HOME SWEET HOME Lisa and James, the creators of sweet-treat business Clew Bay Cookies, at their home in Louisburgh. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
Lisa and James McCann left their successful lives in America behind to take a gamble and start afresh in Louisburgh
It is often said that in order to be successful, one must be willing to take risks.
Just ask Louisburgh couple and budding entrepreneurs Lisa and James McCann, owners of the homemade chocolate chip cookie business, Clew Bay Cookies.
Their original-recipe chocolate-chip cookie was just recently awarded the prestigious accolade of Best Product Winner 2016 at the Taste of Donegal three-day food festival that took place at the end of August. It is also a finalist in the Blas na hÉireann Irish Food Awards, set to take place on October 1.
Amazingly, all this would never have happened if it wasn’t for a series of extremely coincidental events.
Lisa, originally from Limavaddy, Derry, hit on the delicious recipe whilst living in Michigan, US, with her husband James, a high-end furniture maker by trade.
Despite Lisa working in corporate banking and earning a considerable salary, after six years in the US, the couple took the brave decision to move back to Ireland, as they felt it was the best environment to raise their two young boys.
James, the youngest of ten children, had vivid memories of Westport’s beauty from visiting the town as a child, and that played a key role in them eventually settling for Louisburgh as their new home. But, Lisa explains, it was a daunting move at first.
“We sacrificed a lot to bring the children home,” she told The Mayo News last week.
“I didn’t really want my kids going to High School in America, because it’s different to here. The West of Ireland is ideal for kids. But it has been hard, I won’t lie to you, especially when you’re making big money — it meant we would be starting again.”
Although Lisa remained in the banking sector for a number of years after moving home, their original plan was for James to continue with his passion of furniture making, but with the construction industry in such trouble in the West of Ireland at the time, this wasn’t exactly easy.
But their luck would soon change when the couple’s eldest son Kevin’s tenth birthday came around.
“I took my home-baked cookies and some milk down to Louisburgh GAA pitch for his birthday party and all the team absolutely loved them, they couldn’t stop eating them.
“A wee lightbulb turned on in my head at that point, so I decided to take them to the Louisburgh Market that took place at the Headquarters on a Saturday morning. Every single Saturday they would sell out within an hour and a half, and we just realised that this recipe must be popular, so we decided to turn it into a gourmet.”
Like all small businesses, Clew Bay Cookies was not exactly blessed with a stretchable budget, so the process of trying to infiltrate an already extremely competitive market was always going to be a difficult task.
Each cookie is baked in what Lisa jokingly refers to as the ‘innovation hub’, otherwise known as her kitchen. According to the baker herself, this is “the easy-part.” The logistics of starting the business she credits to her husband James.
“I couldn’t have done it without him being honest. Trying to get HSE approved and handling all the paperwork and the packaging is the hardest part. My husband thought himself a programme that would enable him to design the packaging and the logo himself. He has that artistic gift, and it wouldn’t have been possible to do without it.”
Starting Clew Bay Cookies on a shoestring meant that the only viable method of advertising available to the McCanns was social media and travelling around the country to different festivals (including the aforementioned Taste of Donegal), where they could share their unique recipe with a wide variety of fellow bakers and individuals.
It worked, and their products are receiving plaudits in all corners of Ireland, and a host of local businesses—including Market 57, SuperValu, Mocha Beans and Wild West Indoor Play Centre in Westport; Maple Moose in Westport and Enniscrone; and Devour Bakery, Ballinrobe—are now selling their cookies.
‘I was dancing around the kitchen’
Lisa and James had never imagined their cookies would become so popular, let alone make it into the running for a Blas na hÉireann award.
“We knew our cookies were good, but I mean, we just work out of our home in Louisburgh, we’re just home bakers.
“When we decided to enter our cookie into the Blas na hÉireann Irish Food Awards over a month ago, we took them down to Cork ourselves for the initial judging, because we were afraid they would get broken if anyone else did it. We didn’t really think anymore about it until James received an email a couple of weeks later to confirm that we were in the final. I just couldn’t believe it, I was dancing around the kitchen.”
The recognition is a massive achievement for such a small venture. (For scale, among the finalists in their category is Dragons’ Den millionaire Alison Cowzer, co-owner of multi-million-euro East Coast Bakehouse, which specialises in a biscuits.) It has instilled belief in Lisa that their product is up there with the best.
It has opened her mind to dreaming about the endless possibilities that come with winning a Blas na hÉireann award. “It would mean a wider recognition for Clew Bay Cookies, and hopefully gain us entry into more high-end stores, allowing us to scale up.”
“We had to take a two-day break recently, because trying to get your product out there is very hard and time consuming. If we scale up, then hopefully we can get some funding for a cookie depositor, which means that I or my kids won’t have to be sitting and hand rolling all the time.”
With the winners of the Blas na hÉireann Irish Food Awards to be announced in Dingle on October 1, and with another home-made product currently in the works (Lisa kept her cards close to her chest on this matter), Clew Bay Cookies is well and truly on its way to getting national recognition. What a delicious prospect.