A Day in the Life: Mary O’Neill


A TASTE OF MAYO Mary O’Neill pictured in Ballina with some chocolates from her business, Noo Chocolates. Pic: Shutter Fever Photography

WHAT time I get up depends on daylight really. This time of year I’m probably up at 7am or 7.30am and I’d go out and feed the poultry and check everyone is okay. We keep chickens and turkeys and ducks and geese and in winter check the cattle if they’re in the shed and make sure they’ve enough feed.
I don’t like to be too flat out in the morning, so I’d always take time to have poached eggs, or something, and good coffee. I like quiet time, I’d read a bit of a book or a bit of a magazine. I’ve the radio on when I get into work but morning time is definitely quiet.
At work if it’s a chocolate making day I’d get the machines going and start tempering the chocolate, it’s a process where you make it shine and snap. While it’s tempering I’d make the fillings and prepare the moulds. I’d make the chocolates, get them filled, and the whole process is about four or five hours, followed by the clean up.
Normally then I’d get stuck into emails and invoicing and all the boring paperwork side of the business.
Other days I could be on more of a delivery day, out on the road. I deliver myself around Mayo and Sligo at the moment, it’s important to talk to people myself and get the feedback of what sells well or what the customers like. If I go into Cafe Rua in Castlebar they’ll always have a little story for me about who bought the chocolate, it’s lovely to hear. And because I work by myself it’s great to get out of the place, it’s nice to get to talk to people.
When I was eleven my sister moved to Belgium and started bringing home really lovely high-quality chocolate, and that sparked the taste for more than Cadburys.
In 2010, my sisters bought me a voucher for a half day chocolate making workshop as a birthday gift. Myself and my husband attended and we learned the basics of chocolate making. It started as a hobby and became a more obsessive hobby as time went on.
Last year I was offered redundancy where I was working so it started me thinking. I was thinking for years I’d love to have a food business.
People really like the fact I use local ingredients, Achill Island Sea Salt, Connacht Distillery products, Bean West coffee. I like to use them because they’re such high quality anyway, but it gives the real local element to the chocolates.
I would taste everything to make sure the quality is good enough. I probably go beyond what’s needed on the tasting front.
I took part in the Empower programme in GMIT Castlebar, a female entrepreneur programme, because I had absolutely no business background. I had no idea where to start. The Empower programme takes the whole concept of starting a business and breaks it down to different steps that are achievable. It was really beneficial to be working with other women from the area who were at the same stage as me, it means you’ve 20 cheerleaders at your back. If any of us are trying to make decisions about what place to go, we can post it in the group and get great feedback.
When you’re working on your own like I am, it’s great to feel that you’re not alone.
I try to tie myself in with my husband’s shift patterns when finishing work, with the farm it’s easier if the two of us are there to clean out a shed or move cattle.
I finish between 4pm and 7pm and at Christmas time it might be 1am, it just depends.
Over the years we’ve worked on a lot of flavours and we’d have people come back to us about them again and again so that has made up my core flavours at the moment. I’ve extra flavours for a wedding if they’ve specific flavours they want. I do all sorts, wedding favours, corporate gifts, personalisation. When working on new products I always have a million ideas for new stuff, today I’m going to work on a Christmas truffle. My favourite is espresso vanilla, it’s great with a cup of coffee in the evening.
My favourite moment of the day is when you sink into the sofa and just start relaxing. I’d always read a book, I’ve an extremely short attention span so if I try to watch a film I fall asleep immediately.
I’m happy with the way things are going but I’d definitely like to get to the stage where I’d employ a couple of people, to have a sustainable business that’s making a profit and working for the good of the community. When you have quality businesses in an area it helps the profile of the whole area. Ultimately I’d like to get to a point where I’d offer tours and tasting as part of that.

In conversation with Ciara Galvin

Name: Mary O’Neill
From: Co Meath
Living: Newtownwhite, Ballina
Occupation: Chocolatier at Noo Chocolates

Quickfire Qustions

If money was no object, what would you do all day?
Go to New Zealand to see my sister, and visit a whole lot of countries on the way home. At home, I’d clean up the disaster that is the vegetable garden, and create the tidiest and most productive smallholding that ever was!

Where’s your favourite place in the world?
In summer, the garden of my house, with the grass freshly cut, the barbecue going and the poultry all outside scratching around.
In winter, inside on the sofa with the stove lit, a good book and probably a glass of red wine!

First hero?
My oldest sister, she moved to Brussels to open a shop when she was 24. It was such a huge step to move to a new country, open and run a business through a different language, at such a young age. She’s a great example of not letting fear stop you from following your dream.

Name three things that are always in your fridge?
Good coffee beans (from Dave’s Deli in Ballina), hot sauce (about five different types open at the same time) and cheese.

What makes you nervous?
I’m terrified of big spiders, so I won’t go into a room where there’s one. I inserted a clause into our wedding vows that my husband has to get rid of them for me!

What do you miss most about being a kid?
Having no responsibilities, and summer lasting forever.

What’s your most prized possession?
I’m not really very into possessions, but my engagement and wedding rings mean a lot to me.

Best advice you ever got?
From a different sister: Appreciate the small things, and take some time every day to think of something that’s made you happy.

Biggest achievement to date?
Probably setting up Noo Chocolates.