Food Industry Innovates And Adapts To Meet The Changing Needs Of Local People

Even in tough times like these there is good news and congratulations must go to Alex Greene, of Michael Deane’s EIPIC Michelin star restaurant in Belfast, on winning the Northern Ireland heat of the popular Great British Menu competition earlier this month.

Alex developed some highly original dishes for the judges and now goes into the final.  Alex and the other talented Northern Ireland born competitors; Paul Cunningham of Brunel’s in Newcastle; Shauna Froydenlund, originally from Londonderry but now at Marcus Wareing’s flagship in London; and Leigh Ferguson of Moira-based Clenaghan’s; really showcased the best local cuisine and products such as Peter Hannan’s steak, Abernethy Butter and Ballylisk of Armagh Triple Rose cheese. Congratulations to them all for showcasing the talent of our home grown chefs and producers.

The dishes created show just what we’ve been missing since the prudent decision was taken to lock virtually everything down to fight Covid-19. While there was really no sensible alternative, the decision continues to damage our foodservice sector which had become one of the driving forces in our once vibrant tourism industry.

The hospitality sector was the first to have been directly affected by the coronavirus as restaurants and bars were required to pull the shutters down. This has also meant problems for the food and drink producers and retailers who sell to them. And many of our most successful food and drink firms were focused primarily on supplying hospitality establishments.

The suggestion that many of our restaurants, cafes and pubs may not reopen are worrying. Food NI supports the calls for urgent funding from the Executive to ensure the survival of this most important magnet for visitors. Remember that visitors are attracted to a holiday destination by the reputation of its food and drink and restaurants. They also, on average, spend a third of their holiday budget on food and drink. The rates holiday must be extended for the current three months toat least a year.

It will be some time, however, before the tourism industry returns to its pre-virus position. While there may be some movement towards the end of this year, it will probably be next year before visitors return in significant numbers. The industry will depend on support from local people keen to eat out again after months cooking at home.

The new normalcy post virus may see home cooking remaining popular. This, of course, provides a greater opportunity for local suppliers and may well also see continuing demand from consumers for dishes delivered by many of our leading restaurants or provided on a call and collect basis. Many of these are listed on our website

The deadly virus has also changed the way that all food and drink companies are having to work, as consumer behaviour changes. We’ve also seen many artisan and smaller food producers switching to offer call and collect and delivery options. Such initiatives have developed as smaller companies sought to ensure cash flow. While delivery services can be a tough way to make money, consumers may continue to demand the option using social media as well as phone ordering. These companies are also listed on our website.

The shocking crisis has also seen many food and drink producers, which were dependent on foodservice, moving to develop retail business particularly in the short-term. This may mean they will seek to reduce dependence on one sales channel for the medium and long terms.

And those food retailers who are able to stay open have had to change their business practices, both in terms of their staff and customers. Many businesses are encouraging as many staff as possible to work from home, and government guidelines mean that they need to add other measures such as socially distant shopping, the supply of hand sanitiser for customers, the wiping down of trolleys and baskets, and the use of contactless payments. These will continue as the outbreak slowly disappears….and this may take many more months of uncertainty. Excellent hygiene standards will continue to demanded in the months and years ahead.

It is inevitable that flexible and versatile businesses able to change quickly the way that they do business, who they do business with, what they do, and how they engage and communicate with their customers will be the ones that will come out of this stronger than ever. In the meantime, I encourage you to support local companies offering home delivery, call and collect and take away services. It all helpsthem and the wider economy