Food and drink start-ups have a taste for global success

A TASTE FOR SUCCESS:'L-R: Darren Nugent, Pokertree Brewing Company; Vanessa Rollins, Stevia Gold; Alison Reid, Invest NI; Carol Little, New Found Joy; Luca Montorio, PEPPUP.
A TASTE FOR SUCCESS:'L-R: Darren Nugent, Pokertree Brewing Company; Vanessa Rollins, Stevia Gold; Alison Reid, Invest NI; Carol Little, New Found Joy; Luca Montorio, PEPPUP.

During Balmoral Show week, when Northern Ireland’s farming, food and drink sectors are showcased and celebrated, Farming Life shines the spotlight on some of our most ambitious entrepreneurs who are working on a recipe for global success.

We spoke to four of the current 35 entrepreneurs to have been accepted onto Invest Northern Ireland’s Propel programme, which supports start-ups with the energy, vision and potential to succeed internationally through an intensive programme of mentoring, workshops, networking, market visits and financial support.

Propel participants Luca Montorio, Carol Little, Vanessa Rollins and Darren Nugent are each making a mark in the local food and beverage sector, with plans to put their products on the global menu in the near future.


Italian Luca Montorio moved to Newtownards, County Down, with his wife in 2012. With an academic background, Luca decided to mark the new chapter with a change of career and brought his passion for cookery and food to life through the creation of PEPPUP, an all-natural, roasted red pepper and tomato sauce. 

“I have always believed good food revolves around family and friends, and the idea for PEPPUP originates from a recipe which my mother took from her mother. It’s actually nearly 100 years in the making, marrying a classic Italian combination of roasted peppers and tomato to create PEPPUP. Over 50% of the sauce is made up of roasted Italian peppers. I also realised there was a gap in the market for a condiment that was natural with no preservatives that was a step away from the mainstream ketchup,” explains Luca.

“Propel is giving me the support I need to test the product and develop other sister products as well as learning about the multitude of disciplines needed as a small business owner, from accountancy to design to sales,” Luca said.

PEPPUP has already secured valuable listings with a number of UK based speciality retailers and Luca is now focused on securing contracts with major retail partners in 2015.

Pokertree Brewing Company

Pokertree Brewing Company currently supplies its portfolio of four speciality ales into bars, restaurants and retail stores across Ireland. Carrickmore based founder Darren Nugent is now focused on taking his craft beers global.

Having witnessed the popularity of handcrafted, speciality beers worldwide, Darren noticed a niche in the local market: “When living outside Northern Ireland, I acquired a taste for quality, handcrafted speciality beers with great depth, taste and complexity.  Then I came home and was surprised by the lack of locally produced beers at both retail and off sales level. I decided to set up a microbrewery in my hometown, crafting distinctive Irish ales,” Darren said.

Darren’s Pokertree beers are traditionally produced, small batch artisan ales, made using only natural ingredients with no additives or preservatives. Interest in Pokertree products from the local retail and hospitality sectors has been hugely positive to date, with orders coming from France and interest in London. Darren is hoping the guidance and expertise he experiences through Propel will allow him to grow into the US market and beyond.

New Found Joy

New Found Joy is a new bakery business offering artisan gluten free baked goods. Founder Carol Little, whose experience spans farming, business and bakery, recognised clear gaps in the growing ‘free from’ market and set about developing a range of gluten free products which have universal appeal to a broad range of consumers. 

“We created a gluten free range of five of the most popular traditional tray bakes, including caramel squares and chocolate brownies, each of which is made using local ingredients, individually wrapped and suitable for home freezing,” explains Carol. 

Carol launched the New Found Joy range at Ireland’s largest foodservice event Catex in 2014 and since then has been busy cultivating connections and business partnerships.  

“Within the coming years, I hope to be selling New Found Joy gluten free products across the UK, Ireland and internationally. I believe in the business and have an ambitious outlook and Propel will no doubt help me think even bigger and achieve even more,” said Carol.

Stevia Gold

Another new business with a sweet idea is headed up by Vanessa Rollins. Based in Bangor, Vanessa and her team have developed Stevia Gold, a natural sugar alternative made from the stevia leaf. Vanessa is currently gearing up to launch her product via a Kickstarter crowdfunding project within the next month in addition to interest from retailers and the catering sector. 

“What gives Stevia Gold real standout is that it has completely pure ingredients,” said Vanessa.

“The product is completely calorie free and the convenient 60ml bottle it comes in will carry the same sweetness as half a kilo of sugar. With the drive now to reduce the intake of sugar, Stevia Gold is setting a new trend. We worked hard on the recipe to make sure that it tastes great and we’ve had some very positive feedback so far from a number of leading chefs,” said Vanessa.

Vanessa is driving awareness of her product and campaign through social media and believes Propel will give her the foundation she needs to launch a globally successful product. 

Each four very different companies, these start-ups share vision, innovation and global potential.  Such forward-thinking entrepreneurs, along with each and every company present at Balmoral Show, prove that Northern Ireland’s food and drink sector is brimming over with talent and an asset we can all be proud of.