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In-flight food deal takes off for Co Down family-run salad firm

By John Mulgrew

A Co Down company has landed a major deal to supply one of the world's largest in-flight meal businesses. Willowbrook Foods, based in Killinchy, secured the contract to produce and supply a range of salads to Alpha Catering.

The firm, based on a family farm and headed by John McCann, will sell around 70 'deli-style' salads to the London-based operation.

Alpha has bases at 60 airports and provides more than 300,000 in-flight meals daily to 130 airlines.

The new salads were developed by the team at Willowbrook's innovation centre alongside help from Alpha chefs.

Mr McCann said: "Winning this significant business from such a prestigious and quality-focused customer as Alpha Catering is a marvellous boost for us and especially for the expert team in our innovation centre.

"It's also a tremendous endorsement of the skills and experience of the centre and our overall ability to respond quickly and in a flexible and effective way to the requirements of such an important customer.

"Our business is based on developing and producing highly innovative solutions for customers. The establishment of the innovation centre in 2012 demonstrated our dedication to new product development for the needs of customers.

"We were tasked by Alpha in July to come up with 68 authentic deli salads for airline meals that offered outstanding taste. We pulled out all the stops and developed a close relationship with Alpha's chefs, which enabled us to deliver innovative sales by August and subsequently to secure the hugely important business."

The new range includes a Thai quinoa salad, lemon olive pasta and apricot tabbouleh.

Alpha has distribution facilities in the UK, Australia, Italy, Singapore, South Africa and the US.

Willowbrook was set up in 1977 on a farm overlooking Strangford Lough.

It's the largest processor of lettuce bags and salads in Northern Ireland and the Republic and has a workforce of around 250.

Last year it was named as the top supplier to the Henderson Group. The award for the Killinchy farm processor was announced at the Henderson Wholesale Local Supplier awards at the Balmoral Show.

It supplies salad bags and bowls along with freshly prepared vegetables and cooked meal accompaniments to the group, which runs Spar and Eurospar shops.

The firm also specialises in growing beansprouts amid increasing demand for the Asian crop. And Willowbrook produces prepared vegetables, mash and cooked products including pasta, rice and grains.

In 2014 the company launched offshoot Willowbrook Fine Foods to make freshly cooked meal accompaniments and now produces around 400 products.

The Willowbrook label can be found throughout the UK and Ireland in supermarkets.

Founder Mr McCann was recently awarded an MBE in the e Queen's New Year Honours list.

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