Elaine Lavery and Hannah O’Reilly are the young brains behind Improper Butter, one of Ireland’s most exciting foodie start-ups. The elevator pitch? Butters infused with flavours such as garlic, chili, basil and Cashel Blue Cheese. Is your mouth watering already? Elaine and Hannah met while studying in UCD, however their friendship began after Hannah insisted Elaine give her number to a Brazilian waiter in Rigbys. We catch up with these two impressive entrepreneurs to talk shop, find out how scary successfully pitching to Dragons’ Den can be, and also hear the rest of that Brazilian story…
Improper Butter has been going for over a year – fill us in on the ups and downs…
Elaine: It’s been just over a year since we first came together with the idea to retail a range of flavoured butters. Our actual launch into retail was one year ago next month. That year has flown. It’s been tough and there have been plenty of ups and downs but thankfully the ups have outweighed the downs, which is how we’ve kept going! My highlights have been the launch of our new brand identity in September, something we worked on in conjunction with Creative Inc – a Dublin based creative agency and winning the title of Ireland’s Best Young Entreprenur (IBYE) in our Dublin constituency. Thankfully we’ve had no major obstacles so far, but we have made some mistakes, learnt from them and moved on.
Hannah: It’s mad to think it’s nearly been a year since we got our first listing. That time has flown by. People have been so supportive – friends and family, customers, retailers and industry people alike. That has been my highlight.
You both have a background in business – has running a start up taught you anything important that you weren’t told in a lecture theatre?
Elaine: Yes, lots! Business is all about people and no one can teach emotional intelligence; it’s something that isn’t acquired. In saying that, I do think the backbone of a business degree has helped more than we realise. We would have studied modules including marketing, finance, accounting, strategy and they have all come into play in the various roles we have to undertake in running our business.
Hannah: Although I wasn’t perhaps the greatest student that passed through the lecture theatres of UCD, my Commerce degree has really helped. To be honest, starting this business has been mainly about getting up early in the morning and going to bed late at night however our respective degrees taught us the basics of HR, marketing, supply chain management etc and without a doubt it’s all helped.
You worked in the French Alps as a chalet chef Elaine – how did that come about?
Elaine: The summer after graduation I went to work in the City. I thought I’d make it with a lucrative career in finance. How wrong I was! The type of work and the lifestyle was not for me at all. Putting in 15-hour days for a public company made me wonder what I could achieve if I was working 15-hour days for myself. Coming out of it I decided to step back completely and do something for myself for a year. I’d always been a keen home cook and I’d always wanted to explore that talent further, so I managed to blag my way into that job as a chalet chef. I spent an amazing five months developing my knowledge and repertoire in the kitchen. Understanding how to blend and balance flavors is something that has given me great confidence in developing the recipes for Improper Butter.
Was it at all like the movie Chalet Girl?
Elaine: Funnily enough, when I told my friends I was going they all asked that question – and to this day I haven’t seen it so I couldn’t tell you. However I imagine it is some kind of rom-com, so in my experience the answer is sadly no, nothing like that!
Hannah, you studied music before becoming a businesswoman. Do you think you’ll ever go back to music?
Hannah: I can’t really see going back to it any time soon. If I’m doing something I want to be fully committed or not bother at all. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing really. One of my reasons for getting involved with establishing our business was the fact that, although things can be difficult, you do have a certain level of control. With music there are so many variables that have to come together in order to really succeed. Before establishing Improper Butter I had set up an internship in a music agency in London as I thought combining business and music could be an interesting career option for me. When Elaine and I spoke about starting something together I began to think why run around getting other people’s coffees when I could do something interesting for myself. Music gave me great confidence from an early age. One year on, I’m beginning to feel like having confidence is the most important part of starting your own business.
Considering parts of the western world is gone fanatical on clean eating, how do you turn people back onto dairy?
Hannah: Although eating clean and paleo diets are becoming more popular, butter is definitely back in fashion. Time magazine’s June edition saw the front cover proclaim ‘EAT BUTTER’. As you can imagine, we were all over the promotion of that issue! People are starting to realize that including a moderate amount of natural, full fat diary into their diets is so much healthier than low fat options that are often full of sugar. Not only does butter make food completely delicious and keep you fuller for longer, it’s full of nutrients that are essential for a balanced diet.
Irish food is so buzzy at the moment – how does a start-up stand out in such a busy industry?
Elaine: No matter what kind of business you’re in you have to differentiate yourself. That is true whether you compete on price or quality, or bring something completely new to market. With Improper Butter we are doing something really innovative by adding value to butter – something that hasn’t really been done before in Ireland. The fact that we are doing something so original and pitching it as a fun and engaging brand has brought us lots of attention.
Hannah: Also, I think it’s important to be innovative, not only with product development, but also in terms of branding, packaging and marketing. We have cool plans for future promotional and marketing events. We want to have fun with our brand and do something a little different.
You pitched to the Dragons – any advice for young women looking to pitch for investment?
Elaine: If you have a business that you’re working on full-time and are passionate about, I’d say just go for it. The Dragons are looking for commitment and enthusiasm. If you have those two things, you’ll come off well, regardless of whether you’re offered the investment or not.
Hannah: Don’t bother getting your hair done at 6am the morning of the recording. By the time you get to pitch it’ll have fallen flat. No, as Elaine said, just go for it. Although it’s perhaps not the easiest thing in the world, do stick to your guns during the negotiation bit. I think the dragons respected that with our pitch.
You’re two close friends and business partners – how do you keep those aspects separate?
Hannah: We don’t! We’re either with each other or on to each other about sixteen hours a day! Our messages move swiftly from butter to boys and back again. We’re incredibly lucky to have a great friendship and a great working relationship. Elaine and I balance each other out. We have very different personalities. Different strengths.
Where are your favourite places to eat in Ireland?
Elaine: New York / Italian seems to be trendy in Dublin at the moment. I’d be a fan of places like Drury Buildings or San Lorenzo. I appreciate fine dining every now and again. Hannah and I ate in Viewmount House in Longford a couple of months back. Course after course, chef Gary O’Hanlon wowed us. We had to be rolled out of the place! The Greenhouse on Dawson Street is also amazing. I’ve been once. Hannah and I are going back to toast our achievements to date next month.
Hannah: I love Dunne and Crescenzi on South Fredrick Street. It’s my go to. Some day I’ll have enough willpower to resist their truffle ravioli. Some day. I also really enjoy Fade Street Social in town for dinner and The Happy Pear in Greystones for lunch. Both very different but both completely gorgeous.
Explain the Brazilian waiter in Rigbys story…
Ah hear, if we explain that one now we’ll have nothing exciting for the memoirs. We’ll just have to keep you guessing until then…