What is Your “Mont Blanc”?

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Mont Blanc, France

This question arose during a recent family holiday in the smart alpine town of Chamonix in the French Alps.

The town sports a number of high end shops specialising in outdoor wear, equipment and accessories. With its proximity to the Mont Blanc Massif it’s a natural mecca for climbers, winter sports enthusiasts and lovers of the outdoors. Almost every hotel promises an amazing view of the mountains and when you get there you understand why. The Massif towers over the town providing a jaw dropping spectacle which feels almost too close to be real.

Also in Chamonix is a small chain of confectioners Aux Petits Gourmands which makes the most of its adjacency to Europe’s highest mountain. The menu for the sit-in café features a selection of Summit Chocolates dedicated to the famous peaks nearby, all with heights over 4,000m. There is also a retail range of chocolates branded 4810 (the height of Mont Blanc) which are in the shape of mini-mountains and impress in their detail, memorability and uniqueness.

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Chocolate Summit Menu, Aux Petit Gourmands, Chamonix

It got me thinking.

Could this work for a topographical or cultural heritage site in Ireland (or any other country for that matter)? Is there an opportunity for one or more of Ireland’s unique and ancient features to be fashioned into a commercially viable food product that people (particularly visitors) would like to buy?

Some years ago while working in food exports I was approached by someone who mooted the idea of developing a soda bread baked in the shape of the island of Ireland. Which could be served at ambassador receptions and gatherings of the Irish diaspora around the world. At the time it was difficult to think beyond the practicalities of devising a suitable loaf tin that would be able to effectively carve out Ireland’s craggy coastline in all its glory. The core idea, though, of using Ireland’s distinctiveness as a key selling point and a basis for product development, was pretty valid.

A number of food and beverage companies have used their connections with mountains and the outdoors to convey brand credentials, a point of difference and sometimes health cues. Toblerone and the Swiss Mountains. Alpen and the French Alps. Coors Light and the Rocky Mountains. All brands with longevity.

Perhaps one of the most famous foodstuffs to be associated with high altitude is Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake which Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay ate at the summit of Mount Everest during their successful ascent in 1953. The “cake” is still popular with mountaineers and is widely believed to be the world’s first energy bar.

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Some Irish chocolate companies do make good use of Ireland’s landscape and cityscapes in their branding and packaging designs. Skelligs Chocolates branding reflects the famous Skellig islands; Butlers Chocolates has a range of Dublin (and other cities) branded chocolate boxes and tins; and Clare based Hazel Mountain Chocolates has recently launched a new Burren Truffle Collection gift box, with the brand design highlighting aspects of the Burren landscape.

But what is Ireland’s Mont Blanc? My thoughts below, and please feel free to add your own suggestions …

 

 

 

Social Media: Addiction, Affliction or Assumption

Perhaps an ironic title, given that this post will itself be shared online and on social media platforms. But is social media the greatest boon of our times? Or a necessary evil? Most of us can relate to having uneasy and at times mixed feelings about the dominance of social media in our lives.

We love it (Addiction).
We loath it (Affliction).
We need it and can’t live without it (Assumption).

My Sponsored Life

I spent a couple of hours this week watching Vogue William’s new documentaries currently airing on RTE which offer an intriguing insight into the world of social media. In the second episode called My Sponsored Life, she considers the role of the social influencer, a job which barely existed 5 years ago.

Vogue is no slouch herself in the social media department, with 584,000 followers on Instagram (her husband Spencer Matthews has 743,000). She readily admits to having an uncomfortable relationship with her influencer status and dislikes the term.

It’s not difficult to see why influencers have become all-pervasive. In an era of information overload, people tend to reduce their news sources to a manageable number and like to receive this information through the lens of people they trust, can relate to and seek to emulate.

It might seem like an easy, fun and seductive way to earn a living. According to PR guru Lynne Hunter on the programme, “You can build a business from your phone. That’s genius.”

Or is it?

Vogue acknowledges the self-validation aspect of being an influencer. Posting something. Trial by “likes”. Constant checking. Obsessing over algorithms and how to make them work for you. It’s clear that influencing as a career may be short-lived and it’s perhaps best viewed as a platform for developing other longer term business interests.

As an aside, one of the more bizarre influencers featured on the programme is an impossibly cute 3lb dog called Norbert living in California with his own You Tube channel, a huge Instagram following and a full range of merchandise. Norbert’s owner puts his appeal down to the fact that he simply makes people happy. It is an uncomplicated and endearing proposition in a jaded world.

Cats on You Tube will have to sharpen their claws and find a new competitive advantage.

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White Moose Cafe

Perhaps one of the most interesting interviews on the programme is with Paul Stenson of The Charleville Hotel and White Moose Café, on Dublin’s north side. Over the years, Stenson has waged Twitter warfare on vegans, pensioners, breastfeeding mothers, coeliacs and even an entire nation (Brazil), all in the interests of free publicity.

A couple of years ago while on a business trip to the US, I was surprised when an American trade contact had not just heard of the White Moose but declared himself a huge fan of Stenson’s tweets. As the café is located no more than a stone’s throw from where I live, I sent him the featured photo on my return (he was very tickled …).

Stenson achieved near infamy in early 2018 after he inadvertently exposed a UK blogger who was looking for a free stay in exchange for coverage. In conversation with Vogue, Stenson defends his social media strategy as merely a very effective and free marketing tool. Arguably, he is an influencer himself who sets out to poke fun and make “divilment”, as he puts it, while self-promoting. In other words, stir things up.

Food, beverage and hospitality businesses do lend themselves particularly well to social media. It’s a great leveler. No one is too interested in the size of a business if the information flow is entertaining, authentic and informative. Some home-grown food brands have been built very successfully in this way. It does help if you are telegenic and on-trend (think Happy Pear twins).

Social media can also enable a direct line of communication. Who remembers the Co Clare guesthouse owner who posted a 3 page riposte to a negative review on Trip Advisor, pointing out calmly and eloquently the guests failings and unreasonable behaviour? A firm way of taking back control.

I think we can all say aye to that.

My Sponsored Life is currently on RTE Player.

Tell me What you Want, What you really really Want

Tech companies – and not just the giants – have gained an impressive reputation for offering perks to employees that can range from the seriously sublime (Microsoft rewards staff with a hand sculptured work of art for every 5 years of service) to the faintly ridiculous (AirBnB’s Dublin office allows staff to bring their pets to work).

Free Food

Feeding staff well has always been a huge part of the package. The food on offer in many of these companies has achieved near legendary status with Google one of the first companies to offer free food to their employees. Facebook’s Menlo Park Headquarters in California has been designed to mimic a downtown urban environment, including numerous food choices.

These kinds of perks also entice staff to stay onsite for longer and encourage informal collaborations with fellow workers while moving around the campus so have a number of productivity benefits as well.

Do Perks Matter?

But do all these perks really matter, in the intense battle to attract and retain talent in the global marketplace? Not according to a recent study by LinkedIn, which found that what employees actually care about the most are core benefits such as time off and flexibility. 44% of employees rated health coverage, paid time off and parental leave as the factors most likely to keep them at their companies. By contrast, only 19% said they would stay for in-office perks such as food, gyms, and games rooms.

Flexibility is particularly important at certain life stages and for the largest demographic within the workforce – parents – who can face an intense juggling of career and family responsibilities.

More Irish employees than ever want to avail of flexible working conditions. They don’t always get the chance, however. Although practices are changing slowly, Irish companies have been notoriously reluctant to introduce measures to enable staff to work outside of the office, mostly due to fears around loss of control.

Commuting in Dublin

Cutting out the commute seems like a no-brainer.

Shortly after I moved back to Dublin from living in London, I took a taxi to the city centre. The driver and I engaged in idle chit chat about the heavy traffic (probably not even so bad that particular day) and he commented that the city’s biggest problem was that everyone living in the north side seemed to work on the south side and vice versa. After spending 15 years crisscrossing the city on a daily basis and experiencing some spectacular traffic jams, I can only concur.

A recent report ranked Dublin’s traffic congestion as among the worst in Europe. Inrix, a global company that specialises in transportation analytics, reported that Dublin drivers spent a staggering 246 hours in traffic in 2018.

According to the report’s ‘Hours Lost in Congestion’ metric, which compares the total number of hours lost in congestion during peak commute periods compared to ‘free-flow’ conditions, Dublin was the third-worst city (200 cities from 38 countries were analysed). The other European cities where drivers spend the most time in their cars were Rome (254 hours), Paris (237 hours) and London (227 hours). Dublin also has the  slowest city centre in all of Europe, an extraordinary statistic.

Employee Engagement

AON, a global HR consultancy firm, identifies Employee Engagement as an organization’s great differentiator in their 2018 Trends report, which surveyed 8m employees in 1,000 companies globally. Engagement is especially important during times of change and instability. Engaged employees are advocates for their companies, plan to stay long term and strive to give their employers their best efforts. A key driver of engagement is “Enabling Infrastructure”. Essentially empowering employees to do their jobs and do them well.

So while playing ping pong with your colleagues might be a fun thing to do, and free food is always welcome, employees are mostly interested in using their time well and efficiently and having the autonomy to do their jobs in the most effective way possible.

“The trouble is, you think you have time.” Buddha

Stoney-Vegan-Batter

The small enclave of Stoneybatter north of Dublin’s city centre just might be a candidate for vegan capital of Ireland, with a slew of new vegan eating spots adding to the area’s existing foodie credentials.

Stoneybatter has carefully cultivated its hipster haven status in the last few years. It’s a great place to socialise and eat out in, with an ever changing food scene. Several of the more traditional pubs in the neighbourhood have even embraced food trucks including the eclectic Glimmerman Pub on Manor Street where a Vietnamese food truck serves vegetarian meals from Thursday to Sunday.

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On the vegan front, estimates vary, however vegans are believed to represent between 1-3% of the population of the developed world. Vegans could be forgiven for feeling a certain vindication of late. Interest in plant based diets has never been higher. Their time has come. This is a movement that is proceeding at a high octane pace and no one wants to be left behind. Veganism has become mainstream, and very quickly.

It’s not so long ago though that veganism was very much in the margins, an activism-driven hardline community.

I myself had a short sharp introduction to veganism. After I moved to the UK some years ago I arranged to meet a friend from college who was then living in Oxford. We decamped to a nearby restaurant and revelled in our grown-up status. A proper restaurant that wasn’t the college canteen! Then my friend rather ominously announced that she had become a vegan and hoped there would be something on the menu she could eat.

I soon found myself hiding behind the large plastic menu as my friend grilled the waitress about the provenance of every ingredient on the menu, resulting in several trips back and forth to the kitchen. 30 minutes later, very little had passed the vegan test, and she ended up settling for a salad. On balance, I decided it would be better not to talk too much about my new job selling meat and dairy products.

The situation couldn’t be more different now, with many establishments almost falling over themselves to promote their “vegan friendly” credentials. The traditional food industry is also making great efforts to meet this growing demand. A full 14% of all new product launches in the UK in 2017 were vegan.

People cite one or more of three key motivations for going vegan – animal welfare, environmental concerns and personal health – and it is being accompanied by an endless array of new business startups, cookbooks, YouTube channels, online shopping options and polemical documentaries.

The hugely successful Veganuary was launched in the UK in 2014, with 3,300 people signing up; by 2016, there were 23,000 participants, then 59,500 in 2017, and a staggering 168,000 in 2018. Notably 84% of the registered participants in 2018 were female, while 60% were aged under 35. It’s also estimated that far more people “do” Veganuary than actually register – up to 10 times the number.

Attitudes have shifted as well, with veganism now viewed less as a restricted diet and more as a positive lifestyle choice which empowers people. Importantly, this is a culture rather than a movement, with many believing that worldwide conversion to veganism is the only way to save the planet.

Stoneybatter’s Vegan Options

Beo has set up shop in a unit formerly occupied by a clothing shop. The slightly unusual space (narrow at the front, wider at the rear) has been expertly designed into a comfortable and modern homage to vegan food.

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Beo, 50A Manor Street, Stoneybatter, Dublin 7

Famous for their vegan smoothie bowls, Kale and Coco’s first permanent outlet is now open in a ground floor unit within Swuite, one of the many student accommodation buildings now open in Dublin 7.

V-Face is a pop-up vegan burger stall which will reportedly shortly open in a site on North Brunswick Street. There is much speculation locally as to where this will be exactly. The former hairdressers? The former tattoo parlour? Or a hybrid offering all three?

Other vegan friendly outlets include Woke Up Café and Token on Queen Street. Vegetarian café Woke Up has been open since September while Token offers up a restaurant, bar, retro arcade, pinball parlour and event space with over 32 machines, 22 taps, and a range of vegan items on the menu.

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Woke Up Café, Queen Street, Stoneybatter, Dublin 7

Six pieces of food art

  1. Coffee greetings spreading happiness.
    Enjoy Bald Barista
    Bald Barista, Aungier Street, Dublin
  2. Sustainable art; a sculpture made of used coffee pods.
    Nespresso
    Nespresso Flagship Boutique, Regent Street, London
  3. A wall mural.
    Hotel Moments
    Hotel Moments, Andrassy 8, Budapest
  4. Dining meets art. Powder pink furniture and (David Shrigley) art on the walls.

    Sketches
    Sketches Gallery Restaurant, 9 Conduit Street, London
  5. Goulash “installation”.
    Goulasch Installation
    Pesti Sorcsarnok, Vamhaz koerut 16, 1053 Budapest
  6. Personalised breads.
    Personalised Sourdough
    Harrods Food Hall, Knightsbridge, London