Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland needs 'joined up approach' to sell it as a food destination

By John Mulgrew

Howard Hastings, the lead ambassador for the Year of Food and Drink 2016, has called for a "joined-up approach" to marketing the province as a food destination.

Mr Hastings is managing director of the Hastings Hotels group - which owns the Europa and Culloden, along with several other high profile spots.

Hastings is already firmly behind boosting Northern Ireland's foodie credentials.

But he said the region needs a more "joined up" approach, in order to help sell Northern Ireland as a food destination.

"I think it's all part of the overall attraction of the destination. When you see the Michelin stars appearing and the gold stars in the Great Taste Awards, I think we have not told the story well enough yet.

"We have never joined the dots (with our events). We need to coordinate and bring them all to the boil, together."

And he remains confident about the success of his new four-star, 200-bedroom Grand Central Hotel at the former Windsor House building in the city centre.

Around 150 staff jobs will be created along with hundreds of others during construction at the Bedford Street landmark.

But despite wider concerns in the hotel, restaurant and pub industry surrounding the introduction of a £7.20 an hour living wage, he said it wouldn't "particularly" worry him.

"Not particularly. We would employ people at all levels, so it's only the occupations at the entry levels that are affected. We always prided ourselves in paying more than the minimum wage, and we will be paying more than the living wage."

He said most businesses would be able to manage, given the current beneficial state of other overheads. "I do think that labour costs, if those are tapering up, most businesses will be able to manage around it."

Howard Hastings said his hotels already focus on sourcing as much Northern Ireland produce as possible, and for the Year of Food and Drink he said the group was working with chef Paula McIntyre on her new book, as well as pairing up with schools to educate children about the industry.

"We are looking to work with schools. Each hotel would adopt a school to work with. They are finding it touches on so many parts of the curriculum.

"We will be working with schools, creating vegetable patches, with chefs and staff going in to talk to pupils."

Hastings also has its own herb gardens, which it uses for both its savoury and sweet dishes.

"We have been have been involved in local food for a while, and year-on-year we have increased the proportion of the food we sell and buy locally. We think it is very important as the tourism economy grows."

"Domestically, next year will shine a light on the farming community, and celebrating so much of the employment that derives from that."

And as for our food exports, Mr Hastings said: "Exporters will find it easier to sell milk, chicken and beef abroad if we are all talking about what we produce. That will have a big benefit for the economy."

Belfast Telegraph