Sean Gallagher, Published: 05/10/2014
How Kieran and Sean Murphy swapped a New York lifestyle to become Irish kings of the cone. There’s an old saying that “Money can’t buy happiness – but it can buy ice cream, and that’s almost the same thing”.
This week, I visited Kieran Murphy who, along with his brother Sean, set up Murphy’s Ice Cream in their adopted home town of Dingle, in Co Kerry. Theirs is an intriguing story. Having grown up in America, the pair decided to swap their New York lifestyle for a new life as food entrepreneurs in Ireland.
It’s around 10 in the morning when I arrive at Murphy’s Ice Cream shop on Strand Street, just a short walk from Dingle pier and the bronze statue of another well-known local, Fungie, the dolphin. Although it’s still early, there’s already a steady stream of customers in the shop. As Kieran and I begin to chat, Roisin, one of the staff, is busy offering visitors a sample of whichever flavours they might like to try.
There’s everything from Kerry cream vanilla and silky smooth chocolate to caramel honeycomb and blissful butterscotch. There’s also caramelised Irish brown bread, Dingle gin, toasted Irish oats, traditional Irish coffee and an unusual flavour made with local Dingle sea salt.
I notice too that most of those queuing are overseas visitors with accents that suggest they are from places such as France, Germany, Italy and the US.
“Our customers are mostly adults and typically those who are on holidays or at least in a holiday state of mind,” explains Kieran. “Because we make a premium product, we are therefore more exclusive and this is reflected in our price point which is more expensive than standard ice creams. But we think it’s worth it,” he adds.
Kieran goes on to explain that like many modern bakeries, many of today’s ice cream shops now use buckets of cream mix and powdered eggs as opposed to fresh milk and eggs.
“We believe in making real ice cream from produce that is local and natural. The milk we use comes to us fresh from the farm and is sourced from the rare, indigenous Kerry cow. We don’t use any colourings, or flavouring – moreover, we break our own free-range eggs, use only organically grown sugar and scrape vanilla beans from their pods by hand,” insists Kieran.
The last 14 years have been a big change for the brothers who grew up in New York. Their father, who had emigrated to the US from Cork in the 1960s and their mother were both entrepreneurs. For years, the couple ran the US franchise of a Swiss natural skincare company. So growing up, Kieran and Sean were surrounded by business – and looking back now, they believe that this greatly reduced their level of fear when it came to starting out on their own.
Kieran didn’t study business, doing a philosophy degree instead. However, his combined love of travel, as well as sales, led him to embark on a career in the retail sector where he spent the following few years managing shops in San Francisco and Austin, Texas. However, when an opportunity arose to join a near start-up as marketing director, Kieran jumped at the chance. A software company which developed billing systems for therapists, Kieran helped grow the firm to a multi-million dollar turnover level before it was sold on.
“By then I was ready for a change so I decided to take some time out to think about what I wanted to do next. Because my parents had a holiday home here in Dingle, I decided to come here first. And I simply fell in love with the place and didn’t want to leave,” explains Kieran.
Exploring his options, he began by listing all the things he liked to do and then began matching these with what he thought there might be a market for in Ireland.
“I loved coffee and I loved ice cream so that seemed to me as good a place to start as anywhere,” he says smiling.
In addition, he noticed that the demand for artisan foods was growing rapidly in Ireland and there seemed to be only a handful of ice cream companies active here at the time.
Sean went to university in Texas and later went into the family business where he looked after the sales function. He also loved Ireland – and when Kieran suggested starting a new business in Dingle, Sean immediately jumped at the opportunity of joining his brother – and the pair set up Murphy’s Ice Cream.
“Although it might sound grandiose to some, we set out to make the best ice cream in the world,” explains Kieran.
Getting the product right was the pair’s first challenge, so Sean returned for a period to the US to study ice cream making at Penn State.
“It seemed a good idea at the time, but it was completely unhelpful,” says Kieran laughing. “The course focused on high volume industrial production whereas we were committed to smaller volumes of high quality ice cream.”
The pair found a premises and immediately began experimenting with ingredients and flavours. They whipped up small batches of each flavour which they sold over the counter the following day.
“Having the shop was fantastic and meant that we were getting almost instant, genuine customer feedback without having to arrange pre-planned tastings or focus groups,” explains Kieran.
Anxious to get a presence in Dublin, the boys began supplying their most popular ice creams to gourmet shops throughout the city. “It was crazy. Sean was killing himself trying to service all these accounts,” recalls Kieran. But the logistics involved in dropping small amounts of products to a large number of dispersed outlets didn’t make sense, so they made the strategic decision to step away from this segment of the market.
At the same time, the shop began doing so well that they quickly outgrew production capacity. With the help of Udaras na Gaeltachta, they moved to a dedicated, purpose-built manufacturing facility in a nearby business park. “This really changed things for us. We now had lots of production capacity. But with these additional overheads and only one shop outlet, we realised that we needed to scale up,” explains Kieran.
They then decided to open a second shop, this time on Main Street in Killarney. While bringing in extra sales, the new shop also brought with it the normal challenges associated with growth and with managing multiple locations. And as with the owners of any growing business, Kieran and Sean began to work out their individual roles within the business which resulted in Sean moving to Killarney to manage the shop there.
“Like most entrepreneurs, we had reached the point where any pretence of doing everything ourselves was banished. We had to begin to feel comfortable enough to give over control of certain aspects of the business to key staff and delegate more. That was a real challenge,” admits Kieran.
In 2010, they got the opportunity to take over two more shops which had become vacant in Dublin, one in Temple Bar and the other in Wicklow Street, just off Grafton Street.
While the Temple Bar outlet quickly became their best performing store in Dublin, they were unprepared for the level of anti-social behaviour in the area at night. Not long into their lease, they made the difficult decision to pull out after staff had been repeatedly subjected to intimidation by members of the public.
“It was an expensive and difficult lesson, but thankfully our Wicklow Street shop continued to perform and carried us through,” explains Kieran.
Did they consider supplying supermarkets and large multiples?
“That’s not our preferred route to market. In recent years, we have spent substantial amounts of money trying to break into that market. However, the high cost of stocking these shops, the marketing collateral, point of sale materials and the margins required by both the supermarkets and the distributors, all make it very difficult to make money as a producer unless you are moving volume.
“To be successful, we would need to make a much cheaper product and that would require compromising on the quality of our ice cream and we’re not prepared to do that,” insists Kieran. “In fact, we think it could be contrary to our exclusive image and end up becoming a distraction for the business,” he adds. Instead, the pair believe that having their own dedicated shops is the right direction for the business and are currently in the process of raising finance to allow them to begin opening shops abroad.
“We want to continue to focus on the luxury ice cream market and want to target upmarket holiday destinations in countries such as France, Germany, the US and Japan,” explains Kieran.
Kieran and Sean Murphy have come a long way since they first began their ice cream business. During that time, they have learned not only how to make great ice cream but also how to run a great business. They have worked hard, taken risks and been innovative.
More importantly, they have remained true to their goal of making the best quality ice cream in the world. And as I leave their shop in Dingle with a strawberry ice cream cone of in my hand, I can swear its definitely the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted.
Company Name: Murphy’s Ice Cream
Business: Manufacture and sale of ice cream
Set up: 2000
Founder(s): Brothers Sean and Kieran Murphy
Number of employees: 21
Location: Dingle, Co Kerry, with additional shops in Killarney and Dublin.
KIERAN AND SEAN’S ADVICE FOR OTHER BUSINESSES
1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and advice early
“Avoid doing the macho thing and soldiering on alone. People are usually willing to help – if you ask. People who have already been where you are have great insights and advice that can help you.”
2. Learning on the job can be expensive
“Don’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s cheaper to learn on the job rather than paying for professional advice. Mistakes in business can be expensive. Bringing in experts can save you money and time.”
3. Have a compelling vision and stick to it.
“Don’t get distracted from your core vision and values. These should act as your compass and govern your decision-making process. This can be tricky as your business grows.”