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Novel food hub helping chefs and entrepreneurs create exciting tastes

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A unique food innovation hub for chefs and hospitality entrepreneurs to create original tastes has been launched in Belfast by two dedicated foodies based on their experience working for major companies in New York.

Partners Ryan Crown, 30, and Ema O’Kane, 31, have developed the Hill Street Hatch in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter, the city’s hospitality and entertainment hub before the coronavirus pandemic closed the area’s restaurants, cafes and bars.

They returned to Northern Ireland early last year after five years working in New York city.

Ryan, a talented graphic designer and marketer, worked for major clients such as the famed Dead Rabbit Cocktail Bar, the world’s best bar and famed for its exceptional cocktails, Guinness, legendary Irish Coffee and overall hospitality, while Ema was marketing director of the award-winning Brooklyn Gin, an acclaimed small batch craft distillery.

Ryan is also the founding managing director of Crown Creative, a full service marketing and design agency, which has offices in Belfast and New York.

Funded by Ryan, originally from Limavady, and Ema, from Belfast, themselves, Hill Street Hatch is a highly innovative hub for the hospitality industry.

It offers a fully-equipped kitchen and a shop window that enables chefs to create original snack dishes and sell them to customers.

“The Hatch is modelled on snack operations we enjoyed during our five years in New York,” Ryan explains. “We were keen to do something really creative for chefs and food entrepreneurs here badly affected by the pandemic that would give them an opportunity to show their creativity and, perhaps, create new food businesses.

“The Hatch aims to enable and support hospitality entrepreneurs by offering them a space, community and opportunity to test their ideas and to have face-to-face interaction with customers about smart ideas,” he adds.

The functional space, he continues, coupled with their expertise in working with local and international brands, provided “a 360-degree concept development service for food and drink start-ups looking to launch new ideas within a safe support system”.

As well as the kitchen, the Hatch offers a pop-up facility to provide food to workers, shoppers and those out for the day.

The concept, Ryan says, had already attracted furloughed and redundant chefs from restaurants and cafes to provide different snacks such as novel grilled cheese toasties, which proved popular with local people.

“We could never have imagined that we’d sell over 1,000 cheese toasties, for instance, over a period of four days,” he says. The toasties were marketed under the ‘Toast Office’ branding.

“We’ve also recently had approaches from chefs keen to use the Hatch to produce authentic ethnic snacks such as Filipino and Jamaican street food,” adds Ryan, who now has design offices in both Belfast and New York and plans to commute between the two when he is able to do so.

“Humble Pie, another local catering company, used the Hatch to serve sweet and savoury pies as well as a menu of delicious sides.

“Users are also able to work alongside the Crown Creative team above the Hatch in developing culinary concepts and test new hospitality ideas and experiences.

“It’s becoming a creative hub for individuals and smaller enterprises in hospitality here,” Ryan continues.

“Our staff members are readily available to help them in areas such as brand development, conventional marketing techniques and digital technology. “Experienced staff are also available to assist companies to ensure they meet health and hygiene regulations as well as safety procedures for challenges such as Covid-19,” he says.

“Occupants of the Hatch rotate on a month-to-month basis, each able to dish out a fresh new hospitality concept. We’ve been immensely encouraged and impressed by the feedback from individuals and smaller hospitality businesses about the initiative.

“The hospitality industry is adapting to Covid and has also accepted that the pandemic has changed things.

“More people are now seeking different taste experiences and prepared to try new food formats,” he adds.

Ema, Ryan’s fiancé, adds: “With many in the sector without work, some people have taken the opportunity to go back to the drawing board and create a concept of their own, and we want Hill Street Hatch to be the place where those ambitions and ideas come to fruition.”

The focus of the food outlet, Ema continues, is on locally sourced ingredients such as handcrafted bread from Zac’s Bakehouse, an artisan bakery specialising in sourdough breads, which is located near Ballymena; Moira’s Hannan Meats; Corndale Farm chorizo from Limavady; and a range of Irish farmhouse cheeses.

The Hatch was originally launched on a trial basis in December. The success of the enterprise then encouraged Ryan and Ema to reopen the facility after the New Year break on a permanent basis.

The food hub is set on the cobbled Hill Street and adjacent to the popular Established Coffee Shop.

In fact, the Hatch was developed by Established as a takeaway facility during the pandemic. Ryan and Ema spotted its potential and the modern kitchen facilities behind the giant window. “We reckoned it was perfect for the initiative we had in mind to support our beleaguered hospitality sector.”

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