When the call came to say Karen O’Neill’s cans were exploding in a storeroom, it was one of those moments that seemed to tip her life into theatrical farce. 

After three years of setbacks, it was supposed to be the week that an even keel was reached, a sojourn in the swell caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

O’Neill was about to close a funding round led by Enterprise Ireland and should have been planning a glass of champagne to celebrate, but instead, she was recalling all of her products from retailers around the country. Broke and exhausted, it seemed if there was ever a moment to quit this was it.


Six years ago, O’Neill left her job as head of cider for Heineken International, walking out like Jerry Maguire, as she describes it, on a point of principle, not liking how people around her were being treated. 

After a brief stint as the head of marketing for PepsiCo Ireland, she started her own company, Beekon Batches, and began manufacturing at a small scale a fermented honey alcohol drink that she calls a “honey refresher”. 

Coming in at 5 per cent alcohol content, gluten-free, and without additives or sulphites, it’s pitched at a health-conscious consumer.

“I could see that consumers were fundamentally starting to drink and behave differently,” O’ Neill told The Currency in this week’s podcast. 

“And alcohol was one of the laggards in that space. Alcohol is not good for you, it’s never going to be good for you but in moderation, it has a place in our world. 

“But I saw what mass-manufactured drinks are, what they contain and that is not what I would choose to drink. 

“So I decided I was going to go create something different and my promise to consumers is that Beekon will never contain something I’m not willing to drink.”

Encountering difficulty after difficulty in finding a manufacturer and distributor, O’Neill finally got a break and she goes into detail on the podcast about striking deals in the male-dominated world through an unconventional bartering system. 

Beekon launched four months before the Covid-19 pandemic hit Ireland. The resulting public health restrictions effectively closed down the bars and restaurants O’Neill had been supplying, so she switched to stocking retailers.

“Covid-19 forced me into retail much quicker than I would have and retail is much more rewarding, there’s a three-to-one return on retail. It is the hunting ground for consumers that are inquisitive,” she said.

With the market lining up and a growing consumer base, Beekon was in a good spot and it had a solid deal with Tesco lined up when the cans started to explode. 

“I don’t give up ever, but as far as I was concerned, there was no way back from this. We’d missed the whole summer. And I was out of money at that point. I had €8.50 in the bank account,” she said.

Triage mode

“We got our first international order from Bahrain of all places.”

With the news of the recall and the falling through of the Tesco deal, O’Neill began calling her investors. To her utter bemusement, they stuck by her.

“They were absolutely brilliant. They said: ‘This is an operational issue, which we will disclose. But it’s not unsurmountable, it doesn’t define you, it doesn’t define the business. It doesn’t, in any way erase what you’ve created, and you will get it resolved.’ And that vote of confidence was a bit was a pivotal point,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill also saw the product recall as a lightening moment, unlikely to strike twice, and as it happened in Ireland it was manageable, a moment to de-risk at an early stage.

She has now raised €320,000 in total from Enterprise Ireland and others, after bootstrapping the business to the tune of €200,000 in the early years. 

For now, Beekon is in triage mode and is rebuilding its Irish base, but it is also gearing up to make its way into other markets and it is finding particular interest in mainland Europe, the Middle East and the US. 

“We got our first international order from Bahrain of all places. It came as a result of a conversation that I had with a couple of distinguished gentlemen and it turns out that they were the Bahraini and they were high profile business people who went back and made it happen,” O’Neill said.

But the US is the company’s main focus, and it is this expansion that the investment round is funding. 

Betting on California

“Beekon is like summer in a bottle, but if you’re relying on a summer in a bottle experience in Ireland, well then the business potential is going to be somewhat limited,” O’Neill said. “Albeit we’ve done very well, despite that. So we’re jockeying for a quarter two launch in the US next year.”

O’Neil’s approach is to target specific states in the US – Texas and California – at first and to nurture those. She is now close to signing a deal, engineered by Bord Bia, with Sprout Farmers Market, a US supermarket chain that has more than 400 outlets across North America.

“This isn’t about conquering, this is about succeeding in the right markets at the right pace. California is the fifth biggest economy in the world today. So if you win California, it’s replicable,” she said.

More details on O’Neill’s marketing strategies, brand building and US play are discussed in the full podcast interview.


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