Outstanding in his field: John Flahavan is the sixth generation family member to run the business
By Ray O'Hanlon
Fans of Irish food and drink products can be seen prowling the aisles of supermarkets across America on any given day.
There has never been a moment in time when so many Irish products are lined up for sale.
And while some might be relative newcomers to the aisles, some of them have been around a long time, a very long time indeed - at least back in their native isle.
The marketplace might be in the New World but think Old World in the chronological sense, as well as the geographic equivalent, with regard to some of the Irish-made items now bearing a dollar price tag.
Consider Bushmills Whiskey for one. It dates back to 1608. Then there’s Guinness, which checks in at 1759. Jameson Whiskey has been imbibed since 1780.
That's it for drinks. What about food? Well, consider Flahavan’s Irish Oats, a staple favorite and favorite staple since 1785. The fledgling United States didn’t have a president until four years after that product launch.
Flahavan’s oatmeal products - and there are several varieties - are available in the United States of 2021 by way of a number of major supermarket chains, such as Shoprite, Stop & Shop, Fairway, Luckys, and online through Amazon.
But here’s a brief consumer quiz. It’s a fair bet that American buyers can link Bushmills, Guinness and Jameson to their points of origin in Ireland. In the case of Bushmills it’s the eponymous village in County Antrim. Guinness and Jameson are Dublin natives, and are widely known and advertised as such.
But where does Flahavan’s come from? Go to the top of the class if you answer Kilmacthomas in County Waterford.
"Home for us has always been Waterford," says John Flahavan, the sixth generation member of his family to run the business, in his case as managing director and main shareholder.
Over those succeeding generations the company has turned nature's raw material, oats, into refined products by the banks of the Mahon River, which rises in the Comeragh Mountains.
Where once the power to produce was provided by a water-turned mill wheel, technology now keeps the product lines moving. That technology includes renewable sources such as solar panels, a wind turbine and a water powered turbine.
Flahavan's Oatmeal, you could say, is a green new meal.
That oatmeal is presented to the consumer in several different ways and is for sale across the United States and in twenty countries worldwide, according to Alice Quirke, the company's Brand Manager for the U.S. market..
Flahavan's launched in the U.S. market in 2011 and the company's products have been finding new shelves in new outlets since that first year.
Marketing a food product, especially one that can be presented as rolled, steel cut, and microwavable, required detailed market research aimed at identifying the appeal to different consumers of each oatmeal variety, this according to John Noonan, Sales and Marketing Director.
It's something of a balancing act. Many people in these fast times might indeed be inclined to have a bowl of oatmeal, "porridge," as a hot and nourishing start to their day, especially in winter.
But Flahavan's had to explore and understand would consumers be satisfied with a non-microwavable product that takes a little longer to prepare and which, according to John Noonan, will thus present a "better texture " - this as a result of those few minutes of extra preparation.
Flahavan's, in looking at the U.S. consumer, had to consider this aspect of preparation time. Guinness went through the same thing. Back in the day it would take three pours to fill a pint glass in an Irish pub. That was reduced to two pours. In the U.S. market even more speed was required, hence the draught in a bottle which can be passed over a bar counter in a matter of seconds.
But, as any true Guinness aficionado will tell you, it pays to wait a while. An oatmeal lover would more often than not say the same thing, along the lines of "good things come to those who wait."
Nevertheless, and in today's competitive image-driven market, a product that can be presented in different ways has to indeed cover all the angles, and seek out new ones.
"We are constantly looking at what is important to the user and how our product range meets that," says John Noonan.
According to Noonan, when Flahavan's first ventured into the U.S. market the company identified with two groups of consumers. The first group recognized the brand name and had an existing affinity with Ireland.
For the most part that would describe Irish-born shoppers or visitors to Ireland who were familiar with oatmeal/porridge as part of the breakfast menu back in Ireland.
Then there was the discerning consumer of fine and less familiar foods, not necessarily linked to Ireland in any way, but the kind who habitually checks out the specialized sections in the store.
Buyers like these would be willing to take a little longer to cook their oatmeal and so, according to John Noonan, enjoy that "better texture and taste."
Be that as it may, there is a wide margin of choice when it comes to cooking methods for the oatmeal product varieties available to U.S. consumers. The company offers three products here: Irish Rolled Oats, Irish Steel Cut Oats, and Quick to Cook Irish Steel Cut Oats..
So what's the difference between all these varieties?
For the purist, and regardless of which side of the Atlantic he or she resides, the one hundred percent whole grain Steel Cut Oatmeal takes thirty to forty minutes to prepare, but the wait is well worth it as any true porridge fan will attest. To save time, some prepare it the night before and store in the fridge for reheating.
Flahavan's Quick to Cook Irish Steel Cut Oats are similar to the company's original Steel Cut but are cut even finer to allow for a quicker cooking time - roughly five to seven minutes on the stove and five minutes in the microwave.
According to Flahavan's, while Steel Cut Oats are cut and chopped into small pieces, Rolled Oats are rolled and flattened. These are quickest to cook, and require only three minutes on the stove or in the microwave.
Flahavan's, being in business for so long, is a company with long established business relations. This is especially so with certain farming families and two oat growers in particular, Harry Gray and Ned Morrissey, are currently featured on the company's oatmeal containers.
Flahavan's has been working with Harry Gray's family going back to 1911. According to John Flahavan, there are ledgers that show business being carried out with Gray's grandfather. The connection is today maintained by Harry's sons, Don and Gordon.
This long running link to the land and specific family farmers is a big part of the Flahavan's story. "A bountiful harvest, a kinship with nature, and real Irish heritage, from their fields to your spoon," is how this relationship is highlighted on the oatmeal containers to be found on the store shelves.
And it's not just the Gray and Morrissey families. There are others including, as John Flahavan points out, the aforementioned Jameson family, which has had a commercial relationship with Flahavan's as an oat supplier going back many decades.
So what is it about Ireland and oats?
Again, according to Flahavan's: "Irish oatmeal has been a staple diet in Ireland for thousands of years largely due to the ease of growing oats, which are a rain tolerant grain. Waterford, where the Flahavan's mill is located, has an especially perfect climate for growing oats.
"The temperate climate and the purest rainwater produce plump, full grains, perfect for milling. Ireland’s long cool summers have just the right amount (low levels) of sunlight and heat for the grains of oats to slowly grow and ripen. Irish oats have some of the highest yields in the world. Having temperatures that are too high will ripen the grain too quickly, which does not allow the starches in the kernel to develop.
"Lower temperatures also reduce the amount of fat in the grains allowing the oats to develop into a nice plump rounded grain. Irish oats have one of the lowest fat contents in the world compared to other countries."
Marketing a product in America is, of course, an enormous challenge, even for the biggest companies. Nevertheless, that line about lowest fat content is a strong sales pitch regardless of company size.
Still, there are many products flying that particular flag in the food marketplace. How does Flahavan's gain a footing, and beyond that, grow sales market share?
Well, by way of a mix of the new and the old.
Alerting consumers to Flahavan's by way of a story such as this begins with a public relations agency. Then there are social media outlets, and the longtime tried and tested method: the use of coupons. In addition, there are companies that distribute Irish food products in the U.S. New Jersey-based Source Atlantique is the main distributor while Mount Vernon, New York-based Food Ireland being another.
"Flahavan's started from a low base in U.S. sales terms so there is plenty of room for growth in the U.S. market," says John Noonan.
And there are signs that such growth is being steadily attained.
In the oatmeal product business "grow" is the operative word - and it applies to all seasons.
Adds Noonan: "Ireland is perceived as a country from which high-quality food originates so 'Irishness' is a very important part of our heritage to present to consumers."
So what of the future for Flahavan's? Well, there is a seventh generation already on the job. John Flahavan has two children working full-time in the business, James who is a Director and also heavily involved in promoting the brand in the U.S., and Annie who is the company’s Financial Controller.
The oats grow, the Mahon River flows, and the oatmeal products are delivered from a small town in County Waterford to the wider world, one very different to 1785, and in some ways not that different at all. Learn more at www.flahavans.com.