Export deal in Belgium is a new chapter for Michael’s Food Stories

Snack innovator Michael Heaslip has successfully negotiated the serious challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit to land a substantial deal with one of the biggest supermarket groups in Europe.

Monday, 26th April 2021, 6:00 am
Updated Monday, 26th April 2021, 11:48 am
Michael Heaslip of Food Stories has won significant new business with a major supermarket chain in Belgium

Snack innovator Michael Heaslip has successfully negotiated the serious challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit to land a substantial deal with one of the biggest supermarket groups in Europe

Michael, the founder and managing director of Food Stories, the Belfast-based developer and producer of healthy crisps and popcorn, has signed a contract to supply Colruyt Group in Brussels, Belgium’s biggest retailer which also has subsidiaries in France and Luxembourg and employs around 30,000 people in Europe.

In addition, the family owned retailer is a Spar brand franchisee in Belgium. The group turned over £8 billion in 2020 and competes directly with market leading German discounters Aldi and Lidl.

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The new deal, the Northern Ireland snack producer’s biggest to date in Europe, has led to it supplying its Pinkfinch branded veggie and fruit crisps to 220 Colruyt supermarkets throughout Belgium.

“This is hugely significant business for us in what has been an immensely challenging year especially due to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns which have made travelling to international markets impossible,” Michael, who formed Food Stories in April 2014 as a small business specialising in food marketing and distribution, says.

In 2018, Michael spotted an opportunity for a new popcorn in particular and diversified the business by moving into snack production with the development of Cloud Corn popcorn and then Pinkfinch veggie and fruit crisps, both of which are now available in the UK through deals with major supermarkets such as Sainsbury and Tesco. The products are also now on sale in many parts of Europe and as distant as Fiji.

“Belgium was one of the key European markets that I identified as part of a major export strategy around five years ago,” he continues. “The new contract there is based on market research and contact building over the past two years in particula. This work there led to an initial order for Pinkfinch crisps with Okay Compact, a convenience format developed by Colruyt for city centre stores in Brussels and other urban areas. The product proved popular among shoppers keen on healthier snacks and led to a meeting with a top buyer for the mainstream Colruyt supermarket.”

The negotiations that resulted in the contract for Pinkfinch crisps stretched over six months due Covid restrictions throughout the UK and the European Community. As a result, bags of Pinkfinch crisps are now on sale in the healthier snacking sections of supermarkets in the Colruyt chain.

“I am delighted to have secured this listing because Belgium is a foodie nation with a claim to the greatest chips in the world and a world renowned craft beer culture. I believe there is a great opportunity for other Northern Irish companies there which are able to navigate Brexit challenges,” he explains.

Founded in 1928 by businessman Franz Colruyt, the retail group today is one of the major grocery operation in Belgium. Colruyt Group is headquartered near Brussels, the EU capital. “Brussels, in particular, is known for its gastronomy and excellent restaurants,” Michael adds.

He says business development agency Invest Northern Ireland supported the growth of the business there through assistance for pre-pandemic visits: “The business has also benefited from an expansion of our resources. Matthew Gaston, for instance, has joined as operations director. His experience and expertise has allowed us to navigate successfully the challenges of Brexit. We now have a warehouse and transport hub that we use in Belgium to facilitate deliveries to the 220 stores. Such a presence on the ground there has been crucial during the pandemic.”

Covid had been especially challenging for the company’s ‘on the go’ snacking business in food service: “The future does look brighter now and we can see opportunities starting to appear in Europe. Thankfully the supermarket business in Belgium is strong.”

Michael developed the recipes for the veggie crisps and worked closely on their production. Pinkfinch crisps are available in Green Bean & Sugar Snap Pea, Crispy Banana, and Crispy Apple. “The crisps made from real fruit and vegetables that have undergone a vacuum-crisping process. The Green Bean variety has won a UK Great Taste Award and was shortlisted in the prestigious innovation awards at the global SIAL food show in Paris in 2018,” he concludes. “My aim was to develop a healthier crisp, one which could contribute to the five-a- day diet recommendation. We developed a unique cooking process that maintains the taste qualities of the fruits and vegetables. This means, for example, that they are a more appealing snack for children. They are also gluten-free and high in fibre.”

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