By SAM BUTLER
Food entrepreneur Shay Mullan was among dozens of small traders relieved when Belfast City Council lifted the lockdown at the iconic St George’s Market last week.
Shay, a founding director of Tom and Ollie, a small company specialising in handcrafting Mediterranean foods in west Belfast, was among the first traders to sign up when the historic market was revived by the council after a £4.5 million facelift in 1997.
“We really missed the market over the past three months,” Shay says. “This is because our expanding business has been crafted on success at St George’s.
“While we’ve gone on to sell our unique foods, now all handmade at our factory in Poleglass, St George’s remains a vitally important part of our marketing and we continue to have what is probably the biggest food stand there.
“We’ve built up thousands of loyal customers who regularly buy our full range of products. The lifting of the lockdown by the council was a massive boost for us,” adds Shay.
He set up Tom and Ollie in Broughshane, near Ballymena, in 2014 with other experienced food professionals Hugh Cushnan and Fergal McGrainne.
All the products in its retail range, which include hummus, slow roasted tomatoes, pesto and stuffed olives, continue to be handmade in Belfast. The identity of the business reflects its original focus on tomatoes and olives.
In addition to its presence at St George’s, Tom and Ollie has generated significant revenue from its participation at other farmers’ markets here and in the Republic.
Over the past few years, the company has grown substantially and profitably by winning sales to major retailers, including Aldi, Dunnes Stores, Ireland’s biggest retailer, and Sheridan’s in the Republic, and has also won significant business with Pallas Foods, a leading Irish wholesaler for restaurants and hotels in particular, in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. As a result, the west Belfast operation is working close to full capacity.
A recent breakthrough has seen Tom and Ollie supplying Cotswold Fayre, the biggest and highly regarded supplier of artisan and gourmet foods to specialist delis, independent grocers and smaller stores in Great Britain, the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.
Shay lives in Portglenone, County Antrim, with partner Tracey O’Boyle, also a key figure in the business.
He continues: “The Cotswold Fayre deal is our first significant business in Britain and we couldn’t have chosen a better customer to launch our handmade products in such an important marketplace. We had been seeking a major distributor there for some time.
“We met the Cotswold Fayre team at a meet the buyer showcase in Belfast organised by Invest NI last year.
“This proved to be an extremely important event which gave us a tremendous opportunity to showcase our extensive product range and develop contacts with key buyers.
“We subsequently continued discussions with Cotswold Fayre in London before the lockdown. These were successful and resulted in a contract to supply our retail range.
“It’s a tremendous endorsement of the quality, taste and innovation underpinning all the foods handcrafted at our factory in west Belfast,” he adds.
John Hood, Invest NI’s director of Food & Drink, says: “This deal is a tremendous endorsement of the quality, taste and innovation underpinning the foods Tom & Ollie handcrafts at its factory in west Belfast, and we are delighted to support its first steps into the British market.
“It is also great to see that the very practical support we provide to our food and drink companies, both large and small, is making an impact.
“Our meet the buyer showcase has been hugely successful over the years and underpins our long-standing strategic focus to assist companies win business outside of Northern Ireland.
“We will continue to help local businesses to maximise the commercial opportunities available to them through comprehensive support and guidance,” he adds.