The king of Irish crisps who achieved his theme park dream against all odds – The Irish Times
Born August 28, 1951
Deceased: June 8, 2022
Ray Coyle, potato farmer turned snack food maker and founder of Tayto Park, has died aged 70. chips.
In 2010, Coyle transformed 22 hectares of farmland near Ashbourne into an American-style theme park with rides, a zoo, adventure playgrounds, shops and restaurants. Tayto Park has quickly become one of Ireland’s top tourist attractions. In 2011, he won the industry category at the EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards.
Renowned for his self-confidence and persistence in seeing projects through to completion, Coyle also had a keen sense of marketing. He was behind some of Ireland’s most innovative promotions, such as running Mr Tayto as a fake candidate in the 2007 general election and publishing a bestselling biography of the crisp mascot. The use of women in suggestive poses to promote its Hunky Dory crisps, however, breached advertising standards, as did claiming to be the main sponsor of Irish rugby when the brand was sponsor of Navan RFC at the time. After that, Coyle used the crusty brand to promote four Irish sportswomen – boxer Katie Taylor, athlete Derval O’Rourke, sailor Annalize Murphy and her daughter, Natalya Coyle, a pentathlete – at the 2012 London Olympics.
Coyle, one of four children, grew up on a tillage and cattle farm in Curragha, County Meath. The family also ran the local pub. As a young man, he began growing and selling his own potatoes and vegetables on six hectares of land given to him by his father. While still in his mid-20s, he had a turnover of £1million a year. As his profits increased, he expanded his farm to over 300 hectares.
However, in the early 1980s, when he lost his potato supply contract to Tayto, he fell heavily into debt, owing £1.2 million to the bank. Unable to repay the loans – even selling his whole farm – he decided to raffle over 100 hectares and, by selling 4,000 tickets at £300 a ticket, he raised enough money to clear his debts.
Aware that Tayto held around 90% of the Irish crisps market at the time, Coyle saw an opportunity to start a snack manufacturing business. Thus, in 1982, he created Largo Foods and bought the Perri crisp brand a year later. In 1996 he bought the Sam Spudz brand and in a bid to enter the UK market he launched the now famous Hunky Dorys brand. It won the Irish Marketing of the Year award the same year.
In 2005 Cantrell & Cochrane closed its Tayto factory in Coolock, Dublin, and outsourced production to Largo Foods. The following year, when C&C put Tayto up for sale, a bidding war ensued between East Coast Bakehouse’s Michael Carey and Coyle. Coyle won, paying €62 million for the Tayto and King crisp brands.
Carey, former chairman of An Bord Bia – the Irish Food Board – and longtime friend of Ray Coyle, remembers the time well. “He phoned me two weeks later and said ‘you cost me 5 million euros’. I apologized and he invited me and my wife, Alison Cowzer, to dinner at him,” says Carey, who describes Coyle as “a legend in the food industry, an inspiring entrepreneur, and the most entertaining person to spend time with.”
In the late 2000s, Coyle – which had factories in the Czech Republic, Moldova and Libya at different times – entered into a financial partnership with German snack company Intersnack that would allow the company to invest in the automation to improve efficiency and maintain competitiveness. In 2015 he sold his remaining shares in Largo Foods to Intersnack and stepped down as Chairman of Largo in 2016. In 2019 he became a financial partner of the famous Irish brand Green Isle.
Coyle was a regular attendee at international trade shows and an enthusiastic supporter of start-ups, offering advice and investment to new food businesses. Not all of his ventures were successful, but each time he carried the experience of his failures into his next project.
Cowzer, co-founder with Carey of East Coast Bakehouse, a Drogheda-based cookie maker, says Coyle had “an unwavering belief in an idea and an extraordinary will to see it however…He also had the will to support and investing in small businesses and a deep belief that business should be exciting.He brought stardust, craic and a sense of fun to every business he was involved in.
Brian Lee, founder and owner of healthy food chain Chopped, described Coyle as a close entrepreneur friend. “He was a legend in his own right and a pioneer in creating multiple food brands. He was warm and generous and always had time for people,” Lee said.
Coyle’s plans to build a theme park in a field in Co Meath with the best roller coaster in Europe were initially met with skepticism by business colleagues and friends. But he was inspired by how Milton Hershey, owner of the world’s first chocolate factory, had built Hershey Park in Pennsylvania, initially as a place of relaxation for his employees and their families, then as a major tourist attraction. Coyle pursued his dream, and even when the bank withdrew support for more than half of the project, Coyle remained faithful and Tayto Park continued to turn a profit in its first year.
In 2015, the Cu Chulainn roller coaster – the largest wooden roller coaster in Europe – was added at a cost of 12 million euros after being given the green light by An Bord Pleanála after a long planning battle two years. In 2017, Ireland’s largest river ride, the Viking Voyage, became another addition to the park, whose sponsorship deal with the Tayto brand ends at the end of the year.
The Coyle family continue to run Tayto Park as a family business, with Ray and his wife Rosamund’s son Charles working as general manager. Their daughter Natalya is a professional athlete who represented Ireland in the modern pentathlon at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
Entrepreneur Seán Gallagher, who featured Coyle in his book Secrets to Success: Inspiring Stories from Leading Entrepreneurs (Mercier Press, 2018), says resilience and curiosity were his strongest characteristics. “He was undeterred by challenges and had a natural innate talent around food and branding. He was also a great role model and sounding board for people starting food businesses,” said Gallagher said.
Raymond (Ray) Coyle is survived by his wife, Rosamund; his son Charles; and his daughter, Natalya; son-in-law Arthur; brother John; sisters Jennifer and Charlotte; and nieces and nephews.