Firms plan to serve a taste of Northern Ireland to the Germans
The European superpower's food market is worth €236bn and an EU-funded scheme is helping local companies to a slice of the pie, writes Clare Weir
Curry sauce from Strabane and onion rings from Cookstown could be finding their way on to the plates of diners in Berlin and Munich as part of a new move into the multi-billion euro German food market.
While the cities of Frankfurt and Hamburg may have their very own meat snacks named after them, and while we may be more famous for spuds, it's chip shop favourites and cheekily-named whiskey which are on their way to the land of bread, ham and cheese.
Four Northern Ireland food companies – Elliott's Tradition of Portadown, Dragon Brand Foods from Strabane, Echlinville Distillery, and Rainbow Foods of Cookstown– have joined five other companies from the border regions of Ireland and Scotland as part of an EU-funded export programme, Access 6.
The programme has brought together the Northern Ireland Food & Drink Association (NIFDA), the Irish Exporter's Association and Scotland Food & Drink.
The scheme aims to increase export sales by £19m across 90 regional food and drink manufacturers over the next three years and hopes to create an additional 90 new jobs within the participating businesses, and up-skill a further 400 small and medium businesses across the regions.
Green Seed Germany, an international food marketing consultancy, will act as official mentor to the companies within the German cluster.
Over the next 18 months, Green Seed's team will work in close partnership with the firms to assess, advise and prepare them for the launch of their brands to Germany's diverse retail and food service sector which is worth around €236bn (£195bn) in sales alone.
The four Northern Ireland companies will embark on a range of audits, training modules and study tours, led by Green Seed, and will meet with retailers and food service providers, with the long term goal of securing product listings.
Additional clusters will also be established to target export markets in France, the Benelux, UK, Scandinavia and North America, offering further opportunities to other small and medium sized food and drink companies across Access 6's focus regions.
Speaking at the launch event – which coincided with a major food trade exhibition hosted by the British Embassy – Harry Hamilton, the Northern Ireland project manager for Access 6 said that each of the companies will be equipped with the knowledge, tools and confidence to capitalise on this expanding market.
"As Europe's largest market, with 82m consumers and growth of 3% in 2012 alone, the opportunities for exporting some of Northern Ireland's great food and drink products to Germany are exceptional," he said.
Nicole Gunther, senior consultant of Green Seed Germany, added: "The timing is good for this project as the German market has in recent years opened to new, innovative and international companies and products.
"In parallel, the food retail trade has shown an increase in gourmet food and drink categories with a polarisation resulting in growth at the premium end of the market and at the value-line lower end. In total, about a third of food and drink consumed in Germany is imported."
So, who are the companies hoping to make diners drop their bratwurst and sauerkraut?
One of the firms taking part in the programme is Rainbow Foods.
Based on the shores of Lough Neagh, near Cookstown, the core business is producing foods like battered onion rings, baked and roast potatoes and battered sausages.
Originally it focused on fish processing, which they exported to Switzerland, France and Germany, however after the collapse of the fishing industry in 1990s the company then looked at other ways of utilising the premises, and specifically the breading and battering line.
They then developed a new product for the food service market with their onion rings.
This product has since established a strong presence in the frozen food market and is supplied to major catering outlets in both Northern Ireland and the Republic.
A whole natural onion ring is used, as opposed to a reformed product used by many of the firm's competitors.
The company is planning to export its products into both the retail and food service markets in Germany and is looking at opportunities to broaden their offering by going back to their roots and potentially exporting fresh water fish from Lough Neagh.
Another company targeting the German market is family firm Elliott's Tradition, which started out as a butchery 30 years ago.
Elliott's Tradition now makes burgers and sausage products, predominantly for the Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland food service markets.
The firm also makes pies and sauces.
Jeffrey Elliott from the company said: "Germany is a key European market for meat products and we would be interested in seeing what it holds in terms of export opportunities.
"We joined the Access 6 Programme with the view of growing the business and looking at expanding onto the Continent," he added.
Earlier this year, Echlinville Distillery, based in Kircubbin, was granted the first licence to distil spirits in Northern Ireland in over 130 years.
The man behind the company, Shane Braniff from Ards, launched the successful Feckin Irish Whiskey brand in 2005, which has been a huge hit in the USA – not least because of its quirky name and labelling.
The company is now planning a range of drinks which can be sold almost immediately – without having to wait the three years for whiskey to mature – and to develop a premium and super premium malt whiskey.
Finally, another family-run firm with just three employees, Dragon Brand Foods, run by the McGuigan family of Strabane, is hoping that its curry and pepper sauces, as well as its gravy, will tickle the tastebuds of German gourmands.
Supporting companies to fulfill their cross-border export potential
ACCESS 6 is funded by the European Regional Development Fund under the INTERREG IVA programme.
he INTERREG IVA Programme, funded under the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) aims to address the economic and social problems which result from the existence of borders. It has two distinct priority measures to create co-operation for a more prosperous and sustainable cross-border region.
It is part of the Special EU Programmes Body, a north/south implementation body sponsored by the Department of Finance and Personnel in Northern Ireland and the Department of Finance in Ireland. It is responsible for managing two EU structural funds programmes, PEACE III and INTERREG IV, designed to enhance cross-border co-operation, promote reconciliation and create a peaceful society.
A sector which is set to take bite out of economy
JUST days ago, it was predicted that the agri-food sector is set to be one of the top performing industries in 2014.
Danske Bank said that the sector will grow by about 3.8% this year, as global export opportunities swell on the back of an increasing world population as well as an expanding middle class population. Last year the Agri-food Strategy Board published Going for Growth: Investing in Success, which includes plans to create 15,000 new jobs, a 15% increase on the 100,000 which work in it currently, by 2020.
In addition, it believes a 60% growth in sales to £7bn is possible including 75% growth in sales outside Northern Ireland to £4.5bn, as well as the formation of a single marketing organisation to drive sales abroad faster; and a much sharper focus and co-ordination of development and delivery of skills and support for innovation.
The programmes operate within a clearly defined area including Northern Ireland, the Border Region of Ireland and Western Scotland.