Irwin’s Bakery is celebrating its centenary in 2012, but MD Brian Irwin points to a far more recent anniversary as being significant in the business’ development.

Ten years ago, he says the company was forging its growth strategy and decided that to take the company to the next level, the gains would have to come from outside Northern Ireland. It has since added sales of more than £10m and now has a turnover just shy of £35m.

“We were looking to get products into the main UK multiples and realised that we had to offer something different from our competitors,” explains Irwin. “We didn’t set out to take on the big UK bakeries with 800g standard white loaves. Rather, we realised we needed to be offering traditional Irish products that appealed to GB consumers.”

What emerged was the Rankin Selection of traditional local breads including soda farls, potato farls and barmbrack. The breads, which are considered staples for Northern Irish consumers, were given a premium feel and the endorsement of local celebrity chef Paul Rankin, who was familiar to UK consumers thanks to his regular appearances on Ready Steady Cook.

Irwin says the combination was a great success in creating consumer engagement and praises Rankin for his energy in supporting the brand, rather than simply allowing his face to appear on packs. But there was a lot more to its success than celebrity endorsement.

Any suppliers looking to follow in Irwin’s footsteps should be aware of the infrastructure and supply chain improvements needed to properly service the UK’s biggest retailers, he says. The company had moved to a new bakery in 1995, so was ready for the challenge, but even then, retailers needed plenty of convincing. “We had experience of working with them here in Northern Ireland,” he says. “But before making that step, we had to be able to show them that we were totally committed to that market.”