack. Another reason we picked the coffee bags is we wanted to seal in the freshness and give them a longer shelf life of up to six months. Vegetables go out of season, so we need to manage that constantly to make sure we have stock for the whole year. For example, our vegetables started coming into season again in mid-July (they’re a little bit delayed because of the weather this year), but our season is normally March-end of June.”

Much like every element of this product, the story behind the hand stamp is a unique one.

“Darina Allen’s daughter Lydia designed the graphics on the bags for us. Her husband Rupert runs farmers’ markets and we are at the one in Mahon Point and I was telling him about how we had been to a few designers, and we were getting frustrated because they didn’t seem to capture what we were about in the design. Not to mention the cost! He invited us down to their house and said Lydia would sketch something for us. We went down for tea one day and while she had her baby in one hand and a pencil in the other, she sketched, and I just saw it and said ‘That’s it! That’s exactly what we want.’ We sent it to a place in Dublin to get rubber stamps made and we use those to stamp each bag by hand.
Hopefully one day we will get them printed, but for now it is easier to do them by hand.”

Joe and Sandra are truly inspirational and their hard work and dedication to keeping the quality of their product as high as the first packet is commendable. Proof of the quality is in the eating! Customers can’t seem to get enough as their sales have increased from day one. Although, the learning curve has been a massive one for both of them and Sandra admitted that the first packets were even minus a critical ingredient!

Joe's Crisps“I actually forgot to salt them! It took us two days to make 27 bags and we were at the market with them for the first time and they were sold out within two hours. I turned to Joe and I said, ‘We’ll never sell any more… I forgot to salt them!’ But those people came back next weekend looking for more! It quickly grew from 27 bags to 100 bags and we’ve been growing ever since.”

Perfecting a recipe didn’t come easily either, with lots of testing and three years of work behind the scenes before the launch last March.

“We hadn’t a clue how to make veg crisps!” she laughs. “We googled ‘how to produce veg crisps’ and it kept showing us these mass production machines, which we couldn’t afford let alone know how to use, so we just started simply. We used our deep fat fryer at home to cook them ourselves. We cooked them, undercooked them, overcooked them, burned them and everything in between until we go them right! Then we started making them for our kids’ birthday parties, for friends, and we brought them to the farmers markets to test them out. We knew that people there would give us their honest opinion and that was invaluable.”

The veg crisps will soon be part of a range as they intend to bring out a couple of other bags this year. “Last November we brought out a beetroot only bag, which was extremely popular, and we’ll be starting to make them again once beetroot is back in season in a few weeks. It’s the natural sweetness that makes them taste so good. Plus, we have different varieties of carrots, so we hope to have a rainbow bag of carrots out in October/November in time for Christmas.”

Joe’s Farm Crisps are available in 70 shops nationwide, including off-licenses (especially those selling craft beers) and specialty 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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