The hugely successful final event of the Mayo Food and Drink Programme, a Showcase and Meet the Buyer event, exceeded all expectations of both producers and buyers.
Both were there to do business and it was clear from the outset that this event was exactly what was needed to make the vital connections between artisan producers and both distributors and retailers as well as agencies offering essential support.
Enthusiastic networking was interspersed with relevant and interesting panel discussions and a keynote speech from Blás na hÉireann founder Artie Clifford. The event took place at Breaffy House Hotel on Thursday, June 23.
Programme Manager Oonagh Monahan acted as MC and first introduced Artie Clifford who had travelled from Dingle for the event. His engaging presentation covered his own chequered history as a small food producer, not hiding the pitfalls nor glossing over the challenges of the business.
He wryly recalled falling into the trap of retail buyers early in his business life, embarrassed to admit he didn’t understand the terminology and accidently agreeing to impossible discounts. Perhaps because of this, his main message for fledgling producers is to have belief in themselves and their products.
He urged artisans not to be afraid to admit when they don’t know acronyms or how the system works but to be confident enough to speak out. The Blás awards grew from his surprise that there was no formal awards system recognising quality in food and drink. He founded it 14 years ago and it has increased exponentially in both scope and size every year since.
"This is a fitting finale to a busy year of training and networking", said Oonagh Monahan, "The Mayo Food and Drink Programme is all about helping producers to do business and it was rewarding to see that in action today. The feedback has been overwhelmingly good".
The first discussion panel featured four well known local chefs: Philippe Farineau (Executive Chef at Ashford Castle ), Barry Ralph (proprietor and chef at House of Plates ), Seamus Commons (Head Chef at Knockranny House Hotel ), and Dean Diplock (Executive Chef at Breaffy House Hotel ). Each spoke with infective enthusiasm about the quality and choice of local suppliers. They talked about enhancing and showcasing local products through their cooking, making them shine on the plate. For them passion and love are as essential as consistency of supply, quality and an active social media presence.
The distributors and wholesalers panel was facilitated by Aisling Roche and consisted of Sean O’Reilly (Classic Foods ), Maureen Gahan (Bord Bia ), Nicola Lewis (La Rousse ) and Kingsley Lewis (My Caboose Store ). Their informative discussion showed their willingness and enthusiasm to embrace new producers and gave useful tips on how to deal with distributors.
Over promising and under delivering emerged as a critical thing to avoid. Some perceived weaknesses such as seasonality were reframed as potential strengths and can in fact drive demand. Once again social media emerged as an important communication channel.
The retail panel, chaired by Melissa Moore included Colleen Mahon from Rua and Ray D’Arcy from SuperValu. Consistency of supply was identified as an important factor and being able to meet demand without running out of stock. Once again communication emerged as an essential element of dealing with retailer stores.
The final panel was a fascinating insight into food tourism by Patricia Doe of Wilderness Ireland and Margaret Leahy of Irish Artisan Food Tours. Both run high end tours with a focus on the American market and described how authenticity and a connection with Irish culture are essential to engage visitors.
Stories are vital; people want to know not only what you are doing but how your business developed and the real story behind it. They emphasised the importance of having branded merchandise to sell with Margaret telling a story about a quick-thinking entrepreneur who sold an empty cardboard box to a tour member who was much taken by the company logo. That box now decorates a wall on the other side of the Atlantic, professionally framed and displayed with pride.
They encouraged food and drink producers to be creative in what they offer and to value their time and price accordingly without being shy. Food for thought indeed.
One thread carrying through every discussion was the importance of communicating clearly and regularly. Suppliers must talk to chefs and distributors, keep them informed of what’s happening and potential issues which arise. In this arena silence is most definitely not golden.
The Mayo Food and Drink Programme is a LEADER funded response to the challenges and opportunities identified in the Mayo Food & Drink Strategy 2025. It puts into action the specific priorities identified by producers and is totally food and drink focused.
This was the final networking event but training continues for another month with some online classes and one-to-one specialised training and mentoring all of which is free of charge and available exclusively to Mayo food and drink businesses. Booking for these free courses is through the website www.mayofood.ie or Eventbrite and links on social media (@mayofoodanddrink ).
The Mayo Food and Drink Networking and Training Programme is supported by South West Mayo Development Company and Local Enterprise Office Mayo.