She had been working in tourism marketing for more than 20 years and saw how Irish restaurants and hotels were getting no kudos for using local produce.
“I saw a massive need for linking agriculture and hospitality together. Hotels and restaurants were crying out for recognition for that commitment to using local food,” she says. “Where was the competitive advantage for the restaurant sourcing local produce over a restaurant down the road that was using imported chicken fillets?”
She decided to set up an all-island umbrella brand for people promoting local produce, with strict criteria based on the philosophy of sourcing local food. “It was a no-brainer for me in the end. If I can drive business into a hospitality sector that’s committed to local food, the hospitality sector will go out to the farmers and buy more Irish food and then more unexplored opportunities will develop for the farmers.”
There is now a national obsession with food and its origins, but at the height of the boom people laughed at her plan to focus on local produce and make Ireland a food-tourism destination.
“It was so pioneering that people were saying to me: ‘Margaret, who really cares whether the food is local or not?’” she recalls. “International tour operators were saying: ‘But you don’t have good food in Ireland’. International consumers were saying: “What have you got in Ireland only bacon and cabbage?”
“They overwhelmingly agreed that the reputation for Ireland as a food producer was very, very good but what we didn’t seem to have was a reputation for our cuisine.”
So Jeffares ploughed a lonely furrow at first, setting up the Good Food Ireland limited company, at home on a farm in Wexford with €50,000 of her own money. Today, she has more than 520 members, including hotels, BBs, pubs, restaurants, cafes, cookery schools, food shops and producers.
“As well as meeting the food-sourcing criteria, they all have to operate at a level that is classed ‘best of their type’,” she says.
The organisation runs workshops and conferences, helping members to market themselves and linking restaurants and hotels with local producers. “So if someone calls up and says: ‘I want to start using free-range eggs. Where can I get them?’ Or, ‘where can I get Irish rapeseed oil?’ we can tell them.”
Members are only accepted after independent inspection to ensure they meet the standards. “Today, the business is mainly supported by membership and sponsorship,” she says. Members pay anything from €450 to €5,000 depending on the size and product type.
Jeffares says she could have 10 times the number of members without the rigorous inspection process, but she could not offer the consumer guarantee of the best quality produce.
Good Food Ireland the numbers:
522 members who employ more than 5,900 people
Members had a turnover of €390 million last year
24 per cent are exporting produce and 17 per cent have plans to do so
80 per cent expect growth in earnings this year
92 per cent increased their spend on Irish produce in the last three years
Read the complete article in the Irish Times
Image of Maraget Jeffares from the article in Irish Times