Mighty Ducks – The Silver Hill Foods Story
It may be challenging but it will be so worth it! These are the words that Stuart Steele, son of Silver Hill Foods founding couple Lyla and Ronnie, would say if he could travel in time and meet his parents in 1962 when they were a young marriage that had just moved to Emyvale with the project of starting a farm.
They both had backgrounds in the poultry industry and while Lyla wanted to farm chickens, Ronnie wished to do the same with turkeys. While some newlyweds compromise on their new house’s decoration or the car they’ll drive, the Steeles found middle-ground with ducks. But not just any, they started with six top-quality birds and over time, those were developed into their own breed, the unique Silver Hill Duck.
Always succulent, tender, full of flavour and consistent in quality. In fact the quality of this duck is so revered in Asia that it is referred to the as the mother of all ducks.
And Stuart is not the only one that vouches for the virtues of the breed his family exports to Singapore, Hong Kong, Abu Dhabi and extensively through Europe. Globally renown chef and celebrity Heston Blumenthal traveled the world with his appropriately named show In Search of Perfection, only to find it in the Co. Monaghan farm.
Nowadays the company has come a long way. Silver Hill Foods employs 200 workers and has reported a 25% growth in the last few years. The Steeles had the vision to welcome on board their fist non-family CEO, Michael Briody and this shift in management culture has come in hand with a thirst for innovation, materialised on their newly opened “Centre of Excellence”, which as Stuart explains, “includes new offices, amenities and a wonderful new development kitchen.”
But the key to their successful evolution has been to stay true to their core values while embracing progress.
The way we manage things has changed with the times but our commitment to quality has always remained the same, we are only as good as the last duck we produce!
The “mother of all ducks” is served in London’s best Chinese restaurants and even though 90% of the birds are exported, Irish foodies are not left out and will be able to find it in several restaurants and food stores.
In Ireland we are in partnership with Pallas Foods for our food service business and we are proud to say we have lines in all the major retailers in Ireland. We also have a lovely farm shop in Emyvale.
And unlike the farmer from that fable who killed the golden goose out of greed, the team behind Silver Hill Foods is a big believer in sustainable practices. “I live on the farm, my family before me were farmers and I have a responsibility to make sure the industry is protected for the generations coming after me. We are members of Origin Green and have some very interesting ongoing projects in green energy production.”
Their care for the ducks goes beyond keeping them alive, the conditions in which the birds are raised are held to high ethical standards and their good health and well-being is top priority.
Our ducks live in specially designed climate controlled barns, they are free to roam and have constant access and supply of food and fresh water. Bird welfare is one of the highest priorities of our company, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it is the only way to achieve the quality of duck we produce.
Just as they have high regard for their animals and their land, the human side of Silver Hill Foods is also valued and esteemed. Workers stick around and find stable long-term jobs within the company, some of them even bring along siblings, cousins or other relatives, which contributes to keep the family-friendly spirit of the business.
Our longest serving member of staff is Patsy Whealan whom has been with us from the very start, over 50 years now!
Stuart proudly praises the constancy of their veteran staff, one of the things that according to him makes Silver Hill so special. He even points out that just like himself, some of the workers are second generation: “one example is our current Environmental Manager Denise, who is the daughter of our original Farm manager Denis who recently retired.”
For him, the biggest challenge is maintaining and improving the quality while continuing to grow, that is why he doesn’t allow success to go to his head and despite constant recognition, Silver Hill Foods is not resting on its laurels, not even on the tempting two gold stars that their confit duck leg got at the last Great Taste Awards.
We take none of the awards we’ve won for granted, be it Great Taste or Irish Quality Food awards, environment and green awards or our most recent Deloite Best Managed Company Award, we are proud and honoured to receive every single one.
In fact, after its first half century, the company has big plans for the half ahead. The aforementioned Centre of Excellence is actually the first stage of a very ambitious expansion plan that aims to double the company’s production and sales.
And as buildings are built, contracts are signed and business gets done, you can still feel the passion that sparked this venture when you listen to Stuart speaking about their ducks. He knows that they hate the rain, he points out that the males don’t quack and it’s the female ducks who make all the noise, and when asked which is the best way to enjoy Silver Hill Foods products, he simply says “with a table full of friends, of course, or at Steele family gatherings when dad cooked his signature Bejing style duck, it takes two days to prepare!”
For more information on Northern Ireland Year of Food & Drink 2016 visit www.discovernorthernireland.com.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.