A new food trail promoting top-notch Shetland produce is to be launched next year.
Jay Hawkins, co-founder of the Shetland Food Producers Group and director of Shetland Cheese, said the trail should be in place by summer at the latest.
This is after the group received a grant of £8,000 from the Com-munity Food Fund, which is financed by the Scottish govern-ment.
Visitors will be given information about where to find local food, whether it be bread from Sandwick, Shetland eggs or Shetland cheese.
A directory of producers will also be available through a website in connection with the food trail and maps of where to find food in the isles will be on offer.
“It’s all about trying to raise the profile of local produce and how locals and visitors can access it, be it straight from the producer, in a restaurant, in a hotel or in a local shop,” Mr Hawkins said.
He is hoping the trail will have a similar success to a scheme in the Western Isles where visitors could read about the food trail on the ferry before reaching the supermarket.
“They [the trail organisers] built that confidence – that once you left the principal town there were places you could get food, fresh produce, local produce and it’s rebalanced it a bit,” he said.
For most small producers in somewhere like Shetland it is “virtually impossible” to be listed by a supermarket, Mr Hawkins said.
He said decisions are made down south in the likes of Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, and Manchester – both major office locations for Tesco – and they are not interested in local produce.
His business, Shetland Cheese was set up in 2009, in a vacant smokehouse in Skeld.
This was after a holiday to Shetland in 2007 where he saw a gap in the market.
Shetland Cheese is a husband-and-wife venture and this summer they won a Great Taste Award for their Sooth Mooth cheese and a bronze medal in the British Cheese Awards for best new soft cheese – St Ninians.
The big challenge in 2013 was to find outlets on the UK mainland and Shetland Cheese exhibited at two big food shows in the summer – the Highlands Show and a food show in Nantwich.
On the back of that the company secured a contract with an upmarket cafe in the National Gallery in Edinburgh and was picked up by a distributor.
Mr Hawkins has also been working with Shetland Lamb producer Richard Briggs, who has been taking cheese down south when selling his lamb to folk on mainland Scotland.
Mr Briggs is a fellow member of the Shetland Food Producers Group and Mr Hawkins said it is important for producers to work together.
“I think that’s one of the things that’s key to the smaller producers in Shetland to get the product out there,” he said.
“There’s not really much of a recent history of that happening
and I think there’s a definite opportunity for people to work together better.”
Greater collaboration was also key to getting local produce on local menus, he added, and the relationship between producer and buyer worked both ways.
“If you talk to any of the big hotel chefs they will say to you that Shetland does produce some very good stuff but they don’t necessarily use it because they can’t necessarily rely on continuity of supply or continuity of quality.
“It’s a joke that we have got our stuff in restaurants in Edinburgh but not in Shetland,” Mr Hawkins added.
“We’re only in a few restaurants and I think that is one of the challenges to recognise through our food producers’ group – trying to tell the story that visitors and locals appreciate and notice local produce being on menus and being available, and they will actually want to spend more money and you will attract the type of client who will spend more money with you.”
Mr Hawkins said the cost of the produce could also be an issue of providing food in hotels.
Small suppliers were seasonal, he said, and not all hotel menus in Shetland were necessarily written in a way for seasonal products to be used.
Producers could also benefit from the oil industry.
“The Shetland economy is booming at the moment but local producers aren’t necessarily seeing that much benefit. Certainly not through trade sales so there is work to be done there there’s probably lots of local producers that would like to able to sell more to oil people.”
The Shetland Food Producers’ group has helped to raise the profile of producers, said Mr Hawkins but there is a long way to go.
Previously Shetland Islands Council had organised and funded the Shetland Food Festival, but the food producers group took on the role of after funding was cut.
The group was formed by Mr Hawkins and Ann Johnson of Scoop Wholefoods to get the food fair up and running.
There are 15 members and the group’s second fair this year included more producers.
Around 4,000 people visited the event this year.
Next year there are plans to have a bigger Christmas fair along with a summer event with live music.
Outside of the isles the Shetland brand has never been worth more than it has now, Mr Hawkins said.
There had been a lot of media coverage, he said, and the likes of Promote Shetland and Visit Shetland had ensured the isles had a really good profile, as had the coverage by Simon King and the BBC crime drama Shetland.
“If we can get our products onto menus or in front of people on the mainland they see the word Shetland and they think ‘oh that’s the connection’. Certainly we find people that have got any Shetland connection will support is if they are down south.”