Food for thought- can exports drive our craft sector?

The renaissance of microbreweries, home crafted foods and bespoke textiles are playing an ever increasing role in the vibrancy of our local economy.

There can be no doubt that a revival of these traditional skills and products are a positive in a low growth global economy.

Many of the recipes and practices are age old, however, a swathe of support for locally grown or produced food and retro fashions have brought many of these recipes from out of the kitchen and into the shop front.

This activity leads me to ask; is this driven by necessity, or is our economy resetting from the hysteria of the pre-crisis years to a longer term view, where quality is worth paying that little bit extra for?

St. Georges Market and the Christmas Market at Belfast City Hall are increasingly popular celebrations of traditional skills which showcase the inherent fun and sense of community that surrounds our local craft industry.

My family and I are regular visitors to St Georges Market on a Saturday morning and it’s gratifying to see how local people have become ‘masters’ of their niche be that coffee, bread, cheese, spirits or beer.

In addition, a resurgence in Northern Irish tourism (largely driven by Game of Thrones and recent golfing successes) has buoyed the local hospitality sector.  A recent conversation with two American tourists sticks in my mind; they had visited Established Coffee on the corner of Hill Street and Talbot Street and commented that “finding such amazing coffee had gone some way to making up for the terrible weather.” We can’t account for the weather but we can account for the growth of our local food and drink market!

craft | exports | Belfast

Is there really a market?

There are already examples of premium Northern Irish produce being shipped around the world. Bushmills may have suffered in recent times within the Diageo portfolio but has recently been revived since being acquired by Casa Cuervo.

In addition, a lesser known brand but worthy of similar acclaim is Ditty’s Home Bakery, based in Castledawson which supplies the local market with their famous Oatcake range, amongst others. What many don’t recognise is that they are also found in Fortnum and Mason, London and Dean & Deluca, New York, and are on the menu at ‘events such as the Ryder Cup and Wimbledon’.

Furthermore, there has been, what seems like, an overnight success story from ShortCross (Northern Ireland’s first Premium Craft Gin) which grasped a modern market trend and positioned itself as a desirable Premium international product.

There are also a number of pioneering young producers based in Northern Ireland such as Mike’s Fancy Cheese (the maker of the much acclaimed Young Buck Cheese), Zac’s Bakehouse (who are quietly producing amazing bread’s for trendy local coffee shops) and some of our top chef’s like Brian McCann in Shu.

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It is at this point where we have to balance considerations of ambitions for growth in the sector with maintaining quality and authenticity.

So how do we realise this potential?

One key driver for growth in this sector could be achieved through advancing exports.

When we look at other indigenous sectors, most notably IT and manufacturing, it is clear that a strong export strategy can have positive effects in terms of growth and employment.

Also, diversification can create opportunities and will continue to be of particular interest to our cherished local farmers, who continue to see the wholesale price of milk below the cost of production.

One pertinent example of successful diversification can be found through Will Chase (a Herefordshire potato farmer) who boldly began to produce Chase vodka in 2002, when he was dropped as a supplier by Tyrell’s Hand-cooked Crisps.

I believe there are small businesses within the sector with the potential to grow, thus creating value for their local economy and creating jobs. Furthermore, with the local banking sector beginning to lend again, it is possible to get a sensible amount of debt to help a young business grow quickly to capture a significant market share whilst retaining the quality that the market is currently demanding.

So how do we bridge the gap?

Clearly, there are questions around, facilitating growth and funding export strategies whilst ensuring that quality and service remain at the forefront of the business and are not sacrificed along the way.

Craft NI are worthy of mention as a Government supported body that was set up specifically to aid the contemporary craft sector with a mission to “build an integrated, entrepreneurial and vibrant contemporary crafts sector in Northern Ireland.” They are the regional champion for craft in Northern Ireland and their role should be very much welcomed in this space.

 

Furthermore, recent figures showed that NI’s food and drink processing industry generated sales of £4.2bn (a 4.2% increase on 2011), and whilst it is important to make the distinction between the likes of Moy Park and local craft food sector, it does show the already lucrative environment we are operating within.

In ROI, The turnover of craft beer producers in 2014 is estimated at €23m and at a projected €39.6m for 2015, again, this shows that the conditions are ripe for NI to enjoy international success in the coming months. One company to have capitalised on the ripe conditions is Newry based ‘Station Works’ Craft Brewery who were recently acquired by US firm Alltech. Once again shows that interest is growing within market regions like America.

HNH can help to advise and aid the sector in terms of growth and diversification but more importantly help the sector to remain focused on the objectives and core values that are so important.

We have experience in securing funding for growth, people for growth and creating branding and digital strategies for growth. We are happy to facilitate discussions on any of the above and I would urge any local craft focused business to contact us for support on how to grow their business and develop potential for exports.