By Emily Mullen
We chat to founder Conor Sweeny about Leamhain’s lockdown origins, ice cream processes and expansion plans
Conor Sweeny has kindly taken a break from making hundreds of slabs of non-dairy ice cream in his kitchen to pick up the phone to talk about Leamhain, his company.
Leamhain’s origin story is one that Forbes would froth over, it’s a gold plated “triumph over adversity” tale, and a bit cliched, something Sweeny himself attests to. Let go from his job as a chef in the famed vegetarian restaurant Vanilla Black, he was left alone in a London apartment while his partner was working round the clock in ICU. The situation as it has been for so many was grim, “we were just really not happy there and couldn’t afford rent,” he said.
The pair moved back home to Ireland and isolated in his grandparent’s old house in rural Kerry, when one day while Sweeny was eating vegan ice cream and watching Tiger King, when two things happened, he realised how shit his situation was and how shit the ice cream he was holding was. Sweeny pooled these problems into one and came out with an idea that fixed them both, starting his own non-dairy ice cream company.
Over the space of a year, Sweeny who has been plant-based for over six years, conducted exhaustive R&D and trialled over 250 litres of ice cream until he struck upon a recipe. Sweeny’s approach does seem to have been different from others on the market, he looked closely at the composition of dairy ice cream and then attempted to replicate it using vegan products. “I looked at melting profiles of different fats, how to mimic dairy fat and how it coats your tastebuds when it enters your mouth and you get that zing of different flavours. Looked at how different fats freeze, different melting profiles, whether it hits the front portion of your mouth or the back. I researched different emulsifiers and different types of sugars,” Sweeny said.
After experimenting with different types of plant-based milk like oat, almond, and coconut, Sweeny settled on an organic French-grown soy milk, which had a high protein and fat level. “Vegan ice creams tend to be either coconut-milk based, which I personally find with coconut that the flavour overpowers whatever else you have in there, or it’s almond-milk based which is an allergen,” which was a no-no for the brand, whose only allergen present in the five ice-cream lineup is soy.
Kerry’s Iveragh Peninsula didn’t just allow Sweeny the time and space to make endless batches of ice cream, the surroundings also helped with the company name, the river that flows through town of Killorglin and out to the sea, was called Laune (in Irish Leamhain). Even the logo and by extension the packaging has been informed by the area, the swirls are symbolic of the meandering river that flows down from the Killarney Lakes. Sweeny shows that unique sense of pride in an area that your immediate family are from but no longer live, to him the product is a “tribute to a community that I have grown up in and that took us in and were so nice to us at a time of need”.
Sweeny has since moved back to his native Dublin, and is about to move Leamhain’s production into a new commercial unit in Churchtown. With the help of two new staff members and a second machine, the company are aiming to triple their production (from 400-500 sandwiches to 1,500 per week). “We are trying to expand as fast as possible so we can get nationwide and get sold back in Kerry,” said Sweeny.
While a well worn one, the transition from chef to business owner is not something Sweeny would have done had it not been for the pandemic. The kitchen is still where he feels most comfortable, “I could be there 13 hours every day and it wouldn’t faze me at all that’s what I love doing, it’s the actual business end where it’s still a learning curve,” the learning curve specifically being admin, quantities, getting orders in, checking products and doing taxes, all the fun stuff.
Launching at the opening stages of Brexit was a pretty difficult obstacle for a newborn business to overcome, especially with a lot of the company’s suppliers and contacts being UK-based. The company had to cut a lot of English suppliers out and find new ones in the midst of a pandemic. This alongside a strong ethical conscious has meant Sweeny has attempted to use Irish suppliers not just for his product ingredients, but in his product’s packaging and design.
Speaking of the resurgence in buying Irish produce and consumers becoming support local stans, Sweeny agreed “there’s a real sense of pride around the country at the moment, especially in the culinary industry, everyone really wants to help each other out and they want to support local and they want to support Irish the best they can, and even if it is a little bit more expensive than going to Aldi and getting a tub of ice cream they would rather pay that extra euro to support not just myself, but the people I pay, the designers I pay, it’s like a domino effect going back into the Irish economy,” Sweeny added, “we are trying our best to keep everything as we can going through this economy, whether its the middleman or the actual ingredient, everything is as ethically sourced as possible.”
While Leamhain might be a deviation from his classically French-trained roots, it does seem to be in line with his career which has used the “improvement of vegan dishes and concepts” as its North Star. Sweeny’s pride in the product is palpable, but as well as that, you can tell that he actually enjoys it too. You can imagine him sitting in front of the telly watching reruns of Tiger King tucking into slabs of Leamhain, although in reality, he’s probably up until 3 in the morning slaving over vats of ice cream.
Leamhain is stocked in the Saucy Cow in Eatyard, and Shoe Lane Coffee spots. Follow Leamhain on Instagram for updates.
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