Changes in licensing laws a priority

Article written by Food NI CEO Michele Shirlow for Hospitality Review

A crucially important role for Food NI is our representation services provided to our 300 plus companies in Food and Drink facing issues such as restraint of trade.

A good example of this activity is our support for the Hospitality Ulster campaign to modernise our antiquated licensing laws over the past few years. We have a significant number of members in the drinks industry and especially in craft brewing, cider production, and distilling.

Indeed, the craft drink has become among the most vibrant and innovative sectors here. Significantly many of our members in the sector are also collaborating with other producers in other categories including bread, cheese, and beef in the search for unique products that could boost sales outside Northern Ireland.

The emergence of a dynamic craft brewing and distilling sector is in tune with the recommendations of the Agri-Food Strategy Board’s Going for Growth Strategic Action Plan to accelerate the expansion of the sector including the launch of at least two new potentially global brands to follow the lead of Old Bushmills, a prominent Food NI member, and Niche Drinks, the producer of Irish Cream Liqueurs and most recently The Quiet Man Irish whiskey, now available in 45 markets. In fact, most of Northern Ireland’s craft beer and cider firms are Food NI members. Several are already selling outside Northern Ireland.

The growth of these companies and their contribution to the economy, especially the rural communities in which most of them are based, is being inhibited by our restrictive licensing laws. A big problem for the companies is their inability to sell products to visitors to their premises – several have created visitors’ centres as part of the tourism drive and others are planned – and at food and drink exhibitions here.

For instance, the highly successful BBC Good Food Show, which was held in the Waterfront Conference Centre in October, was unable to sign up beer, cider and spirits producers because the existing legislation ruled out sales to the general public. Yet at similar shows in British venues, such as London and Birmingham, our companies took part and enjoyed good business in terms of sales to visitors. It just doesn’t make sense.

We lobbied ministers in the Executive before it collapsed. A bill was drafted for a measure of reform but has been stalled by the difficulties at Stormont. The chances of an early vote and implementation appear remote because it seems likely that there will be a lengthy period of negotiations to restore the Executive and Assembly.

Exciting plans for several tourist attractions may also have to be put on the back burner, a serious setback for two of our most promising industries – tourism and food and drink. We’re not giving up, nor is Hospitality Ulster. We’ll continue to back the body’s campaign for additional hours for the sale of alcohol, extra drinking up time, the relaxation of restrictive licensing hours over Easter, and a license to allow craft distillers/brewers to sell their products on-site and at events here.

Our smaller breweries and distillers need to be able to reach out to customers to increase awareness of their products and generate revenue because of their limited access to consumers outside the area in which they are located.

We’ve supported Hospitality Ulster in its campaign against our outdated laws. It’s an immensely important campaign which will benefit producers and enhance Northern Ireland’s appeal as a destination for tourists and short-break visitors.