Fabulous show for food sales

The Food NI Food Pavilion at the RUAS show at Balmoral Park was another outstanding success for participating companies. Sam Butler talked to some of the artisan businesses after the show closed its doors to find out how they fared this year.

More than 60,000 people sampled the best of local food, juices and ciders in the Food NI Food Pavilion over the three days of the recent RUAS show at Balmoral Park. It was the largest ever showcase of local food and attracted what was probably the biggest support from the public.

Some 100 companies, mostly artisan enterprises but also including major businesses such as Dale Farm, Karro Foods/Cookstown, Irwin’s Bakery and Mash Direct, had pitches within the colourful Food Pavilion. But did the impressive turnout translate into good business for companies? Those companies I spoke to were united in saying that it was excellent and generated sales and good business leads.

Claire Kelly, who runs the award winning Passion Preserved business producing relishes and chutneys in Lisburn, for instance, says: “The Food Pavilion was fabulous. The branding on the outside for the Year of Food and Drink was stunning, and I was so proud to be there. Inside it was so bright and airy and very well laid out – a big contrast to the very dark Eikon Centre.

“The Food NI team was brilliant – they were all really helpful – the girls worked so hard. I found it a really good opportunity to publicise my brand and let people know where I had stockists. Indeed, I signed up new stockists as a result of the event and made worthwhile sales.”

Christo Swanepoel of City Cheese in Millisle agrees: “The pavilion was excellent. It gave me a marvellous opportunity to increase awareness of my cheeses and to talk to a great many customers about how they are made. It was the best way to reach a huge audience. I also sold cheese and met several interested retailers.” He also won the Best Overall Food Product award at the show for his ‘Young Culmore’ raw milk cheese.

Another award winner, Dromore’s Krazibaker Mark Douglas recognised as the Best Stand, also scored with the public and sold plenty of freshly griddled sodas and potato farls. “I was hectic. I could hardly keep up with the demand for my griddled breads. Business were certainly very good.”

Andrew Rooney, commercial director of Rooney Fish in Kilkeel, who was in the pavilion supporting the Sea Source presentation, agrees. “The show is probably the biggest and best opportunity for the local seafood industry to demonstrate the quality of our products and to encourage more people, especially children and teenagers, to taste what we have to offer.”

Another smaller business successful at Balmoral was Cavanagh Free Range Eggs of Newtownbutler. Director Eileen Hall says: “The atmosphere was great and as always Food NI did an excellent job with organising everything and making sure everyone was happy. The location of the pavilion was also very good with easy access to the facilities needed.

“There were some good enquiries especially from the Republic of Ireland, with Invest NI making introductions to various companies including exporters to the Middle East and further afield. We got a lot of positive feedback from those who tasted our eggs. So, I would say we got a lot out of it.”

First timer at Balmoral, Fiona Lydon, managing director of recent start up Seriously Juicy of Magheraveely in Fermanagh, a business specialising in cold-pressed raw vegetable and fruit juices, found the show “a great launchpad”. “It was the best opportunity we’ve had to sample our range of healthy juices. It increased awareness and led to sales. Overall, it was a great experience and tremendously encouraging for a new business.”

Jane Harnett of Harnett’s Oils in Waringstown, a pioneer of culinary oils such as hemp and rapeseed, and chairman of Ulster Artisans, the networking body set up by smaller producers, believes the event showcased the scale and innovation of what is a fast developing sector. “We’d be lost without the Food NI Food Pavilion because it’s a marvellous platform for smaller producers and helps create awareness of the vast range of top quality food here.” Jane used the show to launch the company’s new Duvillaun Irish Sea Salt.

Balmoral this year also saw glorious weather in which ice cream producers prospered. Glastry Farm’s Will Taylor, from Kircubbin, chose the show to launch a new coffee flavoured ice cream developed with Robert Bell of SD Bell’s in Belfast, another participant in the Food Pavilion. “We were extremely busy and sales were exceptional. It was a tremendously worthwhile,” he says.

Selling products when major processors were giving away samples free couldn’t have been easy for artisan companies. What it does is to condition the public to look to the Food Pavilion as somewhere to go for a ‘free feed”, according to one artisan business. I heard one visitor telling the kids to eat us as they could because it was free and he wasn’t buying them burgers!

But it’s clear from companies the positives far outweigh any negatives and that the show met their objectives by creating greater awareness and in business generated.