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The Irish Times: Conor Pope: ‘I think the growth of own-brand food is terrifying’

July 17, 2017 Profiles and Interviews

‘I think the growth of own-brand food is terrifying’
Despite that, Irish food producers such as Ballymaloe relish the challenge
Conor Pope

At Bloom festival at the start of the summer, people seemed to be in a spending mood. In the Love Irish Food tent, crowds gathered around stalls set up by dozens of Irish brands to sample products, talk to producers and hand over cash.
One of the largest gatherings was around the beetroot being handed out by Maxine Hyde, sales and marketing manager for Ballymaloe Foods.

The company was started by Maxine’s mother – and the daughter of Myrtle and Ivan Allen – Yasmin in 1990 and Maxine has been steeped in relish – in a manner of speaking – since she was a small child.

But as the brand’s sales and marketing manager today, she has a much more hands-on role. And things are going well. “The business is growing at a phenomenal rate really,” she says as she hands out little plates of pickled beetroot to members of the public lined up in front of her.

The jarred beetroot is the newest product in the Ballymaloe range and perhaps the only such product on the market to use Irish-grown beetroot.

“It has taken us years to get this right,” she says. “We knew that no beetroot you could buy in jars was from Ireland despite the fact that it grows so easily here. My mother was forever saying we had to grow it and to produce our own, so that is what we have done.”

The own-brand threat
People seem to like it and despite the fact – as Hyde readily acknowledges – it is considerably more expensive than alternatives, it is flying off the shelves. “I think Irish people really do care about food provenance,” she says. “And I think more and more people know that it can be really hard for Irish producers.

“That is why they want to support them,” she says. “I think they know that if local producers are not supported now, none of us might be here in 20 years.”

Irish shoppers do appear to be in the middle of a serious love affair with supermarkets’ own-brand products
She identifies the phenomenal growth of private-label or own-brand products as “a big threat” to local producers. And certainly Irish shoppers do appear to be in the middle of a serious love affair with supermarkets’ own-brand products. Sales of private labels have jumped by almost 4 per cent over the past 12 months. All told, 54 per cent of the products found in the average Irish supermarket shopper’s trolly now carry own-brand labels, compared with less than 10 per cent before the economic crash a decade ago.

Ballymaloe makes no own-brand products, Hyde says. “And I think its growth is terrifying and I think we have to stand up for ourselves and we have to be independent. The mantra from the big retailers is ‘cheaper, cheaper, cheaper’ but too often that comes at the expense of quality.”

Oat family

Across the Bloom aisle from the Ballymaloe stall is one of the most enduring Irish products, Flahavan’s. The first family connection goes all the way back to 1785, when Thomas Dunn took over an oat mill in Waterford. Dunn was the great-great-great-grandfather of John Flahavan, the managing director of the company today.

“There have been seven generations of the family in the business. I don’t know if you would find many other families who can say that,” says Mary Flahavan, John’s wife and a lynchpin of the business in her own right for decades.

Like Hyde, she references the own-brand phenomenon and like Hyde she stresses that Flahavan’s doesn’t makes its “progress oatlets” or its flapjacks or muesli for anyone but the family business. “We have to always respond to consumer demand and to always innovate, and we do see private labels attempting to replicate what we do, but we just took a decision not to make products for anyone else,” she says.

They have already been developed and we are just working on the packaging now
So far the Flahavan family instincts haven’t steered her or her husband wrong. “Back in 2000 there wasn’t much confidence in the business but we took the gamble to take it on,” she says. “Thank God it took off.”

And it really has taken off. The brand now makes porridge in multiple forms, some excellent muesli, flapjacks and some soon to be released overnight oats. “They have already been developed and we are just working on the packaging now,” she says.

The Brexit cloud

While most of the horizon looks bright, a big cloud looms. “Brexit is the big challenge for us now,” she says. “The exchange rate is killing us.”
Brexit is hitting McCambridge, too, says the bread company’s managing director, Michael McCambridge. “Sterling is going to continue to fall and that is a problem for us exporting to the UK, so we are also starting to focus on the United States as well.

Every oven is different so I can’t guarantee that it will always come out exactly the same
The soda breads the McCambridge family make have a very short shelf life but – as with all the other producers, it has been innovating and has launched a range of bake-it-yourself bread mixes.

“It is the same as our soda bread that you can buy in the shops in most respects although it is made with milk and not buttermilk, but you have to remember that every oven is different so I can’t guarantee that it will always come out exactly the same.”
Food provenance
Watching over the producers is Love Irish Food’s executive director, Kieran Rumley. He seems quietly satisfied with what he is seeing.


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