Firm aims to take a bite out of ready meals business
A Co Down food company has launched a new venture in the growing high-quality convenience food market.
Willowbrook Foods in Killinchy, best known for making bagged lettuce, has established Willowbrook Fine Foods to make freshly cooked meal accompaniments.
John McCann, the director of Willowbrook Fine Foods, has more than 40 years' experience in the food business.
Willowbrook has so far been known for making fresh pre-packed vegetables, salads and potatoes, and the company employs around 200 people in Killinchy and Newtownards.
Mr McCann said: "Over the last number of years, we have seen an explosion of convenience eating right across the UK, but we believe that convenient doesn't have to mean unhealthy and tasteless.
"The Willowbrook Fine Foods range has been created by our highly innovative new product development team in our state-of-the-art Willowbrook Foods innovation centre, and it uses the very best of local produce to ensure consumers can still have a mouth-watering meal but spend less time in the kitchen."
The company revealed its new range was already attracting strong interest from retailers.
The line includes potato and leek gratin, honey and mustard parsnips and a special Christmas range promising Brussels sprouts "with a twist".
There are also another 12 product concepts currently under development, leaving Willowbrook Foods snapping at the heels of Mash Direct, which also makes accompaniments and ready meals in nearby Comber.
Mr McCann said Northern Ireland's agri-food industry benefited from natural advantages such as fertile land and mild weather.
"Over the last 40 years, we have successfully harnessed these natural advantages to become the largest producer of bagged lettuce in Ireland," he added.
"Our new company Willowbrook Fine Foods builds on our expertise in the agriculture and food sector to develop fresh and high-quality products that are available to retailers across the UK."
The launch of Willowbrook Fine Foods was attended by the Finance Minister Simon Hamilton, who said: "I am delighted to have the opportunity to launch this exciting new range of food.
"It is an excellent example of the innovation we have come to expect from our agri-food industry.
"The food and drink sector is extremely important to the Northern Ireland economy, and it thrives and grows year on year.
"Statistics recently published for the sector show a 6.7% increase in turnover to over £4.5bn last year.
"This development at Willowbrook Fine Foods will contribute to the further growth of the sector, which continues to drive the Northern Ireland economy forward.
"This is to be welcomed against the backdrop of a difficult economic climate."
The minister also praised Willowbrook for its "forward-thinking approach" to products. "They have clearly identified an opportunity to develop their product range and strengthen their place in the market, and they are to be congratulated for this," he said.