Building a bright future by feeding demand for nostalgia
Published 02/02/2012 | 05:00
While waiting to clear customs at London's Stansted Airport, Eddie O'Kane had one of those eureka moments.
It was 2002 and Britain was reeling from a major foot-and-mouth epidemic the year before.
The Derry native looked on as the contents of a fellow Irishman's luggage caused some consternation for the border officials. After a few moments, an officer produced some black and white pudding from a bag and the unsuspecting culprit watched as the beloved delicacies were confiscated.
"I thought to myself, do people still bring Irish food with them when they travel over from Ireland? That incident lit a light bulb in my head and I haven't looked back since," recalled Mr O'Kane.
This year, O'Kane Irish Foods predicts an astonishing turnover of £10m (€12m) and Eddie says the room for expansion is immense.
"We're one of the few Irish companies that can say emigration has really boosted our profits. The business grew by 40pc in 2011; amazing really during such an economic downturn," he said.
O'Kanes, established in 2003 by Eddie and his wife Maureen, is predominantly a distributor of leading Irish food brands, catering for the top four multiple retailers in the UK -- Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morrison's.
It also services smaller, independent retailers and carries well known brands from Barry's Tea to Tayto crisps and Clonakilty Puddings.
The company's online arm, www.youririshshop.com, is also growing at lightning speed, with 3,000 orders a week in the run-up to Christmas.
"The younger Irish who are now in the UK do everything online, from booking flights to paying bills, so many want to order their favourite products from home in this way as well," says Mr O'Kane.
Traditionally, the demand for a taste of home came from Irish emigrants but times have changed, as Eddie explains.
"Once the products got into the major stores, we found that many were selling well with the non-Irish customers. In some of the big retailers, food items have been moved out of the 'Irish' section and placed in the normal categories."
Assisted by agencies such as Bord Bia, O'Kane Irish Foods has gone from strength to strength and 153 Irish products are being trialled in three Tesco stores in Manchester, Bolton and Birmingham.
"This is an especially exciting development for us as the potential turnover for our business through Tesco could be worth as much as an additional £5m (€6m) per annum," said Mr O'Kane.
At the end of February, the major retailer will analyse how the trials have worked and Eddie, along with the Irish food manufacturers whose products are being showcased, is keeping his fingers crossed that the food items will be rolled out in Tesco's stores nationwide.
Irish food exports continue to outperform other sectors and reached an estimated £7.4bn (€8.9bn) in 2011. The figure was up 12pc on 2010 and some 25pc ahead of sales in 2009.
"Irish companies are now very aware of the importance of the international market. It makes our job easier," said Mr O'Kane.
The introduction of Irish foodstuffs to the multiple retail market inevitably affects the smaller, independent retailers.
Now, only a handful of 'Irish shops' remain in London and other developments, such as the online availability of daily Irish newspapers, have also had an adverse effect on their trade.
For Mr O'Kane, though, business is booming and the future is bright. The flow of emigrants crossing the Irish Sea will increase in speed in 2012 and, as he says himself: "It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good."