As it celebrates a Year of Food in 2016, Northern Ireland has been proving it has a lot going for it when it comes to wholesome and locally sourced food. At The London Produce Show and Conference, Produce Business UK catches up with some of those responsible for cementing Northern Ireland’s position on the map
“As part of Northern Ireland’s “Going for Growth” strategy, businesses are working hard towards the strategy’s 2020 targets,” says Michelle Charrington, the person responsible for food trade and business development in Great Britain at regional economic development agency Invest Northern Ireland.
“The province’s Year of Food and Drink has really helped to promote Northern Irish produce, with a promotional fortnight with Fortnum & Mason in London in May, including a visit from Prince Charles, as well as a visit to 10 Downing Street by a number of leading Northern Irish businesses, which included a sampling with David Cameron.
“We’re making good progress so far and despite the challenging retail environment in the UK, there is a lot of branded and own label activity going on with the multiples, with a strong performance from Mash Direct, and other larger suppliers from Northern Ireland.”
Mash Direct an evolving business that has grown out of very humble beginnings, continues to blaze a trail with its innovative products, such as gluten free bread-crumbed vegetables and a more recent launch.
“Healthy produce is a global trend and with health being such a key component to all we do, we have produced products such as our recent sweet potato croquettes, that not only cater to gluten-free [demand] but also vegetarians,” says Mash Direct director, Jack Hamilton.
“The London Produce Show is a great opportunity for us to emphasise the fact that Northern Irish fruit and vegetables do not have a trace of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in them.
“… Also to showcase our potatoes; the Irish potato is not just a stereotype – we are genuinely very good at them; the Comber potato in Northern Ireland [has] now [been] awarded Protected Geographical Indication (PGI).”
Mash Direct has a lot it can be proud of and Hamilton mentions that the company sells one product every second. “We have a growth strategy and look to increase our sales within London’s M25. This area is typical of people who can’t necessarily grow their own vegetables so they can instead enjoy some of our fresh and pre-packed vegetable products,” continues Hamilton.
The business also celebrates new retail wins at Iceland and Waitrose and further gains in Dubai and has been named as one the top 30 digital developers in the UK.
Staying with technological advances, the Northern Irish company, Datos has been offering software solutions to food businesses for over 25 years and is just launching an exciting new application for foodservice customers.
Season is an online shop selling products directly to chefs and other foodservice customers. “It can be used on a phone, tablet or desktop, helping to eradicate errors in the ordering process. It removes the need for an answering machine; to promote special offers and provide good customer relationship management,” says Datos’s Matthew Williams. “Customers are able to view their own pricing, invoices, statements and pick their delivery dates. The orders then go directly onto the owner’s system; ready to review without any re-keying required. As produce is delivered there is a system of delivery – Online Road – that allows van teams to collect an electronic proof of delivery, which, again, saves a lot of paperwork.”
Datos has made a demonstration available to potential customers at http://vger.datos.co.uk/seasononline/, with the username“Web-fv” and password “demo”.
Room for mushrooms
Additionally, Unimush, a leading distributor in mushrooms is expert in whole, sliced and stuffed mushrooms, yet also branching out into other vegetable varieties and products more recently.
In the last year, the business has had a significant £1.2 million invested in it, with this resource being put into expanding the company’s site and production capabilities including a new kitchen and a core team of new product developers.
“We’re working closely with a supply base that has strong product development capabilities. The idea is to enhance resources and getting ourselves out there to build on supply. For example, we have been supplying to Morrisons for the last five years – delivering year on year growth within the fresh product category and our hope is to build on that. Our new capabilities would also open us up to new categories, for example, prepared meals and meal accompaniments and in turn build on our current client base and new core client base within the multiple retail sector.
“The London Produce Show is a great time for us to refocus: to understand our category more fully and to understand our consumers and client base… We are also not just waiting for retailers to send out product developing briefs; we try to work at least eight months ahead so we can steer and influence those briefs.”
In terms innovations, Unimush has recently – and is still working on – a range of juice boxes for Asda.
“A lot of brands were starting to tweak their processes for production of juices i.e. lowering levels of naturally occurring sugars and replacing them with vegetables. We recognised this trend and developed a range for Asda. We have also started providing a vegetable twist on traditional meat dishes, such as our vegetable wellington (a take on the traditional beef wellington) that has proved really popular. It is changes like these that are really broadening our scope.
“Our innovation has always been strong. For instance, we recently worked on a product with Asda that is now unique to the supermarket. The product uses a stripy (red and yellow) pepper variant, produced by a small co-op in Holland. We eventually developed a red and yellow pepper stuffed with pancetta and spinach, which only launched in Asda stores in April this year.”
At the luxury end of the retail spectrum sits Glens of Antrim Potatoes that recently supplied its Lumper potatoes to Fortnum and Mason and launched a new line of sweet potato crisps at The London Produce Show, as well as brand new packaging for its potato lines.