Wilson’s ‘mighty spuds’ are mighty convenient

Comber Early Potatoes have recently gone on sale in local shops on time for the annual festival in the Co. Down town to celebrate one of Northern Ireland’s three EU Protected Geographic Indicator accredited food products. Sam Butler talked to Lewis Cunningham, managing director of Wilson’s Country of Craigavon, one of Ireland’s leading potato packers.

Leading Irish potato processor and packer Wilson’s Country has launched a unique four-strong range of convenience products for time pressed consumers seeking new taste experiences. The innovative range, launched under the Northern Ireland company’s established ‘You Say Potato’ brand, represents a significant diversification into convenience meals, among the most dynamic of food categories.

The company is a significant supplier of Comber Early potatoes and other locally sourced varieties to retailers across Northern Ireland.

Marketing initiatives implemented by Wilson’s Country are steadily changing the way consumers think of and buy the humble potato, our most traditional food. It’s an initiative, according to Lewis Cunningham, managing director of Wilson’s Country, that’s been shaped to offer shoppers, especially younger consumers, a tasty and nutritious alternative to pasta and rice. Greater success in the marketplace also benefits the network of farmers here supplying the company.

“Our objective is to continue with our strategy of sustainable growth through further development of existing markets and exploiting new opportunities for different products in what is a very challenging business environment,” he says. We are continually exploring opportunities to increase sales by attracting younger consumers in particular. They tend to be focused on convenience.

“Investment in new products, infrastructure and marketing initiatives has continued in 2015 and has led to the launch of the new prepared products we hope will result in further growth particularly in Great Britain. We believe the new range gives us unique products for this and other markets,” he adds.

“The new range is a response by us to the growing demand for convenience foods including meal accompaniments. What we have done is to use our longstanding expertise in potato processing to create four new dishes – two for consumers still preferring to use their oven and two for those seeking a quicker microwaveable option that doesn’t compromise on taste.

“We’ve developed flavours that should appeal to many consumers,” he explains. The company has also used focus groups to provide useful feedback. A steam cooking system has been introduced by us to retain the taste and texture of the potatoes.

The new range offers potatoes packs in a stand up pouch with a sturdy handle for convenience. The smaller packs, 400g and 650g, are easier to stand up in a fridge or cupboard and are geared for a meal for two people.

Based at Craigavon in county Armagh, the company has a successful track record in providing potato packs to foodservice and major retailers including Tesco, Asda, The Co-Op and Dunnes Stores. It is one of Northern Ireland’s best known food brands and has a longstanding commitment to new product development for key customers.

The new range is the latest development in the company’s drive to boost potato sales in Northern Ireland and also to expand its share of the market in the Republic of Ireland and especially to grow sales in Great Britain and further afield.

The prospects look good because market research has found that the new products are unique in both Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.

The new convenience dishes use only Irish potatoes from the company’s network of 25 farmers in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and are steam cooked in the Armagh plant. Before processing and packaging. The range comprises two oven products and two that can be microwaved. They are:

Diced potatoes in a 360g foil tray which can be oven cooked in 15 minutes and is available in a garlic and herb flavour; and

Spicy wedges also in a 360g foil tray for cooking in an oven for 15 minutes. The products are steamed before processing.

The microwave products are designed to be cooked in around three and a half minutes and are supplied in 360g pouches. The two microwave pouches are available in garlic and herb and tomato and basil flavours.

The retail price of all four new products is £1.89. They have a shelf-life of six days. All four new products are gluten free and ideal for vegans. They are also free from additives.

Lewis Cunningham’s command of market data on potato sales, consumer requirements and developing dietary trends throughout Ireland is impressive. His finger is well and truly on the pulse of the market for what used to be a staple product in the daily diet of families throughout the island.

This comprehensive market knowledge has led to Wilson’s Country’s standing with retailers and consumers as among the most innovative food businesses in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. The business is headed by founder and chairman Angus Wilson.

Established in 1987, Wilson’s Country moved into new purpose-built premises in Craigavon in 2005, where it now employs around 80 people.