The phrase fait accompli springs to mind following the recent announcement that NIYoFD targets had been surpassed and ergo, the year-long campaign was a huge success.
Estimates say the comprehensive programme of activities, with its festivals, food tastings and promotions across the country and further afield, generated over £30m worth of international media coverage for Northern Ireland’s burgeoning food and drinks industry however, is this alone enough to rule the job done and dusted, objectives achieved?
While undoubtedly cause to celebrate, we must surely consider that capitalising on the legacy of the last 12-months (and more) is almost more important. To keep that momentum going will require a conscious effort on the part of all those, both in the local tourism sector and the food and drink world. What a crying shame it would be for efforts to fade away into the ether – and with that our short but sweet success as a food destination contender does too slip away.
Past experience would tell us that similar ventures risk falling flat as the spotlight dims, and the focus shifts to the next big idea.
Putting Northern Ireland on the international map as a foodie destination to rival national and international celebrated haunts is, of course, a fantastic achievement but with our largest audience or local food and drink produce being those we call our own, can we really celebrate international media coverage when we have yet to gain the buy-in domestically?
Simply put: there is still work to be done to create more purchasing motivators for local consumers and of course more bums on seats for the region’s restauranteurs. Research revealed sad facts that tourists will pay a hefty percentage more for local produce yet local people won’t.
The influx of national and international visitors here to try our food will never amount to the volume of custom food and drink businesses could be getting from their own local diners.
So instead of celebrating the international recognition for our homegrown fayre, we must use the buzz generated from the Year of Food and Drink to go back to basics, build an inside-out approach to Northern Ireland’s love affair with food and cultivate a homegrown pride and desire to eat and drink local.
We must be educators – reminding the NI public that there is an abundance of food in our fields, orchards and gardens, and to be excited and interested about its journey to our plates.
But it’s also about tapping into the true appetites of local people: local tastes have matured in recent years and have acquired the sophistication to hanker for food flavours from around the world and for the newest culinary crafts and techniques from the very zenith of global gastronomy.
We have a job to do to marry the worlds of local provenance with global flavours and trends.
John McGrillen, head of Northern Ireland’s Tourism NI CEO said good relationships had been formed during the year with foodie writers who would continue to be appraised of “other information likely to be of interest to them”.
He also said it had created a much greater awareness of the outstanding quality of our food and drink, our superb hotels and restaurants and the culinary excellence of the chefs here.
All of this is true, but what does it matter if the people on our doorstep don’t share the same awareness, interest or pride?
So in order to build upon that legacy and to help the local food and drinks players take the most well-placed bite out of that lucrative cherry it must be a two-way street.
Yes, visitors must be reminded of the culinary wonders we offer but at the end of the day the biggest market here – and one which must be most encouraged to partake of it – is the domestic market.
As local day trippers and staycationers grow in number and opt to stay and dine within these shores, they are the key market to crack.
Ken Sharp, proprietor of The Salty Dog and The Boat House