A high-tech food lab - developed as part of a £500,000 investment at the ‘Tech’ - will help producers, artisans and caterers establish the North West on the global food map.
That’s according to the new North West Regional College (NWRC) ‘Foodovation’ centre manager, Brian McDermott, and his old pal Neven Maguire, who dropped by for the launch of the new hub this week and said our location on this green and fertile island means we’re ideally placed to further grow an agri-food industry that already employs a massive one in eight people across the North.
“There is a great food culture here,” said the award-winning chef, who’ll be well-known to readers through his work on RTÉ television.
“The whole North West is very exciting, it’s waking up to it. It’s a beautiful part of the world. I think the people are wonderful and the produce is smashing here.
“There’s a story behind every food producer. Just to see their passion, that they can come up with an idea, create it, keep it consistent and upscale, which is always a challenge, but that they can then bring it to the consumer, whether that’s through farmers’ markets or whether it’s through retail, I think we’re at an exciting time for Irish food.”
The new lab, which was officially launched on Tuesday, is fully equipped with the latest technology and multifunctions as a food science lab, development and production kitchen, food photography and videography space, meeting room, taste testing room and barista coffee training school, and will provide the time and support necessary to enable the local innovators Mr Maguire so admires take their products and ideas to the next level.
Mr McDermott said it’s all about building on what we’ve got and what we’re good at, taking superb local produce, innovating to exploit gaps in the market, and, above all, emphasising the local.
“If someone comes in here with an idea we’re careful not to take them into a saturated market place,” said Mr McDermott. “It’s about getting to that initial creation/innovation idea stage, to get them to focus on provenance in terms of their food. That’s very important.
“What does it mean in reality? It means the food comes from the local region importantly. The more food we have from the local region, then we’ve got a uniqueness, then we’ve a selling point. Bear in mind, 97 per cent of people say they’ll buy a product if they know the product is local.
“That’s why packaging is very important and that we scream out the messages.”
For Blacklion-native, Mr Maguire, practically a local himself, the support-your-local-team clarion makes perfect sense.
“People want to know and should know, where their food is coming from, who is producing it and, as I say, there are great stories behind these people,” he said.
“What this centre does is bring you on a journey. Brian and his team will help you along with that. You come up with a concept, Brian helps you in developing your product, testing and all of that.
“It’s a great asset for this wonderful college and I must say, well done to Leo [Murphy] and the management team because this is a big investment.
“It’s hopefully going to create lots more employment. Food is the future. If we buy locally, if we support local producers, that’s the key.
Mr McDermott points out that with an eighth of people here already employed in food it’s this ongoing initiative is clearly a no brainer.
“It’s worth bearing in mind that one in every eight people in Northern Ireland are employed within the food and hospitality sector. That’s huge. It’s a high ratio.”