Velvet Cloud tells Clodagh Finn how they found a silver lining online amid the Coronavirus.
When coronavirus restrictions were first put in place, Co Mayo yogurt producers Velvet Cloud lost half of their business overnight.
Aisling and Michael Flanagan, the husband and wife team behind the specialist sheep dairy business founded near Claremorris three years ago, were shocked and afraid, like many thousand food producers entering uncharted waters.
Before they had time to process what was happening, the restaurants who used their handmade sheep’s milk yogurt in both savoury and sweet dishes had also been forced to shut their doors.
While the Covid-19 pandemic has been felt everywhere, its impact on the food sector has been particularly severe. The crisis is likely to have a “devastating” effect on food businesses, according to a new Bord Bia report which estimates a projected loss of €6.9bn in exports.
The news, however, is not entirely bad. The Irish Food Board also said that the emergence of collection and delivery services, which we are seeing all over the country, represented one of the few signs of hope. Here, it says, was an idea that could help businesses recoup a small percentage of their losses.
The introduction of online sales and a nationwide delivery service has certainly been far better received than Velvet Cloud could ever have imagined.
When the crisis first hit, like many others, they began to look at ways to continue to operate and wondered if they could move their business online. Boxes were ordered, ice sheets were frozen, and the packing began. They were unprepared for what happened next.
“In just 17 days we’ve been blown away by the support we have received. People have bought, shared, posted, re-shared, recommended and generally lifted our spirits like you could not imagine,” the company said on Facebook in a post thanking customers.
“It’s been a baptism of fire,” Aisling Flanagan tells Feelgood. And it continues to be an uphill struggle as the company tries to recover some of its lost sales while upskilling as fast as possible by doing crash courses, by webinar, on how to market and sell online.
It’s been worth it, though, as Velvet Cloud has been very heartened to see the support and goodwill out there for local producers.
Its product, natural sheep’s milk yogurt uses two ingredients – fresh sheep’s milk and live yogurt cultures – and it’s available, with free delivery nationwide, from www.velvetcloud.ie/shop.
In June, the company’s seasonable Rockfield sheep’s milk cheese will also be available.
Velvet Cloud is one of many food producers and businesses which have been forced to look at different ways to get to market to offset the huge downturn caused by the coronavirus.
Some are developing new home delivery services while others are reintroducing them. NudieFoods in Dublin, for instance, specialised in delivering fresh fruit and milk to offices but now with workplaces quiet, it has relaunched its home delivery service to help those who are finding it hard to get to the shops.
All orders are guaranteed contactless in line with social distancing best practices.
In Cork, the award-winning cheesemakers at Bó Rua Farm have also turned to online sales to cope with the downturn.
Norma Dinneen explains: “We produce cheddar using the milk of our Montbéliarde and Friesian cows. Like so many other small producers, our business was heavily dependent on food service for sales. Once restaurants closed we found ourselves having to adapt to survive. Over a weekend, I set up our new online shop.”
The family-run business now sells its cheese online and offers national next-day delivery.
“Honestly, we have been blown away by the response. In the first week alone, over 50 orders shipped nationally. It is clear that Irish consumers value and seek out the highest quality produce,” she said.
She said Bó Rua Farm was very grateful to numerous campaigns that are raising awareness of Irish producers who retail online.
And those numbers are growing. Right across the sector, independent producers, food businesses and retailers have been thinking of innovative solutions to work safely within the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus.
Blas na hÉireann has published a list of past winners who are now trading online and a new app eatforireland.ie acts as a virtual marketplace linking the Irish food world with customers.