These are extraordinary times for us all and the first to experience the dimming of the light has been the magnificent Irish hospitality sector, where thousands of jobs have already vanished and many businesses are threatened with permanent closure.
Equally, endangered are those growers, farmers and fishermen furnishing prime produce, along with the specialty food producers who add their own skills and knowledge to this bounty, all resulting in the extraordinary ingredients that have backboned the Irish hospitality offering, turning it into a world class dining proposition.
However, the response from the general public to their fate has been extraordinary, an outpouring of support and even love that illustrates just how much we value the vibrant and vital Irish food world.
For the duration of this crisis, it is not viable to review restaurants, so Leslie Williams and I will instead be temporarily converting our ‘home’ into a more fluid, constantly evolving appraisal of finest Irish food and hospitality, until we are all able to come together once more around a table and raise a glass in a toast now too poignantly appropriate: sláinte beatha!
Corkman Jack ‘Rocketman’ Crotty is an hour ahead of Irish time when I phone but, by another metric, he is roughly two weeks ahead of his fellow citizens back home in Ireland.
As we speak, Ireland is still suspended in a limbo of existential coronavirus anxiety, all wondering if we too are about to tumble off the precipice, to endure a similar grimly awful and truly heartbreaking fate to that of the poor Italians.
Now living in Piedmont, a province adjoining Lombardy, the epicentre of the Italian epidemic, Jack, his Italian partner Serena and her six-year-old daughter Ada are in total lockdown, in the lovely little town of Alba.
What’s more, the couple expect a new baby in early May.
He may be housebound but Jack is up to his oxters, retooling NeighbourFood, the online farmer’s market shopping business, to meet the needs of a rapidly collapsing retail environment for small Irish growers and specialty food producers, and consumers who support them.
Once you appreciate the difference between ‘price’ and ‘value’, shopping at farmer’s markets makes profound sense as it is easily the best source for finest local, seasonal, nutritious and delicious Irish fare, but staging times have long proven awkward for many potential customers.
Crotty, noticing a similar model in Italy, along with business partner Martin Poucher, in 2018, established an online shopping portal called NeighbourFood.ie, in other words, a virtual weekly ‘farmer’s market’.
The site’s shopping page offers a fine range of vegetables, fruit, real bread, cheeses, dairy produce, meat, poultry, confectionery, craft beer, natural wines and more.
Consumers collect their pre-paid order at a specific time from a designated host ‘market’. The original, The Apple Market, is sited in a historic former apple market, on Cork’s Barrack St, and has since been joined by others in Ireland and Britain.
An inspired idea, it has evolved slowly, long-term prospects, entirely sound—perhaps with an especial emphasis on ‘long’. Then Covid-19 emerged and everything changed.
Small producers and growers, many who often solely supplied restaurants and cafes or operated exclusively from farmer’s markets, found themselves desperately scrambling for commercially viable alternative routes to market.
NeighbourFood is one perfect and - crucially - already operational solution.
“The overarching philosophy of NeighbourFood,” says Jack, “is that what we sell is produced locally, so, not only are you getting good, healthy food but the money is going right back into the local economy. And, now, more than ever, we need to be supporting these types of small producers.”
The business model works as follows: producer gets 80%; host gets 10%; transaction costs are 3%; Neighbourfood takes the remaining 7%.
However, while all others in the transactional chain are paid immediately, NeighbourFood only begins to realise its share of profits roughly eight months after a market is established.
“This isn’t cashing in on the current emergency,” says Jack, “the time and effort that goes into establishing each new market means we won’t be profiting from the crisis, especially as many of them won’t be there when this is all over.
“We are frantically working with potential new producer-sellers, to fast-track them into our system but adding each one alone takes hours, verifying bank details, putting product details up online etcetera.
“Ordinarily, it takes us about three months to get a market up and running: sourcing producers, teaching everyone how to use the system, promoting each new opening.
“But we are doing our best to really accelerate that.
All NeighbourFood markets, old and new, have introduced a rigorous contact-free shopping etiquette adhering to HSE guidelines, including the option of direct deposit into the boot of your car, and are also trying to broaden a currently very limited offering of delivery for customers who are elderly, immuno-compromised or already diagnosed with Covid19.
Set up by a mutual friend, Jack and Serena maintained a long-distance relationship for over a year, before Jack eventually moved to Italy, entrusting his mother Simone Kelly with the day-to-day running of his Rocketman food business.
“It’s horrendous right now,” says Jack, ‘you don’t live here without knowing someone who works in healthcare. It feels like war—they are just being conscripted into Milan, then either wearing themselves out or getting the virus and being isolated and removed.
Very full and very happy after this amazing feed, delivered by @IzzCafe and @NeighbourFoodIE. Something to brighten this really horrible week. @maia_pie and I are both grinning! pic.twitter.com/Xorc4CrHk7— Jonathan Evershed (@jevershed01) March 21, 2020
“Then they conscript another ‘squad’ who are sent to the frontline. And it goes on and on. They are working down through the levels of qualifications.
“A day or two ago, they started conscripting anyone with a medical degree, even if you had no practical medical experience, you were into the hospital—terrifying.
“However, I must say one very important thing: we are about two weeks ahead of Ireland [in terms of the progression of the virus] and, after the economic shock in the beginning, followed by the terror of the virus, there has been a calm, community-led sentiment and support building.
“Everyone is adhering to social distancing, communicating with each other through mobile phones, but also shouting through letterboxes, from balcony to balcony, and leaving messages on doors. The other day, Ada painted a picture of rainbow with a message saying, ‘Everything is going to be OK! and put it on our front door.
“The resilience here is immense.”
Further information for potential hosts (temporary or permanent) of ‘market’ collection points or potential producer-sellers is available on www.neighbourfood.ie