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How Two Irish Girls Started A Dream Food Company

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We catch up with the dynamic team of Julianne Brogan and Lydia O’Connor, who are the delicious minds behind Blacksheep foods, the hearty and organic catering company who are taking plates by storm. Not only are they dominating the market in savoury scones, they’re kale and cheddar has to be tasted to be believed, they’re also one of the shortlisted nominees for Start-Up of the Year in our upcoming IMAGE Businesswoman of the Year Awards. Read our interview with Lydia and Julianne below and buy your tickets to the awards ceremony here.

What’s the elevator pitch for Blacksheep Foods?
Lydia: Blacksheep Foods are about delicious, nutritious, wholesome food made with local ingredients, and a little bit of indulgence on the side. We really want to raise the bar in terms of people’s experiences and expectations about food.

Julianne you lived in New York for a while. Why did you move there, and what did you get up to across the pond?
Julianne: I first moved to New York on a 1-year internship where I worked as marketing manager for fashion designer James Colarusso. While living there, I became engrossed in good food. On my days off I would explore the various Farmer’s Markets, little hubs of China town and just take in the city.

When I came home, I began working alongside Clodagh Mc Kenna at her cookery school in The Lyons Estate in Celbridge, where we taught both children and adults how to cook. From there I decided to move to Chicago to attend Kendall College culinary school and become professionally trained. Chicago was an amazing city to live in, with an unbelievable food scene.
Upon graduation, I returned to Manhattan and worked as a Chef at The Marlton Hotel, and Eataly amongst many other places. I also worked at The Crows Nest in The Hamptons as well as setting up my own healthy eating company during the summers out there.

Best places to eat in New York?
Julianne: This is one of my favorite topics. I was fortunate enough to go to Eleven Madison Park before I came home; that was by far the most amazing meal of my life thus far.  I had heard and read so much about it as it is one of the most prestigious restaurants in the world. It certainly lived up to its expectations. I would also have to recommend Pylos, which is a small Greek restaurant in the East Village, Raoul’s in Soho for classic  French cuisine, Bond Street for Japanese and sushi, ISA in Williamsburg, Crow’s Nest in Montauk… I could go on forever!

When did you decide to move home?
Julianne: For me it was never a question of “if” I would move home but a question of “when?” I always knew I would settle back home but wanted to do so only when I had enough experience behind me. The food scene has completely taken off in Ireland. People are more aware of good food. I wanted to come back and be a part of it.

What’s your background Lydia?
Lydia: I’m a trained photographer, and I have worked in the industry for the last few years. I have always enjoyed cooking on the side. While living in New York I worked in various health food cafes, such as Naturally Good Café in Montauk. I quickly realized that this was for me and that I eventually wanted to have my own food business in some shape or form. I finished my contract as photographic archivist with U2 in October 2014 and decided to give the dream a go and get into the food business.

How did you both meet?
Julianne: We met in first year in Mount Sackville Secondary school and have remained best friends since. You could say we are like sisters! We played on every sports team together be it hockey, tennis, or basketball. We also traveled around The States together.

How does your partnership work? Who does what? Where do both your individual strengths lie?
Lydia: Julianne comes up with the recipes and is the chef of the business. I do branding, accounts, sourcing and supplies. Julianne has a business background and I have a creative background and together we utilise these skills and do as much as possible ourselves. We are always pushing each other to keep improving and innovating.

What was the impetus to set up your company? When did you realise you could do your own thing so to speak?
Lydia: I think we’ve both always been ambitious and spoken about wanting something we could call our own. With the food scene exploding in Ireland, and with both of us looking to start our next ventures, the timing just seemed right. We felt we knew enough about the industry and had enough business savvy to go it alone and make a name for ourselves.

Where did the name Blacksheep come from?
Julianne: We are both the middle children in our families and I think we have always been a bit different and done are own thing, not conforming. Blacksheep Foods is all about being different and standing out for all the right reasons, so it seemed very fitting for us as a business name!

Where do Blacksheep stand on the notion of clean eating?
Lydia: Balance. Eating locally sourced seasonal produce. I think we both try and eat clean during the week and indulge at the weekends. Life is too short not to enjoy that cheese board and a glass of wine

What’s a typical breakfast/lunch/dinner for you both?
Lydia: We always make sure to have a good breakfast and take our time to sit down and enjoy it as we could be out and about, on our feet for the rest of the day. I like tea in the morning, Julianne likes her coffee. Most days it’s a big bowl of porridge made with coconut milk and topped with berries, honey and walnuts. Lunch varies day-to-day depending on what we are making, but it is always something from our own menu. Dinner is something quick and easy, as we don’t normally get home till late.

Your clients include offices supplying catering to staff. Why do you think companies have suddenly started caring about their staffs’ nutrition?
Julianne: I think that this trend started in the States. Particularly in the big tech firms in Silicon Valley where they live by the mantra “Happy employees are more productive employees” so it follows “Healthy employees are happy employees”. This ethos obviously works and is really starting to spread around the world. We’re hearing of more and more companies taking this approach, and it’s really great to see.

What’s been your favorite gig to date?
Lydia: We have fantastic experiences with all of our clients, and we tailor each event to their specific needs, but we always particularly enjoy working for Etsy.  They have been with us since the beginning and are a  fun group of people and allow us to get as creative as we want with the menu.

You’re both based in Maynooth. What does a normal working day look like?
Lydia: It varies on a daily basis depending on what we have on. If we have a breakfast event on we are up at 5am in the kitchen cooking. We might have meetings in the afternoon or sit down and plan for future events. No day is ever the same.

You have a stunning Instagram. How does social media help your business?
Julianne: It is invaluable to us. It is such a good promotional tool for any business. We basically started this company with an Instagram account! Little by little we got more and more followers, and before we knew it we were starting to get noticed by various businesses and blogs. The response has been unreal.

Who are your heroines?
Julianne: For me it has to be the chefs that trained me and the ones I worked with in New York. Alice Waters would also be a big inspiration of for both of us. She is a female chef who stayed true to her beliefs that food should be about sustainability, promoting local produce and being delicious.

What hobbies do you have other than cooking?
Lydia: During the summer we love to play tennis. We work out at our friend Cormac’s gym, Mac Fitness Maynooth four times a week. It’s a circuit training, high-intensity style workout, and no matter how long a day we have had, we both feel amazing after it.  We love eating out and having food cooked for us; it’s such a treat.

And what’s on the Blacksheep menu today?
Julianne: On today’s menu is slow roasted lamb flatbread with harissa, greens, and a cucumber yogurt dressing. Our menu changes seasonally. We buy all our greens from Maynooth Organics.

Photos by Ailbhe O’Donnell. Follow Ailbhe on Twitter and check out her beautiful website.

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Questions by Jeanne Sutton. Follow Jeanne on Twitter @jeannedesutun

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