We may be in the middle of an economic downturn, but people still have to eat. But it’s what they’re eating that’s important to Northern Ireland businesses.
Food and drink is one of Northern Ireland’s best-performing sectors in these turbulent times, and many food firms are forecasting a bumper Christmas.
Premium, ethically-reared and quality homemade products are leading the field, leaving bargain bin ready-meals and takeaway pizzas trailing in their wake.
One of the firms leading the charge is Fivemiletown Creamery, the only independent specialist cheesemaker in Northern Ireland.
The co-operative is 113 years old, and formed in 1898 with the amalgamation of the Fivemiletown and Brookeborough co-ops.
But while it has its roots in the 19th century, Fivemiletown is breaking new ground in the cheese industry.
The company started off, like many co-ops in pre-war days, as a collection point for milk, moving into butter manufacture in 1947. After the war the company went into bottling milk.
In 1996 this interest was sold to Bangor Dairies and cheesemaking began in the late 1960s, continuing into the present day on the site of an old Methodist church.
Cheese is now the only product made, although byproducts such as cream are sold to industrial producers.
Fivemiletown Creamery recently won a £70,000 contract from Sainsbury’s for oak-smoked brie aimed at Christmas shoppers at its stores throughout the UK.
It follows in the footsteps of a special Irish-styled Brie, An Brie Beog, that Fivemiletown Creamery created for Sainsbury’s last Christmas.
Fivemiletown Creamery has also recently signed an agreement with West Horsley Diary at Woking in Surrey for the distribution of its cheeses to the food service sector in London.
The company has three main areas of business, according to managing director Mervyn McCaughey: “Hard cheese like cheddar, red Leicester and double Gloucester, soft cheese like Brie and continental style cheeses and cream cheese like Philadelphia”.
The cream cheese business was bought from Glenshesk Dairies in Ballycastle in 1998, while in 2007 Fivemiletown took on the business of Ryedale Farm in Co Cavan, a third generation family business which dated from the 1920s.
“We produce our own brand cheese as well as supplying the supermarkets with their own brand cheese and are currently selling into Sainsbury’s, Asda, Tesco, Spar, Cost Cutter and Supervalu in Northern Ireland.
“We also supply 2,000 independent cheese shops and delis in Great Britain through our wholesalers.”
Mr McCaughey said that, recession or no recession, customers are still prepared to pay for quality.
“Our top product would be Ballyoak, which is is a smoked brie. We work with the owners of local oak woods in the Forest of Caledon who sustainably forage wood chips to make the product.
“This cheese has won us 12 awards so far. We gained our first award in 1919 and have averaged 25 awards a year at international and UK level since then.
“When you consider that some of our gold medal-winning cheese has been in competition with 3000 other cheeses from around the world, it is some achievement.”
He said that adding value to the basic product is the key factor to success. “We will not get rich selling big ugly blocks of cheddar,” he said.
“What we value is the quality and purity of the milk we use and the skill and passion of our cheesemakers. Our longest-serving staff member has been here for 39 years and most cheesemakers have been here for 15.
“We generate around £10m in wages and salaries locally, plus what we pay farmers for milk.
“We have expanded from 39 staff to 82 in the last six years, which is no mean feat for a small company west of the Bann. We are trading on our provenance and heritage and quality and by going into markets we were not in before, getting |premium for those products.”
It’s unusual to hear, but Mr McCaughey proclaims: “We haven't seen any signs of the recession in our business. We’re always adding new customers, new consumers.
“People are going to supermarkets for their food, not going out as much, experimenting and purchasing luxury products. And there are old friends too — once or twice a week I get emails and letters from around the world, either saying that they have tried our cheese after reading about it, or people like the man who moved from Northern Ireland to New York many years ago, saw our cheese in a deli and couldn’t believe it, it brought back so many memories.”
And he says that supermarkets are good for the food business.
“Supermarkets give us scale, the economy of scale, which helps support farmers in Tyrone. The people from Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, |
despite being the bigger chains, have done everything to help us and have never squeezed us on price.”
Instead, he says that one of the biggest impediments to business is the import market.
“If I look at customer profile, about 95% is exported outside Northern Ireland to about 12 countries across the world, like the USA, France, Denmark, and we have a direct supply into Hong Kong.
“Over the next three years we plan to grow business in the UK and Ireland. We need people to enjoy cheese made here, supporting local farmers and workers.”
Another firm which has reaped the benefits of “adding value” to their product is Finnebrogue.|Denis Lynn began farming deer and producing venison in the Down countryside in 1996.
The company has grown considerably and now stocks major supermarkets like M&S and |Waitrose. Celebrity chef Heston Blummenthal has described their venison as the best he has tasted.
Finnebrogue has also diversified into sausage production and some of their seasonal products will grace Marks and Spencer’s famously mouth-watering Christmas television advertisements going out across the UK.
Dominic Darby, commercial manager at Finnebrogue, said that the stellar success of the company can be attributed to “asking customers what they want”.
“Looking at the market and adapting to trends has seen us go from making £4.5m to £11m in just a year and going from employing 35 people to 80 and we expect staffing levels to hit the 100 mark soon,” he said.
“Our biggest change, our growth in the last 18 months, has been driven by an agenda of innovation.
“In 2001 a factory was installed on site to enable us as suppliers to M&S but we are in no way factory farming.
“The basic aspiration of any farmer is to rear, kill, sell. However, the better profit is where you can add value. “In the past we took over a firm called Tulip in the UK and also took over the production of the Paul Rankin brand of sausages. We got that contract because we were offering a better service and a better price.
“The Paul Rankin sausages were branded ‘Irish pork, welfare friendly’ — however, welfare friendly in Ireland can still mean that the pigs are crated, so we went further than that, using outdoor bred pork, we increased the price by 10p but business grew because what we were producing was more in line with what customers wanted.
“In this climate, rather than buying things cheap, our customers would prefer to make a special purchase and be assured of utmost quality.
“We could have filled our factory with anything, sold cheap sausages, but we are asking people to pay £2.95 for a premium product with a high meat content that has been produced ethically — for that extra 10 to 20p, people are getting good value for money
“There is no point in us trying to align prices and there is no point in going into Asda and trying to sell a sausage for £2.49 when their sausages sell for £2.20. If we start competing as cheaper, then we have to stay cheap, then we get caught into a commodity trap.
“The M&S and Waitrose shopper is more likely to buy our product. We spend a lot of time at agricultural shows and trade fairs asking people what they want.
“As a result of this we have moved into the gluten-free market and have also begun trading as the ‘Good Little Company’, which sells organic, free range, ethically grown sausages, using recycling packaging and with a donation of 5p to Christian Aid with every sale.”
Finnebrogue products, including a pork and apple cocktail and a melting-middle stuffing ball, will be shown on television across the UK in adverts for Marks and Spencer and the company is looking forward to the festive season.
“We are getting pretty good uplifts from those M&S customer order brochures,” said Mr Darby.
“We have a venison joint for sale and were expecting around 2,500 pre orders, but we have been very excited to see in the region of 14,000 pre-orders. Again, it is a matter of adding value. We have a lot of work to do to justify £25 for a venison joint.”
Mr Darby says that the biggest barrier to trade is a natural one.
“For instance, in the past week, the weather has meant the cancellation of three ferries to Stranraer. If those boats don’t sail, it is a massive waste.
“It sounds daft that support transportation and infrastructure is such an impediment somewhere as close as mainland GB, but it is an issue. “We could all help each other in this respect.
“There are lots of family businesses and farms that are sensitive to being dominated or swallowed up and are reluctant to collaborate but if more people in the business got together and worked as a team then distribution and supply could run much easier.
“Competition is a good thing, but we all need to stop viewing each other as threats or enemies.”