All the ingredients for big year in catering
With a growing appreciation of the province's reputation for hospitality, this year's IFEX event showcases the best we have to offer
Northern Ireland's premier hospitality and catering event, IFEX 2012, will open its doors later this month.
Some of the country's most talented young chefs will also travel to compete over the three-day show, in competitions such as IFEX ChefSkills 2012 and La Parade des Chefs, which both have a long history of awarding some of Ireland's most celebrated chefs in the early stages of their careers.
The exhibition not only showcases an array of live food demonstrations and competitions, but also hosts an invaluable programme of seminars.
Taking place from April 24 to 26 , the biennial event is taking place this year against the backdrop of one of the most important years ever for the hospitality and catering industries, with the launch of the Titanic centenary, the World Police and Fire Games and many other big tourism draws taking place.
Supporting local producers across Ireland is the overall theme for the upcoming IFEX 2012 exhibition.
The Salon Culinaire will host the three-day ChefSkills 2012 competitions, and together with the team event, La Parade des Chefs, prospective, professional and student chefs from across Ireland will be using local ingredients and produce in each of the competition categories.
NI Good Food will also be hosting an NI Good Food Pavilion at this year's IFEX.
Andy Rea, chef and proprietor of the Mourne Seafood Bar, will be presenting one of the learnShop seminars at the event.
After the success of the Mourne Seafood Bar in Dundrum and its sister restaurant in Belfast, Mr Rea will be presenting on the latest craze of "pop up" restaurants. He said that the event is "an essential way to network".
"This is a mad year for Belfast and we in the industry need to sharpen up our game," he said.
"If you look at other countries, there is much more emphasis placed on tourism and hospitality and it needs to be our number one priority.
"We have a great opportunity to capitalise. We have great staff and people, we always talk about the craic and friendliness, we want to see people going away saying that Belfast blew them away.
"I travel around England and the bars and restaurants can all be very generic, we have wee bars and restaurants that are unique and amazing and we need to promote that."
Mr Rea recently opened the hugely successful pop-up restaurant Home.
"I travel about, I read about trends, the world is a changing place and we all need to look at different ways of doing business and look more at how the whole thing is structured and set up.
"We have a high end product which is reasonably priced. We can go to source and pay suppliers quicker, we did not spend £400,000 on a fitout - the more you spend, the more customers have to pay. It's like taking a stall at somewhere like the Continental Market, it is the same philosophy.
"The way the economy is in Europe, these issues are not going to go away so we need to tailor businesses to suit and make sure that we are ready to cope.
"Titanic is going to open everybody's eyes. People worried about the MTV European Music Awards and whether we could cope, but we pulled it off.
"Now we need to help people identify Belfast and Northern Ireland with great food and great experiences. We were never known for food but since the 1970s people like Paul Rankin travelled, brought back ideas, helped expand our horizons.
"We need to be pushing it and I don't know whether opening new venues is foolish or clever in this climate, but we ourselves have expanded in the middle of one of the worst recessions ever and that is why I am keen to share my experiences with others at IFEX."
Northern Ireland wholesale group Henderson Food Service will also be present at the event.
This year Henderson bought Independent Catering Supplies (ICS) and became a member of the Country Range buying group which will feature largely within the exhibition.
Kiera Campbell, head of sales for Henderson, said that getting people from all sections of the industry and from every corner of Ireland in one location is very important.
"The food service has been challenging to work on in recent times and the hospitality sector has been tough, but our own business has seen double-digit growth year on year.
"This year the global spotlight is on Northern Ireland and it has meant a lot of new opportunities. If we can't make a success story of this year then I would be very surprised.
"We are already gearing up for our customers being busier, we are anticipating more people holidaying here, we haven't been complacent and growth has come from doing things differently.
"We have had to export more into the UK, we have had to develop new product categories, we have invested in a £14m new facility, we can't just stay in sectors we always have done, we've had to continually evolve.
"Our customers do not want to put menu prices up so we have not put our own prices up.
"We are seeing a lot of big UK chains come in through peacetime but they have their own existing supply agreements and we are missing out in that.
"Business in the Titanic Quarter went to tender companies in Northern Ireland and we are among the suppliers for the main Titanic visitor centre which is great and a real boost to local companies."
While not a household name, Golden Glen Catering is a powerhouse company in the Northern Ireland fast food world.
The firm started trading 30 years ago selling and distributing to the fish frying trade in Belfast area. The company is one of the leading distributors to the fast food industry and supplies packaging, oils, sauces and and batters. William Patterson from the company said IFEX gives a good chance to meet associated firms in related businesses.
"IFEX gives an opportunity for us to show what we do and how we dovetail into the restaurant and catering trade," he said.
"Despite the downturn we are still seeing growth and in the last six months we took over a smaller company in Londonderry so we are now covering a much wider base, taking in the north west.
"I think our main priority is to do a better job, target and maximise what we distribute to customers.
"I think this year the 'feel-good' factor will help a lot of people in the trade and the good companies will get stronger. Tourism is the future for the economy in Northern Ireland and if we play this right, people will come back. Not everyone thinks fish and chips when they think Northern Ireland but we have a high standard product and the quality is at least equal to, if not better, than anything you can get in the rest of the UK.
"Believe it or not, it would also be among the healthier options in the fast food market and fish is a natural product, locally sourced, which is what we are all trying to promote."
One of Northern Ireland's big export success stories, Fivemiletown Creamery, will also be represented at the King's Hall.
The region's only speciality cheese producer, Fivemiletown will be sharing its stand with Gortaclare, Fivemiletown Creamery's distribution partner.
Producing international award-winning dairy products for over 100 years, Fivemiletown Creamery produces a range of soft cheeses, hand made in small batches by master cheese makers using milk from farmers' co-ops.
Kevin McManus, sales manager for Fivemiletown, said that despite having a comparatively narrow product range, the company is enjoying great success. "Cheese saw a 60% increase in sales since last year and sales of soft cheese increased fivefold," he said.
"As well as the events that are happening here at home we are also seeing the Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in the UK and as we export heavily into Britain these occasions bring an added advantage.
"It has been predicted that by 2015 35% of all grocery sales will be private label and we look at that as a good opportunity, the private label market has been a big focus for us. Cheese is good value for money for the customer, it is a nutritious product that people eat at home as a treat or at a restaurant.
"People are trying new things on the continent and are coming back and wanting the same thing. Despite the fact that we are only essentially selling one product, business is doing really well for us.
"We have successfully targeted the market with quality, sustainable products which are aimed at consumers who have more mature tastes."
The facts on IFEX
IFEX is one of Ireland's biggest hospitality, retail and catering events.
Over 4,500 visitors from the food, drink, retail and hospitality sectors are set to attend the event, including chefs, publicans, hoteliers, retailers, distributors, buyers, restaurateurs and catering managers.
IFEX is the biennial 'must-attend' show for the industry. This year, it will be held in the King's Hall, Belfast, from April 24 to 26.
Register for free fast-track entry at www.easyfairs.com/IFEX.
Opening hours: Tuesday, April 24, 10am - 6pm; Wednesday, April 25, 10am - 7pm; Thursday, April 26, 10am - 5pm.
IFEX exhibitors include:
Stephens Catering Equipment, Unilever, Hendersons Foodservice; Cummins Allison, Pallas Foods, Suki Tea, Kelsius, Fivemiletown Creamery, Lynas Foodservice, Timepoint, Crossgar Foodservice, and Bunzl Rafferty.
Learnshops line-up @ IFEX 2012. Free Learnshops seminars will run on:
Tuesday April 24: 11am Michael Deane of Deanes Restaurants; 1pm Jane McClenaghan, nutritional therapist, Vital Nutrition; 2pm Sharon Gilmore, Food Standards Agency; 3pm Andy Rea, chef proprietor, Mourne Seafood Bar; and 4pm Louise Murphy, editor of Hospitality Review NI & Ulster Grocer publications.
Wednesday April 25: 10.15am John McVeigh, commercial manager, Crossgar Foodservice; 11am Adrian McLaughlin, general manager, Merchant Hotel; 12 noon Brian O'Connor, production manager, Mintel Research; 3pm Simon Stenson, proprietor, Cherry Blossom Bakery; 4pm James McCullagh, runner-up in BBC's Junior Apprentice; and 5pm Emmett McCourt, chef and Irish Food project coordinator.
Thursday April 26: 11am Michael McQuillan, founder, the streat; 12 noon Dr Clare McCall, research analyst with Mintel Ireland; 2pm Rob Morrison, Red Leader Media and former head of news and current affairs at UTV; and 3pm Seamus McHugh, marketing manager at CBE.