John Paul O’Connor tells Fiona O’Brien about how the recession forced him out of the construction industry and into making prizewinning Irish sausages and black and white puddings.
Officially the producer of the best sausages in Ireland and Britain, Sasta Sausages’ John Paul O’- Connor’s background is far from your average ‘foodie’.
The former construction worker has always had a keen interest in food but it was only when the industry collapsed following the Celtic Tiger years that the Kerry man decided to start his own food business.
“I’d always been into cooking and enjoyed it, and I really felt like I had a product that could do well,” he says.
And his produce, simply just sausages and black and white pudding, have exceeded just ‘doing well’. In 2014 his white pudding won a prestigious Fins Goustiers award in Normandy before his sausages won the European championships again, acclaimed for having the best sausages in Ireland and Britain.
“It was such an honour. They are the most prestigious awards for artisan butchers and pork food producers.”
It all started from an early age for John Paul, who runs the business with his wife Margaret. “My mother died when we were young and my grandmother brought us up from then. I learnt a lot from her, she used to kill pigs herself for food and use a whole range of herbs in her cooking. So it is a recipe that got passed down for generations. And hopefully more to come.”
When John Paul’s business went bust he learnt that his workers would be entitled to state support, but he could not seek any help as was self-employed.
“It was a really tough time, but I really believed that we could make it a success. I didn’t want to claim from the State but I was given no help whatsoever.
“Then when we approached the banks for business loans they’re outlook was ‘what does a builder know about the food industry’. It was tough.
“We lost our family home, the banks took it from us. My wife was working three jobs and I was selling sausages at the side of the road.
“They say that Ireland is a great place to start up small business but there was no real help or grants available. We couldn’t even secure planning permission for a premises. “But we stayed positive and really believed in ourselves and it drove us on to succeed.”
The journey started when John Paul, using his background in construction managed to renovate an old fishery and began to hone the recipe.
“That probably took all of about six months, and then I set off to my first food fair with 25 kilos of product to taste test and we ran out of stock. “It kept happening so we knew we were onto a winner.”
Now, Sasta products are available in Kerry Airport, Tralee’s Farmers’ Market, and selected Tesco stores. John Paul has just done a deal for them to get them on to the shelves of 30 Dublin supermarkets. “We did it all ourselves and now have five staff. Now that I am not as busy on the production side of things I can put more attention and time into marketing and distributing.
“We supply a lot of the big hotels, which is great for business, too, as visitors ask the kitchen staff where the food is from, but obviously it means we have a lot of big clients who couldn’t be let down either. “But now I am speaking to buyers and distributors to see what I can do.
“It is my dream to get them over to the UK as so many of the people who sample our products are either Irish living over there or people from the North who are fond of traditional black and white pudding.
“They tell us they would love to be able to buy it at home because they find what is available now does not have the same taste or quality as the products they grew up with. What delights me is when children taste our foods. They turn around and say ‘Mammy, we want this for dinner or breakfast rather than the sausages and pudding we already have’.
“It’s brilliant to hear, as kids never really lie about what their tastes are.” John Paul brims with positivity in his heavy Kerry drawl, the name of the company means ‘happy’ in Irish.
“My eldest daughter came up with the name. And it makes sense, it means happy, and positive and content in Irish and that is what we are. We are a real feel good story.”
He has always been affected by emigration throughout his life and is now hoping that his business will mean his family, and others, won’t have to go through the same thing. At the age of 11 John Paul was sent to live with an Aunt in Harlesden, London for a few years.
“I went to Cardinal Hinsley school, which was a real culture shock for me. I had never played soccer in my life but all of a sudden people were shouting ‘Oh for eff ’s sake, the paddy is offside again’. I didn’t even know what offside was, but thankfully there was an Irish deputy head teacher who got me into boxing and that helped me a bit.
“I do have fond memories of Harlesden at that time however, there was a real Irish community over there. I remember when I was first coming from Victoria and I thought to myself would I ever again see a field or a hill, but everyone gathered together then.”
He eventually returned to Ireland, but after the recession in the 80s hit he came back to London again to seek work like so many before him. He met his wife when back on holidays in Kerry, and she soon moved over to him in London where they wed.
“We had children and decided to move back to Ireland, but there wasn’t enough work there, so I had to return to London on my own and travel back every few weeks to see my family.
“It was a hard time for everyone, and similar to what many families are going through now. That’s what annoys me about politicians speaking about emigration and jobs. They don’t see the real human aspect.
“When Enda Kenny was over at Ruislip trying to influence the Irish vote in England, I just thought to myself, how many of those people have made a life over there not through choice but out of necessity. When did he or his other politicians help them?”
In the Celtic Tiger years the construction industry picked up enough to allow John Paul to return to Kerry where he had a small business employing about 25 workers. But the recession hit and he watched, with a heavy heart, many of his former employees move away from their families once more.
“It is very hard. When we first got Sasta up and running I was determined to stop that happening, and to have something to pass on to my children and grandchildren so they would never have to experience the hardship of emigration again.
“A local woman, who had recently lost her husband, came to me a year or so in and told me that her daughter was having to move to London for work.
“She wanted to know if there was any work we could give her to stop her from leaving her all alone. So she was our first employee, part-time back then, and is still with us now full time.
“If I was able to make the premises bigger I would love to be able to create another 20 or so jobs at the moment to stop this cycle of emigration. It is a great honour and a big deal for us,” he says. “It is a remarkable achievement, not least because I am 63 and only started doing this five years ago.”