The global appeal of Northern Ireland's local produce is not only in the taste, but in the experience
One of the perceptions that Northern Ireland's excellent food and drink companies have to fight against is that a strong industry is an optional extra, rather than a core driver of a growing and sustainable private sector. The 2016 Year of Food and Drink, showcasing our best-in-class producers, restaurateurs and agri-businesses, is an important antidote to that and Ulster Bank is pleased to provide its support in that effort.
The photogenic and consumer-friendly products that are rightly promoted as standard bearers in the industry make up a vital sub-sector in our manufacturing mix - though perhaps it's easier to think of Ballymena buses rather than brown bread rolls when we talk about local businesses 'making things'.
In my experience of dealing with hundreds of local businesses in the sector, we are so familiar with what we have on our doorstep that we are not sufficiently switched on to how it compares internationally, and the renown in which our innovation, traceability and quality is held.
Much like ordinary sea salt, which has (in its time) been a preservative, a type of salary, and an important form of tax revenue, 'kitchen table' familiarity with Northern Ireland food and drink produce is masking latent opportunities for international export and expansion.
However, from speaking to some of our largest local businesses at the Ulster Bank corporate lunch at the Balmoral Show, I got a strong sense of how smaller, scalable businesses might overcome that hesitation and take advantage of the meaningful help that is on offer.
When you think about the facts of the matter, there are solid reasons for optimism on the part of our local producers - Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK with a land-border with the eurozone, has product awareness and marketability in UK and European markets through large buyers, and local government policy is actively targeted at supporting export. Those with the right product who want to take the next step will find a wealth of support available, not least from our bank, to help manage the volatility that is associated with the industry.
Fundamentally, what makes food and drink different, exciting and capable of competing on more than just price is that it is based around an experience, not just buying something as an end in itself - you pick up a bag of Comber potatoes to throw together a week night family meal, savour an Armagh cider (pictured) in the sun or linger over a choice cut of Fermanagh beef for Sunday lunch with friends. As a bank, we recently invested in our brand based on that very insight - a relationship that focuses on experiences, rather than products, lasts longer and provides more mutual benefit. I would encourage Northern Ireland's food companies to recognise that they are pushing at an open door, and I look forward to talking to many more of them to find out the best way to sustainably support their ambitions.