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As a result of the crisis, the small business Mark, who’s self-employed, has been building steadily over the past decade, is at a crossroads. Virtually all the food markets central to his business have either been shelved indefinitely or are about to be because of the virus threat. Gone are his pitches at popular street markets in Newtownards, Comber and Carrickfergus. And he won’t have the Food NI Food Pavilion at the RUAS show in Balmoral Park, a longstanding success story for him, in the near future.
Cookery classes on local breads, another important element of his small enterprise, has also fallen victim to the deadly virus.
“It’s been shattering to see my markets scrapped after all my hard work in developing a successful artisan business,” he says. “They were my bread and butter, the very core of my business. And I have no idea when they will come back. I am essentially a one-man business and unlikely to qualify for any of the Executive’s recently announced financial packages. It’s very worrying,” adds the father of two grown-up sons who set up his business to revive interest in griddle baking on-site.
His fresh baked range include such iconic breads as potato cakes, soda farls, treacle bread and potato apple, the latter a winner of a UK Great Taste Award. He’s also won Great Taste gold for his traditional Northern Irish shortbread.
Colourful Krazi Baker, who has been regularly hired by Invest NI, Food NI, Tourism NI/ Tourism Ireland and the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise to showcase local breads here as well as in Ireland and Great Britain, has certainly no intention of giving up the fight. “I’ve invested too much time and money in this business to just walk away…and I just couldn’t afford to do so. My entire family is involved and its part of our life.
“I enjoy it and especially the craic with shoppers. I’ve build up a host of great customers over the years and will endeavor to continue to provide the breads they clearly love. I am determined to turn this around. I am fighter and determined to win this battle,” he says.
He’s not alone. Other artisan businesses are also fighting for their very survival.
Food NI’s Michele Shirlow is understandably deeply worried about the problems being experienced by artisan producers with the closure of so many markets. “We’ve been urging the Executive to ensure the survival of such smaller companies with funding support, to provide some cash flow,” she says. “More needs to be done to help and self-employed artisans over short-term cash flow and in the months ahead.
“These companies are a great source of delicious and original food and drink. It would be terrible to see some many entrepreneurs resulting from our hugely successful Year of Food and Drink in 2016 being blown away in the current crisis,” adds Mrs Shirlow.
She points out the other parts of Europe are assisting the self-employed. “Ireland, for example, is paying the self-employed who have lost business because of the coronavirus around £180 a week for six weeks to help hide them over the crisis,” she continues.
Krazi Baker’s Mark Douglas is now fighting back and hoping his loyal customers will weigh in behind him. “We sat down as a family the other night to put our heads together and to come up with a solution,” he says. “We reckoned that if we couldn’t reach our customers because the markets have gone then we’d have to go out to them. Our aim is to ensure cash flow especially over the next few months,” he adds.
They came up with a smart idea that involves all members of family. “What I am now doing is offering lovers of traditional Northern Irish breads fresh from the griddle at home and delivered to their doors. I am baking the potato bread, sodas and treacle farls for Karen, my wife, and two sons, Anton and Brandon, to deliver right to them as quickly and as fresh as possible.
“We’re all in this together and we’re using social media, principally Facebook and Twitter, to get the message out and let our friends know about the new same-day service based on providing special £10 and £20 packs of griddle breads,” he explains. “The initial response has been extremely encouraging and the service is currently available in key parts of Co Down.
He’s also been immensely encouraged by support from other smaller businesses especially the successful Quail’s deli in Banbridge which is now selling the sourdough loaves that were also popular at markets. “Joe Quail has been tremendous,” he says. We are also now exploring other small retail outlets for opportunities.
“We’re going to get through this as a family and be ready for growth when this awful virus has gone and the markets open again,” he says.