For Ronan Sullivan of Vernon Catering, staying on top of food trends is a huge aspect of his company’s ethos of maintaining best quality and ensuring customer satisfaction.
The vast majority of Vernon’s deliveries consists of staples – tomatoes, carrots, onions, celery and so on. Rapidly changing consumer habits have inspired wholesalers to diversify their offering while also maintaining quality. Take, for example, the explosion of interest in Mexican food, which is currently causing a global shortage of avocados.
“Avocados are a premium product,” explains Ronan. “Three years ago, I would have maybe sold three boxes a week, and now we’re selling well over 300, up to 350 boxes, every week. Sweet potatoes is another one. I don’t know even if anyone ever asked us for sweet potatoes up to about six years ago. People would ask for yams, which are fairly similar, but sweet potatoes just weren’t something that was on the menu really. Again, we’re selling over 300 boxes of those every week.”
It’s not enough to simply be sourcing and selling these products. For Vernon Catering to stock any type of fruit or vegetable, the quality has to be there, day in and day out. This is an increasingly difficult task when trends are changing faster than ever, influenced by global food trends.
An example, says Ronan is fiddlehead ferns. “They’re small curly greens, they curl out and in depending on climate. We didn’t even know you could consume them but it’s something that people want now. Somebody is looking for those for next week. So I’ll do a bit of research about that, see what the story is, how do they cook, what do they taste like, and see if I can get them in, if we can satisfy the customer’s need and if they could be popular.”
It’s this attention to detail and drive to satisfy customers’ needs that has kept Vernon at the forefront of meeting the demands of chefs in Dublin since the 80s. “We’re always learning. I’ll inevitably come across something associated with fiddlehead ferns, I’ll do some research on that and we can grow our own personal knowledge that way,” Ronan says
The explosion of interest in coconut products in recent years is a prime example of consumers’ desire for what are typically perceived as healthier products. Likewise, spirulina and wheatgrass powder, while not necessarily new products, have snowballed in terms of popularity in the last year. Staying on top of these trends has become part of the day job.
“It’s so dynamic and we’re so used to short turnarounds that we see with these trends and we’re able to react quite quickly. That’s the nature of our business anyway.
[pull_quote_center]We could sell a lot of our regulars one week, like peppers, and the next week we wouldn’t sell half that amount. It can be a very dramatic, cyclical curve to what we’re doing.[/pull_quote_center]
For many, Ireland’s new global appetite brings the ideas of seasonality and local produce into a new light. “If I was to buy something in the north of France and bring it to Ireland, it would be the same thing as someone in New York bringing in produce from north of that state. So my perspective is, of course everyone wants to buy local but Irish farmers only have one season and only have certain weather they can work with,” says Ronan.
Sometimes, trends are driven by chefs as much as by consumer demand. “Let’s say okra for example, nothing unusual but not something we’d sell an awful lot of. Then maybe there’s some recipe going around, or some food show on TV for example, and then everyone is looking for it. You’ll see these trends mushrooming at certain periods of the year.”
Vernon Catering’s high regard for its customers, both new and longstanding, can probably best be summed up in an anecdote from over 30 years ago, when the company found itself in the unlikely position of shipping out Irish cheeses and sausages to a number of Irish embassies around Europe.
“Once a week we used to pack up different Irish cheeses in boxes and send them to the airport. We’d get a courier parcel, a sealed bag, and drop it to the airport. We were delivering up to the airport area anyway so wasn’t costing us anything really,” says Ronan.
[pull_quote_center]I don’t even know if you could get away with it now, it’s highly dubious![/pull_quote_center]
With the restaurant scene in Dublin booming, it would be easy for Ronan and his team to lose sight of what made them successful to begin with – a focus on the highest quality, and exacting customer service standards. “The further you go from the bases the more difficult it is to deliver the level of service we want to, so we’re very conscious of that. It’s not about being the biggest, it’s about being the best,” explains Ronan.
Online ordering for chefs is of course the next big thing, and while it’s a long way from replacing the telephone as the primary way of requesting next morning’s deliveries, Ronan is looking forward to using the technology to better enhance customer service. “Someone might call up and say they want a box of tomatoes – now we have a dozen types of tomato, so which one are they talking about? And put yourself in their shoes – they’ve just finished a shift, they’re dead on their feet, they just want to place the order and go home. Online ordering will eradicate an amount of frustration and time wastage in the supply line, definitely.”
[quote_box_center]For more information on Vernon Catering, visit www.vernoncatering.ie.[/quote_box_center]