Kehlan Kirwan: Q&A with Birgitta Curtin from the Burren Smokehouse

In this week’s column, Kehlan Kirwan talks to Birgitta Curtin from the Burren Smokehouse on her tips for producers seeking to promote Irish food around the world.

Give us some background on how Burren Smokehouse started.

Sure, so we started out wanting to create our own jobs and wanting to do it in and around the area of Lisdoonvarna. My husband was a third generation Curtin in Lisdoonvarna, and I was from Sweden.

This was during the 1980s when there were very few jobs in Ireland. We were both entrepreneurs and both had a background in food. I had done marine biology and he had been part of the merchant navy.

We were both interested in food. The Cliffs of Moher are only eight kilometres away. We wanted people who were coming to the area to get an opportunity to taste food from around where they were.

So how do you build it from there?

From the outside looking in, it seems as if we are in the middle of nowhere. However, because we were near the Cliffs of Moher and surrounded by tourists, we were in the centre of the universe for what we were doing.

Our passing trade isn’t just locals or people who have heard of us. We get people to us from around the world daily. People are buying your product and bringing it back to Chicago, Hong Kong or Sydney.

So they are taking your product around the world, and that is where the connection grows and you gain an international reputation.

Do you have a high season for production?

I suppose with the food that we have, that is quite high value. It also has a good shelf life, so we can ship it anywhere without worrying about distance or time. Our season runs from March to about early October.

Lisdoonvarna would be quite busy with tourists at that time. On top of that then, we would be shipping and selling the product and that continues on right through to Christmas. We are also lucky in that our product isn’t heavy.

So for example, if we made jams or something like that, the preserve and glass jar would make for a heavy product to ship and thus cost more to do so. So we have the advantage that our smoked salmon is light, but also that it is a high-value product.

We also have phenomenal customer service. If you combine those things together you get a business that is lasting and can bring you a year-round trade, not just through the summer months.

People can buy your product in Harrods, but they can also buy it in a local shop in Ennis. How do you decide where it goes to be sold?

Very simply put, it is the pride of being local. People buy our product around the world, but for them to be able to buy it locally is a matter of pride. When we began distributing it we looked at independent shops.

In recent years we moved into the larger multiples, stores that can appreciate the product. We work closely with Dunnes Stores and SuperValu. Both are Irish-owned and both support domestic companies very well.

I would say that for the moment at least, Dunnes are breaking ahead in promoting that premium product side both in how it’s displayed and who they select. We also sell into the Marriott Hotel, The K Club, Áras an Uachtaráin and the Dáil.

Then you have small cafés and restaurants who are deeply passionate about Irish produce and high quality. So I think it’s about working with people who understand the premium end of the product and that there is a lot of quality and care involved in getting it to them.

We’ve seen the economic uncertainty of Brexit and now with the US election. Is that a concern for you?

Of course, it’s a concern to us, but we are lucky in that we are not selling into the middle end of the market, where we would have to produce a much higher volume of product for lower margins.

It is worrying that it is going to cost more now for people to buy Irish products in those countries. The other side of that is that while the US remains an important market for us, we also have large followings in places like France, Germany, Italy and Spain. France is a very big market for the Burren Smokehouse.

We have a very large distribution of customers which is good to have. We also have a very dedicated customer base who have been to see us and understand how our process works. We’re not a massive depot — you can come and talk with us. You can taste the products with us and tell us what you think of the products.

That gives people a great sense of trust in the product. That means when going back to where ever they live, that they remember us and come back to us again and again.

You’ve recently opened an events hall in the town too. Why?

We wanted to create a space that showcased not just Burren foods, but also Irish foods. So we want people to be able to understand the food story of some of our best food producers. So we created a space that was dedicated to Irish food producers, where they could come and show their products. We can host music events, wine events and so on too.

The surrounding area of the Burren has a very rich tradition with food, but also in creating events with great food at its centre. That is why we decided to create the space and begin a food journey.

So what’s the future of Burren Smokehouse?

Well, I do think that we are facing some increased prices in our salmon. We are a small production and its popularity means that it is becoming like gold dust.

So we need to keep working on value-adding so people aren’t just buying a product, but are getting more than that.We want people who come to us to have an educational experience. We are part of a wider network of great food producers in the area and we need people to understand that you’re buying a little piece of the area.

That you are buying the fresh water that salmon came from. That you’re buying a little piece of the bush from which the blackberries were hand picked to be made into jam. If we can keep that message going and bring it to a wider audience we can keep showcasing a food experience as well as a food destination.


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