Alastair spreads the love of food from Portrush to New York!
Enterprising Portrush businessman Alastair Bell could scarcely have guessed that a unique product using Armagh Bramley apples would prove hugely popular with luxury food stores and feature in premium hampers in New York and Boston.
Alastair Bell of export success Irish Black Butter in Portrush
There’s been interest too in the unique savoury/sweet spread from food businesses in Los Angeles, New Hampshire and Boulder in Colorado.
Irish Black Butter, the novel spread he created in 2018 with the expert assistance of talented chef Paul Clarke the managing director of En Place Foods in Cookstown, using apples from Armagh orchards and spices with a touch of brandy, is also widely available in delis and farm shops here as well as in England, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland.
And it’s also won a host of prestigious endorsements from the likes of the UK Great Taste Awards and the Blas na hEireann, the Irish Food Awards in Dingle. Judges in BBC2’s popular Dragon’s Den also loved the product and praised Alastair’s enterprise.
“It was really exciting to see a shipment of my Irish Black Butter bound for New York early in las year’s coronavirus pandemic,” Alastair says. “It was a marvellous boost at such a difficult time for us and for every small food business here,” Alastair, who has just launched a new hazelnut spread that’s made entirely from hazelnuts and Irish Black Butter.”
The US contacts, he continues, were the outcome of approaches by the retailers there who had heard about the product through the internet and were intrigued by it being marketed as ‘a new taste of Ireland’.
“Overall, however, growing business outside Northern Ireland during the pandemic is immensely challenging. Travel restrictions make it impossible to visit existing and potential business contacts and there’s a limit to what can be done by phone, email, zoom and the internet,” he adds.
The novel Irish Black Butter has also caught the attention of Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, and Tourism Ireland, both based in Dublin, for use in VIP hampers.
Alastair has also moved away successfully from the perils of being seen as a ‘one trick pony’ business by diversifying into other foods and recipes based on Irish Black Butter.
He’s marketed the spread as an ingredient to add to the flavours of established products such as Morelli’s in Coleraine in their unique Irish Black Butter Ice Cream and the Heatherlea Bakery in Bangor for biscuits using the spread. It’s also been used in the development of a cured meat by Corndale Farm Charcuterie in Limavady and as a glaze for ham.
Leading chefs like Michael Deane of the Michelin star EIPIC restaurant in Belfast endorsed the spread and have also used it as an ingredient.
The spread, furthermore, has attracted the attention of an English manufacturer which is now considering incorporating it in a new product range.
Alastair has also used the black butter in the development of new products for his portfolio including a popular peanut spread. And he’s just launched an innovative hazelnut spread based on the black butter.
“While the pandemic has been tough for all small and artisan food businesses, the associated lockdowns have given me plenty of time to explore new product ideas such as the hazelnut spread and develop these with experienced and hugely creative chef Paul Clarke in Cookstown,” he says.
The new hazelnut spread, based solely on hazelnuts and on the successful Irish Black Butter, recently clinched its first sales outside Northern Ireland from a customer in Kent.
“It’s always immensely encouraging – and especially at this very challenging time - to win early business in Britain with new product. My current focus, of course, is on developing sales to delis, farm shops and independent grocers here and in the Republic of Ireland, my two most important markets. Success is these markets provides the funding and confidence to pursue opportunities abroad and especially in Britain and the US,” he adds.
“The hazelnut spread is the outcome of extensive and successful taste tastings among family and friends which proved the popularity of the new flavour. The pandemic, of course, has meant shop tastings have had to be paused and made it difficult to assess new products. I am happy to report, however, that many retailers like the spread which is much lighter and has a distinctively nutty flavour.”
Alastair founded Irish Black Butter Company in 2017 following a holiday in the Channel Island during which he discovered Jersey Black Butter. This led him to come up with the idea to harness the distinctive flavour of Armagh Bramley apples to create the product that would reflect Ireland and appeal to locals and especially tourists.
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