Why success in food means offering the very best
The owners of two high-end firms in the catering world tell Lisa Smyth about the trade’s challenges and opportunities... and why a quality product is always a must
Foodie Folk started out almost a decade ago as an online business selling high quality food to the public. However, over the years the company has developed and now sells gourmet barbecue cuisine at major events all over Northern Ireland.
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Owner Mark Stone (40) spent 12 years working in his family business, which imported and distributed food to hotels and manufacturers, before setting up Foodie Folk.
"I wanted to offer the high quality food that you get in hotels direct to the public and at the time it seemed that doing that online was the best way to do that," he said.
After a number of years, the business expanded by opening a shop in Gilnahirk in east Belfast.
"I kept the online thing going but wanted premises as well," Mark said.
"The issue with the online part of the business was that it was hard to get enough sales.
"I think at that stage it wasn't a scalable business so I needed to open the retail outlet, although that actually gave me a lot more headaches and outgoings.
"However, it was during that time that I started doing a bit of outside catering, the shop was ticking along grand, it was fine, but the outside catering gave me a boost.
"I knew someone who asked me to come along and do a barbecue for him and I thought 'why not?' and then that same person asked me to come to and cater at a school event.
"I quite enjoyed it and that was about five years ago and we have really grown from there."
Mark began taking Foodie Folk to food festivals, including the Balmoral Show, which helped to build the company's reputation.
"We became members of (trade organisation) Food NI which was important," he said.
"Word of mouth has also been very important to us when building up our business.
"Word of mouth has been our biggest sales tool.
"We started out selling very high quality, artisan burgers which is what set us apart from other businesses.
"I really hate fast food. I feel very strongly about proper food and I wanted to offer a product that was desirable by most, which is where the burgers and hot dogs came from.
"We have expanded over the years though and now we offer a much bigger range depending on the requirements of our customers.
"We don't just do burgers and hot dogs anymore, we even do desserts and if the customer provides the kegs, we have the ability to offer a beer service as well.
"As far as possible, our food comes from local suppliers, so our buns are baked fresh at 2am that morning, our meat comes from Hannan Meats in Moira and Armstrong Meats in Castlereagh, while our fish comes from Ewing's in Belfast.
"We basically make sure we get the best produce we possibly can because as far as I am concerned that is everything, it's our reputation, it's what we do and something on which I would never compromise.
"I would never buy cheap frozen food, it would never go on our barbecue."
Foodie Folks now caters for clients such as the Belfast Harbour Commission and has started providing the catering for weddings last May.
"You learn to deal with stress and larger crowds when you have 300 people to feed at once and they are all queuing up waiting for their food," said Mark.
"It's a steep learning curve, and there is a lot more planning involved, but we have got there now."
The business employs mainly casual staff but Mark maintains he can still offer a high level of service.
"They know that if they don't work hard enough then they don't get brought back again."
The majority of the food preparation is done by Mark, his wife Clare, and a chef who works with them at his premises.
As well as preparing for events, they also continually work to update the products they offer, while ensuring they maintain their high standards.
"We always want to be adapting and improving," said Mark.
It is hard work but Mark said catering for pre-booked events provides much more financial security than running a café or other retail business.
"In a café you have to see a lot to make money because costs are very high and you are counting on the customers coming through your doors and you have to be prepared for that," he said.
"With our business, I know in advance how many people I will be catering for and I price a job accordingly.
"If you're not going to make money then there is no point in doing it.
"I'm not like a café or a restaurant where I have staff costs whether people come through the door or not.
"Working the way we do it is much easier to manage the financial side of things."
He added: "I also love the actual catering side of things, it is very sociable, everyone you are around is out and enjoying themselves, they are relaxed, they aren't coming in in a rush on their lunch break.
"Whether it is a corporate event or something going on at a school everyone is enjoying themselves and that makes our job enjoyable.
"In saying that, I think everyone who starts their own business finds out it takes much longer to get where they planned to be than expected - and it costs more as well.
"It's definitely harder than you think, but worth it when you get the right idea."