Fresh from winning the meats award at Georgina Campbell’s Irish Breakfast Awards 2017, Pat O’Neill has yet again brought home the bacon.

The Wexford man behind the successful O’Neill’s Dry Cure Bacon in Ferns grew up on a mixed farm, with a small amount of tillage but mainly sheep and cattle. Pat O’Neill and his siblings picked and sold strawberries and raspberries during the summer.

“From the farm background, I knew that every animal that was kept alive from birth was money in the bank thereafter, let it be a lamb with a turn-around of four-to-six months from birth or a calf of approximately two years,” he said.

“Budgets were very important. Hay was cheaper to produce but lost if the year was wet. Silage was more expensive, but better feeding. But haylage is a happy medium,” O’Neill said.

I learned to watch what you’re spending and spend only what you can afford. Farm families work together as a unit, 365 days a year. Everybody did every job – there was no hierarchy.

“You have to buy quality for as cheap as possible and try to sell at the end for a premium – for a quality product. That is what I brought to business.”

Since his father retired and subsequently passed away, the land has been rented. O’Neill and his wife Mary, who have four young sons, ran the Sugar and Spice bakery and cafe in Bunclody, up to recently, having sold the business after 12 years at the helm.

The couple built their family home on the land at Bollinadrum. After leaving school, O’Neill studied for a Certificate in Science at Waterford IT and then a Diploma in Food Science in Carlow IT. He worked as a food quality manager for 13 years before setting up the business.

Own funds and a grant

O’Neill started off in March 2005 with his own funds and a grant from Wexford Enterprise Board. He dipped his toe into the water, selling from a stall in Enniscorthy Farmers’ Market every Saturday. He did this while retaining his full-time job as a quality manager. Labelling was carried out every Friday night – up to 10pm.

“I set out to give people the taste and quality of bacon that was in Ireland prior to phosphates – where you could go buy a rasher and cook it and it stayed the size of what you started with,” O’Neill said.

“I was offering something different to the usual rasher which would fold up to half its size. The grill pan – full when you started – typically reduced to half its size, leaving the tray full of white gunk.

I wanted to produce quality rashers cured using the traditional method – with no water and phosphates.

“The first sell is the hard sell. Why should a customer pay nearly double the price is the question. Yet after cooking and comparing the finished product, people are hooked,” he said.

“Customers realise that they are getting value for their money, kilo for kilo, as there is more meat after cooking, compared with alternatives on the market.”

“I have retained customers since I started. They get a great kick out of introducing the product to friends and families. The product speaks for itself,” O’Neill said.

For the first six months he was a one-man band, curing the product; slicing; packaging; labeling; finding buyers and distributing the product. Then he took on a qualified butcher who is now Head of Production.

Consistency and loyalty are very strong attributes of our company.

O’Neill buys all his pork from Dawn in Waterford and Stauntons in Cork. “Our throughput average is 2.5t weekly. We don’t have our own pigs. We only use loins, legs and bellies.

“We generally buy boneless. This eliminates the need to dispose of the bones. On average, 20 farmers supply us every week.”

O’Neill is working with his suppliers to try to buy pork that has been produced on Wexford farms rather than anywhere else in Ireland.

He supplies approximately 300 stores, cafes and hotels nationwide. He is currently attending an export course in conjunction with Bord Bia and LEO, with a view to exporting by the end of this year or early 2018.

Growth of the enterprise has been strong, going from one employee to 14 and from renting a chilled product unit to having their own.

“Sourcing suitable premises to build our own production unit in 2013 was very difficult,” he said.

“We were under pressure for more space and it took nearly a year longer than planned to get up and running. During that time, we were only able to service our existing customers. We couldn’t increase production until we moved to our new unit.

“We started with a 1lb pack of rashers and are now selling puddings and sausages and a range of other pork and bacon products,” said O’Neill.

“Our dry-cured lardons were launched in 2016 and have been a great success. They are a must-buy for every fridge. They are great for quick snacks like pasta; omelettes and tossed-over salad, as well as adding flavor to stews.”

Having started as O’Neill Foods, the business re-branded to O’Neill’s Dry Cure Bacon Co. in 2012. It has won eight ‘Great Taste’ awards and the Food Writers’ Guild Award.

Plans for the future include new contracts with multiples and new product development.

“We are in the process of launching dry-cured medallions, addressing the need for healthy fat-free products for the protein-conscious customer,” O’Neill said.