Taking the Thyme to make some changes

The Irish Times – Tuesday, June 19, 2012


FUTURE PROOF : Finding a niche in the market for good home-cooked meals has helped one couple’s business to thrive in the recession

THE FOOD business is something that Berna Williams just can’t shake out of her system. The owner of Dalkey-based gourmet food company Thyme Out has left the industry on several occasions but keeps coming back.

Over the years she has run cafes such as Piglets in Monkstown, helped set up gourmet grocers such as Listons on Camden Street, ran her own catering company and worked for the Douglas Food Company, before finding her niche in Thyme Out.

The deli was started 10 years ago by Berna and her husband David, after the couple noticed a gap in the market for a takeaway business selling home-cooked food. “We had always felt there wasn’t a good enough deli offering fresh food everyday,” says Berna.

The couple began selling dinners, scones, salads and sweets such as meringues and biscuits from the deli, which had an open kitchen on site.

“We thought it would give it a more homely feel when people came into the shop if they could see what we were doing in the kitchen,” she says.

As the business developed, people started asking if they could bulk-order food for parties, communions and confirmations.

“At the height of the boom, we were catering for 75 communions per month during the busy season. Then the recession hit and we were down to doing only one per month,” says Berna.

Takeaway outlets were also two a penny and supermarkets had dramatically upped the quality of their prepared meals, so fewer people were coming into the deli.

“Marks Spencer started doing the Dine in for Two deals, Tesco introduced the Tesco Finest range, SuperValu were doing Dine in with SuperValu Supreme, so there was less of a reason for people to come to our shop to buy dinners,” says Berna.

As a result, the duo branched out into dressings, developing a Basil Lime and a French variety.

“David had always held a more managerial role in the business, but the downturn meant we both had to take a more hands-on approach. He got into cooking and started developing the dressings,” she says.

The couple originally used their homemade dressings as a filling in sandwiches, on salads and on poached chicken fillets.

“Everyone was saying the dressings were really good. They were asking for samples the whole time and we were just giving it to them for free in tubs. That’s how we came up with the idea to start bottling and selling them.”

The couple also diversified their approach to catering, and as a result have noticed a return in demand for communion catering in the last year.

“We couldn’t compete with the likes of MS when it came to the prepared meal deals, so we decided to learn from them. One thing we noticed they were doing was putting three-course dinners together such as the Dine in for Two meal deal,” she says.

“People became more cautious with money with the downturn. They wanted to know at the beginning how much everything would cost. They used to come in to us to have a look through the menu and pick out various dishes they wanted for the communion”.

“We made it easier for them by doing set menus for a certain price. They could have main courses, salads and desserts for €10 per head”.

Always looking ahead, and preparing for the future, the company also branched out into cakes.

Berna’s mother, who is 83, ran a very popular cake shop in Dalkey years ago. “We asked her for her recipes and to show us how to make them, so we could start doing her cakes.”

The business has now been selling Yvonne Joan Cakes for nearly a year, named after Berna’s mother’s original cake shop.

“It’s created a real buzz in the area. A lot of people are coming in buying them and telling us stories about the original shop all those years ago.

And Berna’s advice for those struggling in the food business? “Find a niche and don’t be afraid to get stuck in. We do everything, from the food preparation to marketing to distribution”.

“We are always networking, trying to get the word out about our products and finding new outlets to sell them.”

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