LOCAL food producers are being encouraged to enter the Blas na hÉireann Irish Food Awards despite the current Covid-19 pandemic.
Blas na hÉireann offers small food producers an opportunity to showcase their product both nationally and internationally.
At such an uncertain time for small food producers and businesses, the biggest competition for quality Irish produce on the island of Ireland has extended its application deadline to give people enough time to enter.
Now in its 13th year, the Blas na hÉireann Awards finals will be held in Dingle in October and applications are open until May 25.
Over 2,500 products were entered into the 2019 competition to win gold, silver and bronze awards in a broad range of food and drink categories as well as key awards such as Supreme Champion and Best Artisan Producer.
Local business owner Rob Horgan won a silver award for his well-known and regarded coffee blends after entering the Blas na hÉireann Awards for the first time in 2018 where he was up against large coffee companies such as Bewley’s.
The owner of Velo Coffee began roasting his own coffee in-house in 2017, just one year before taking home the silver at the awards.
Mr Horgan has seen a spike in sales of his Blas na hÉireann approved products since the pandemic and puts the businesses current spike in sales down to its silver and bronze awards accreditation on the Velo Tandem and Velo BMX coffee beans which are selling “in their multiples” compared to other products.
Mr Horgan said that Velo Coffee website has been redeveloped to keep up with demand and that their silver award Velo Tandem coffee beans are flying off the shelves in Aldi, after launching in stores nationwide back in 2018.
“We’re really lucky with Aldi because that’s been really busy and our online sales have really taken off. We’ve done more in the last 30 days than we did last year.
“There’s literally orders every day whereas we would have had a few orders a week before this. We put a lot of work into the site since this kicked off and the two Blas coffees, the Tandem and the BMX are surpassing everything else,” Mr Horgan said.
He said that the business is relying solely on its online sales and the sale of the coffee in Aldi during the pandemic because of the closure of Café Velo in the city centre.
Just before the outbreak of Covid-19, Mr Horgan had secured Pallas Foods to sell his Velo Tandem coffee and said that the product’s Blas award sealed the deal with the food wholesaler. The deal is currently on hold due to the pandemic.
Mr Horgan is preparing to enter Velo Coffee’s second product into Aldi stores as part of its May Special Buys next month and he predicts that the Velo BMX coffee will do well on the shelves because of its Blas na hÉireann Bronze Award.
He said that people who are now out of work and are no longer getting their coffee from the local café are looking to upgrade their coffee at home.
“When they walk in and they see four or five coffees on the shelf, the Blas na hÉireann award gives us that distinction so we’re really lucky.
“March was a bumper month in retail and online and that’s continuing so far in April and the bounce on from that is that we’re currently getting ready to produce the May Special Buy in Aldi and that’s a significant order that we wouldn’t have without Blas. If we didn’t have the Blas na hÉireann award on that coffee, it would not be going into Aldi on Special Buy next month,” he said.
Mr Horgan said that the opportunities from Blas na hÉireann are endless and that the current pandemic should not put people off entering this year.
“If you miss this opportunity, you’re gone for a year and then you will miss out on the opportunities that will become available when we recover from this.
“When we’re all down in Dingle in October, Covid will be a bit of a memory and you’ll have a platform to come back from this with. To not let yourself have that opportunity now would just be insane,” he said.
Mr Horgan said that Blas na hÉireann opens the door to meeting food consultants and producers who will always be there to help out long after the awards ceremony.
After coming off the stage last year, Mr Horgan met with the Communications Director from Aldi and one of the buying directors to speak about the plan for the future of Velo Coffee in its stores.
“You can’t get that you’re not in Blas and if you’re not down there for the weekend, you can’t get that exposure.
“I get emails from retailers wanting to know have we entered products in Blas this year and what product have we entered. When you get those emails what they’re basically saying is we want to know about your product.” He emphasised the tight knit community of small food producers and their willingness to help each other out in times of need.
“Don’t be afraid of it. There’s a lot of support out there, there’s a lot of help. Blas na hÉireann are fantastic and are hugely supportive of all producers so if you are struggling, pick up the phone.
“Food producers are all out to help each other, we all have the same problems so if you need a hand and phone me, if I can help I will. And that’s across the board, it doesn’t matter what you’re producing,” he said.
Blas na hÉireann is not just recognised nationally, but also offers international opportunities for small producers.
“It means so much that the consumer recognises it not only in Ireland, but across Europe. When you go to Dingle you meet all the retail buyers and the food service buyers and they’re not only Irish, they’re across Europe if your product is relevant to that.
“The power of it is unbelievable. When you’re looking at this time now, the two products that are selling most are the two with the Blas sticker, the others are selling well but the other two are passing them out in sales by multiples.
Mr Horgan recommended food producers not to enter all of their products but the product they are most proud of. He said that the application process is the easiest part and that the first step is to simply send the product accepted for the first round of blind testing at UCC in July. All entrants receive an update on their entry progress in August ahead of the finals in October.
“We knew what getting the award would mean to us straight away, it transformed our business and it still is two years down the road,” he said.