Last evening, Cork County & City Enterprise Boards hosted the Cork Food Forum Networking 2011 at Rochestown Park Hotel. With free entry and easy online registration, this event was well-attended by food producers, retailers, restauranteurs, and a wide range of industry experts from County Cork and beyond. Such events have been held on a regular basis in recent years, providing an opportunity for all those involved in the food sector in Cork to network, to exchange experiences and, most importantly, to develop new business ideas about finding new markets for their products. Last night’s event was aimed at SME food companies, distributors, retailers, marketing executives, as well as manufacturing and technical experts from the food industry. It also marked the launch of the new Food Finder Guide, a comprehensive sourcing guide for food and drink producers in County Cork.
Upon arriving, we were greeted by event staff then set about talking with fellow Tweeters as well as the food producers who set up stands to display their products. Some of the Tweeters I sat with were:
- Margaret Smith, @UmNumNum_Cork of her innovative Ballincollig-based cooking school of the same name
- Alec Smith, @Climatech whose business specializes in refrigeration engineering
- Roger Overall, @RogerOverall Cork-based writer and documentary photographer with a passion for food
- Lucy Hyland, @FoodForLivingIE healthy living expert based in Kinsale.
- Paul O’Mahony, @OmaniBlog writer and self-proclaimed reputation builder.
After we had settled in a bit and learned the event hash tag (#CorkFood), we set about touring the food producer stands around the room. Large enough to fit the crowd, but small enough to feel like an intimate exchange of ideas, the conference room at Rochestown Park Hotel was a perfect fit for this gathering. We browsed the producers food offerings and heard more about their products, where they’re available, and the passion each has for what they’re doing. Some were items I have seen before, while others were completely new and exciting to me. A few of my favorites were:
Finders Inn Rocket Salad Dressing. For American expats missing freshly mixed buttermilk ranch, Aaron McDonnell’s homemade bottled dressing is the next best thing without trying to compete. Subtle creaminess without being too sweet and not at all tart or bitter. Actual rocket (aka arugula) is in this dressing so it’s like a double dose of salad goodness. Did I mention all the ingredients are normal things without additives? I really am a little bit in love with this stuff. Also available from Finders Inn is a gourmet range of ready-prepared dishes using only the finest local produce: Red cabbage, Ratouille, Seafood Pie, Cottage Pie, Brown Bread, Cream of Mushroom Soup, Chicken Liver Pate, Rocket Salad Dressing (worth mentioning again), and the very popular Raspberry Vinaigrette. Finders Inn is on Facebook and their products are currently available at the Bandon Farmers Market.
Ballyhoura Apple Farm Original Irish Red Mulled Apple Juice. It’s like the holidays minus the alcohol and feeling like you ate too much. This particular beverage was awarded the Silver Blas na Éireann award and after tasting it I had to wonder who won the Gold. Ready mixed in the bottle, it can be warmed before serving and makes a delightful autumn or winter treat. Though with Irish weather, I can imagine enjoying it year-round. They have a selection of products made from their apples so if you get the chance, have a sip or two of their Pure Irish Apple Juice or one of their blended breakfast juices (like Apple/Beetroot, Apple/Parsnip, or Apple/Carrot).
Rebel Chilli Sauces. My two favorites are the green one with lemongrass which has such a lovely sweetness alongside the kick in the taste buds and the decadent spicy berry one that I can totally imagine topping pastry-wrapped bake brie… Sorry, wandered into a foodie dream sequence for a moment there. Thankfully, their sauces are readily available at Bradley’s on North Main Street (Cork City Centre and @bradleys_offlic on Twitter), O’Mahony’s Butchers in the English Market (Cork City Center), Nelly’s Pantry (Bishopstown), Rohu (Innishannon), and the Quay Co-op (Kinsale).
Angel Foods Spiced Oat and Sultana Cookies and Chocolate Brownies. I felt transported back to the States for a few bites of these treats. They tasted decadent and comforting all at once. The chewiness factor impressed me most since nearly all the brownies I’ve had in Ireland tend toward the more solid texture. Best of all, Angel Foods packages the mixes up for you to bake these yummy nibbles at home – and take all the credit. They have a wide range of bake-at-home dry mix products listed on their website and are also active on Facebook and Twitter @GingerChefs.
Glenilen Farm Apple & Natural Yogurt. An individual yogurt pot was handed out to each attendee when Tadhg O’Donovan, Sales and Marketing Manager for Glenilen Farm, began his presentation. More about that in a moment, but if you haven’t tried Glenilen yogurt or desserts (or lemonade!) you should seek some out because it is fresh and memorable. A real treat made with lovely West Cork dairy! Glenilen Farm is active on Facebook and Twitter @GlenilenFarm. I am working on a piece about Glenilen after interviewing Alan and Valerie at their base on the banks of the River Ilen in Drimoleague over the summer.
Of course, there were many more delicious samples and displays by Cork food producers, but these were my top five. Now, on to brief summaries of the esteemed speakers and their respective presentations.
Councillor Tim Lombard, Mayor of the County of Cork for 2011-12 kicked things off with a brief but enthusiastic speech about how “Cork is the food county [of Ireland]”.
Minister Shane McEntee, TD, Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine with special responsibility for Food Safety, Forestry and Horticulture shared his belief that “food is the way forward”.
Pauline Brown, Retail Marketing Manager at Musgraves Ireland, discussed “working with suppliers without compromising quality” and how small Irish suppliers are sources for SuperValue brand items because they are “committed to working with Irish suppliers.” She went on to spotlight their Supplier of the Year award program which profiles companies of all sizes, including Keohane’s of Bantry who catch fish seven day a week in West Cork. She emphasized SuperValu’s supporting their producers which led nicely into Cormac Quish’s presentation. He discussed their scratch baked goods and fresh food in-store as well as challenges and keys to success working with suppliers. He and Ms. Brown were candid about the supply and demand for certain items, stating that there are plenty of lovely jams but “savory treats” (not sausage in a roll) have potential for success. Ms. Brown also noted that “Just because there is a niche in the market doesn’t mean there is a market in the niche.”
Richard Hill, Irish General Manager at Oakland International Distribution, presented information that included statistics about household grocery habits. Some such numbers included:
- 70% of all grocery sales are now sold at under €3.
- Average spent on monthly groceries per Irish household down to €410 from €480.
He discussed goals and priorities for suppliers and how they can work best together as well as stating that “every type of [food/grocery] retailer has a role to play…” He encouraged small food producers to be proactive and to watch what is going on while putting effort and enthusiasm into your brand to make a difference. Also stressed was the importance of rapid reaction with a new sales strategy in response to poor sales performance and to walk the store aisles to see how your product is presented on the shelves. Making sure it is there and in-stock every day of the week.
Tadhg O’Donovan, Sales and Marketing Manager for Glenilen Farm, talked about the Glenilen journey while attendees enjoyed the yogurt. He admitted, “Taste is king for us.” There was much interest in the success Glenilen has earned over the past few years and Mr. O’Donovan explained it was due to hard work. He explained that a London Underground map, good shoes, and fresh samples in-hand were their key to getting into the UK market. He just went store-to-store introducing retailers to their product. Explanations were given of supply chain challenges and how they made it work for distribution to the UK. They now see their product shipped from Drimoleague to the UK in under 24 hours, which is essential for their farm fresh yogurt and dairy products. This requires an attention to detail every single day, however. The key learning for producers, he cited, comes from Clarity, Communication, Creditability (sic), and Confidence. One of my favorite lessons from Mr. O’Donovan’s presentation was that you need to be prepared for larger success and expansion before it happens. They planned ahead and went big which means that they will not outgrow their expansion just when they need the space and resources most. He asked producers to consider if their local success can translate to broader success and how to prepare for it. It was also encouraged to stay in touch with retailing trends through communication. “Much of the win comes from the execution AND the follow-up”, he said. On the subject of working with retailers, he advised that the longer you stick out the independent sector, the more your credibility grows and to take heart that buyers won’t waste time with pointless meetings so if you are in the room and getting the meeting, that is already a little success. “We should be going less but we should be going it better” was one point Mr. O’Donovan emphasized towards the end of his presentation.
After the presentations, there was a question and answer session followed by the opportunity to meet with the local food producers. Overall, the evening was a success in that there were inspirational bits nestled in practical advice alongside actual experiences, anecdotes and statistics to equip Cork food producers with the best means possible to step into a broader market.