Dr Coy’s healthy chocolate proves a winning recipe for Alison Stroh
First Published: The Sunday Times
Alison Stroh says she was always a healthy eater. The Dubliner, who is from Knocklyon, studied business and German at Trinity College before landing a job in Enterprise Ireland’s New York office.
After being headhunted by a client, she moved to Lake Constance in Germany and spent a number of years there, ultimately working for Hewlett-Packard. All the while, she honed her international marketing skills.
She was out of the country for 12 years before coming home in 2011, to a country in the throes of recession.
Returning home, Stroh encountered a health foods market that was much less highly evolved than in Germany. “I could see that while there were a lot of products that were maybe gluten-free or dairy-free, often sugar was still the No 1 ingredient.”
During her time in Germany, she had come across the work of
Dr Johannes Coy, a German medic who first began exploring the relationship between natural foods and health while researching new treatments for cancer at the German cancer research centre ( Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum) in Heidelberg.
Part of his work was on slow-release sugars that don’t give you a sugar high. “It’s the spike and the crash that our product avoids,” said Stroh. “It doesn’t leave you feeling lethargic and lacking energy and, because there’s no spike, it means you’re not producing insulin, which you can end up storing as fat.”
Stroh resolved to bring Coy’s findings out of the world of medical research and into confectionary. She spent six months researching the market and, having licensed Coy’s intellectual property and made him a shareholder, she worked with a Belgian chocolatier to develop a range of healthier chocolate snacks in 2014.
Dr Coy’s “nutritional chocolate bar” is high in fibre and vitamin E, and is gluten- and lactose-free.
She then started knocking on the doors of health food shops. When her older brother Aaron O’Donohue, then a currency trader in the IFSC, temporarily incapacitated himself in a cycling race, she roped him in, too.
“I gave him a load of spreadsheets to help me with pricing and projections.”
Obviously it all added up because he ended up trading the day job for a full-time role in the business.
Working with family can require a special recipe. “It can be difficult, but very early on we had a row and Aaron said I would not have spoken to a colleague like that, and he was right, so I’ve kept it in my head ever since.”
Together they began growing sales from independent retailers such as Avoca and the Happy Pear. “We did everything ourselves, from designing packaging to buying ingredients to sticking on labels.”
After a stint in Musgraves Food Academy, the product hit the shelves in SuperValu. Today the bars are also stocked in Tesco, Dunnes, Spar and Applegreen. Sales are on track to hit close to €1m this year, helped by Ryanair recently introducing Dr Coy’s to the menus of its 2,800 flights a day.
That in turn has led to growth in consumer orders from around Europe as air passengers who have discovered the product on a flight then order it online when they get back home.
Last year the company started exporting to the UK through online food retailer Ocado. Because you can’t do tastings online, much of their marketing involves discount coupons.
These work well because Stroh can choose to offer a tailored promotion to those purchasing healthy foods.
In stores, by far the biggest challenge for the business, which now employs five people, is merchandising.
“You could go into a supermarket one day and have everything looking great and go back the next to find that a competitor has put your product down to the bottom shelf. It’s a war for shelf space.”
If it is a war, it’s one she’s winning, helped by the product’s uniqueness. “It really is a healthy snack,” said Stroh. “For a chocolate product, there’s just nothing out there like it.”