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In his rented kitchen in the SPADE enterprise centre in Stoneybatter, Conor Sweeney recalls the longest shift he worked since launching his vegan ice cream business, Leamhain.
As he prepared his nationwide launch, the date was brought forward suddenly. Shops wanted batches in freezers before Christmas, not after, he says.
Sweeney pulled in friends and family to help. He worked for 36 hours straight. “That is what you have to do when you run a small business”
He stood in front of a glass freezer wrapping products for hours. “My eyelashes actually froze,” he says, pawing at his face and laughing.
This is the third kitchen he’s had. He started out in a shared kitchen in Dundrum, then he moved into a small rented kitchen within SPADE, and then to his current HQ, which is one of the biggest.
Now he needs more machinery, he says. He still packages by hand. The next time he moves, he hopes it’s going to be to his own factory, he says.
Bernie Everard, the CEO of the SPADE Enterprise Centre, says that she wants to see lots more small food businesses following the same trajectory as Sweeney – bigger and bigger and headed for the door.
At the back of its church premises in Stoneybatter, SPADE is building a large open-plan shared kitchen with space for up to 40 new food businesses. Renting space – with most equipment provided – will cost from around €15 per hour, she says.
Businesses will get lots of support with finance, marketing, and mentoring to help them grow, she says.
Because they want businesses to scale, move out and free up spaces for others, says Everard. “We want churn.”
“Leamhain started as a little Covid project,” says Sweeney, smiling, as he unpacks
ice-cream sandwiches, raspberry, chocolate and lemon.
He had been cheffing in a fine dining vegetarian restaurant in London called Vanilla Black, when it closed suddenly due to the pandemic.
It had been a dream job, he says. Without work, he moved with his partner into his grandparents’ old house in Kerry, in a place called Leamhain, he says.
Getting going, he tried out hundreds of recipes, he says. Every type of milk alternative, too. He settled on organic soya milk from France, he says, because it reminded him of creamy Irish dairy.
“With whatever money I had left over from London I bought my first ice cream machine,” he says.
He rented space in the shared Hour Kitchen in Dundrum, where a lot of the equipment was provided, he says. That was a major boost to getting the business off the ground on a budget, he says.
Sweeney had to work at nighttime though to avoid the other businesses, in case of cross contamination, he says. As well as ice cream he makes ice cream sandwiches, which are dairy-free and gluten.
It wasn’t long until he outgrew the space and wanted to be able to work during the day. “I needed a space to grow that was my own,” he says.
He moved into SPADE in September 2021, renting a small kitchen at first. As he grew he reinvested. “Whenever we made more money we bought a second ice-cream machine,” says Sweeney tapping the machine.
He hopes his next move will be to his own factory, and he is currently pitching to potential investors.
Small food business people are crying out for kitchen space at the moment, says Sweeney. Like him, lots of people launched food businesses during lockdowns and most of them need professional kitchens to meet health and safety requirements.
Businesses that do markets can often make all their produce for the week in a couple of long shifts, he says.
A Major Food Hub
As Sweeney’s business is growing so are the kitchen facilities offered by SPADE, which is a social enterprise centre based in a renovated church with narrow stairs, sloping ceilings and curved windows.
SPADE works with business start-ups, social enterprises and charities, says Everard.
A construction site is visible below, through a diamond-shaped window.
“It’s all very exciting, we have a courtyard outside where we will hopefully have some outdoor events, food events,” she says.
Twenty-four small food businesses will be able to operate in a large open-plan kitchen at a time, she says. “If you are soup business and you are doing markets you can come in here for five hours a week or ten hours a week.”
Each registered food business can apply to the environmental health officer for permission to make their food in SPADE, she says.
Most basic equipment will be provided, as will storage space. The business will become a member of SPADE too, which means they will get business, financial and marketing support.
“They will be able to start on their journey of making their product,” says Everard. “And we will be helping them to the point where they outgrow that and need their own kitchen.”
That business support package sets them apart from other shared kitchens, she says.
“We also have an events space where we will have food-related events,” she says, like cookery classes, demos, celebrity chef events, training and marketing events.