The Covid-19 pandemic hit the hospitality industry like a tornado, leaving thousands out of work, so food company boss Jack Hamilton and his colleagues created a way back into the workplace for the unemployed.
Almost as soon as the lockdown began, demand soared for the pre-prepared vegetable meals produced by Hamilton’s firm Mash Direct, which grows most of its vegetables on the family farm and cooks them onsite.
In the third week of March, Mash Direct posted a job ad on Facebook seeking 20 temporary workers to help the company manage the soaring sales of its range of 50 products such as mash potato, mashed carrot and parsnip and crispy vegetable bakes.
At the same time, Hamilton was also preparing to launch a new farm-to-door delivery service of Mash Direct’s meals to reach vulnerable people unable to go to the supermarket.
That job advertisement generated an eye-watering 2,000 applications, highlighting the sharp rise in unemployment.
Shocked by the situation, Hamilton and Mash Direct, a family-owned agribusiness near the shores of Strangford Lough in Co Down, joined with others to set up the Feed the Nation NI campaign. The social media platform matches candidates to jobs most suited to their skills and location and is designed to help people get back into a working environment.
“Suddenly everyone was desperately in need of an income,” Jack said. “There was that horrible window between everything shutting down and support schemes being introduced.
“Consumers were panic-buying; people were stocking up on everything they could get their hands on because suddenly people were being told they had no work. At the same time we were seeing a surge in orders, and we put up a note on Facebook seeking temporary workers. It was a simple post, for about 20 jobs — but within 48 hours we had 2,000 applications.”
Mash Direct took on 30 new employees and then set about creating the new employment initiative with the support of others in the food industry. Soon the platform began re-directing job applicants to other food producers seeking staff. The initiative was later handed over to North Ireland’s Department for Communities.
In the meantime, Mash Direct’s farm-to-door delivery service launched to a hugely positive response: “We realised there were people who wanted nutritious vegetable meals, who were unable to go to supermarkets, and we expanded our mash direct website to offer this e-commerce service,” Jack said.
After its launch in the third week of March, the service experienced an increase in sales of 4,000%.
Many supermarkets found their online delivery services were crashing from the huge demand, and we stepped in to make sure people could get local, fresh vegetables delivered to their doors in the form of prepared meals,” Jack said.
“Innovation is the lifeblood of the industry, so we will continue to listen to what our customers like - and bring on more dishes!”