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Fit and healthy food profits

Fresh-produce cafes are sprouting up all over Dublin as consumers embrace a healthier lifestyle

A selection of delicious produce at Póg on Bachelors Walk in Dublin.

A selection of delicious produce at Póg on Bachelors Walk in Dublin.

 

Superfoods, green cuisine and hip eateries are trending as the hot topics of conversation in sophisticated social circles these days. Health-food followers who kickstart the day with a vegetable spiraliser in one hand and a power juicer in the other are dictating a new cafe scene in Ireland, where freshly picked produce thrives and nasty additives or allergens are barred.

Fitter food rather than faster food regimes are popping up like Obama-land green shoots with outlets like Póg, Sprout and Freshly Chopped meeting the demands of an enlightened attitude that is dominating counter culture. In fact, supercharged, designer dishes have replaced fashion labels as luxury status symbols as wheat, carbs and gluten become as unpopular as nylon and crimplene.

Rachel Keane (29) owner of Póg café, (Irish for kiss) epitomises the zeitgeist of this millennial generation and feeds her esteemed Instagram account with aesthetic shots of Póg’s seductively presented dishes.

“A key part of our popularity is our social media pages. Our customers share images of our dishes online and they get traction all over the world. We have customers coming from as far as Kabul and Australia to check out our protein pancakes or beetroot lattes,” says Keane, at her outlet on Bachelors Walk in Dublin. All her innovative recipes and concoctions are self-taught and her dad, who is an entrepreneur, has been a fantastic help in supporting her business ideas and marketing plans.

“Fit food is fashionable right now, but it has been a big part of my life for a long time ever since I lost weight as a teenager. Even before the health revolution, I knew this kind of business would be a success, because everybody loves food, but nobody wants to be overweight.”

Keane keeps ahead of the game by constantly creating new recipes and dishes to keep up the momentum. “What’s this week’s popular dish is next week’s trash! That’s why we ensure that everything we put out on the table here looks aesthetically pleasing.”

Keane’s shop started out as a unique healthy frozen yoghurt outlet in 2014 but her venture coincided with the food revolution and a wellness market in pursuit of pure, organic choices. “A lot of my inspiration comes from Scandinavia or the Melbourne cafe lifestyle,” she adds. She frequently travels abroad to catch the next wave of herbal infusions and exotic recipes. As a result, the food is very visually striking and is constantly Shapchatted, Instagrammed and Facebooked – so like an ’80s’ supermodel, it has to look drop-dead gorgeous all the time.

Over the River Liffey, the proliferation of fresh-produce cafes also continues apace. Down on Baggot Street, the trendy lunchtime crowds give a wide berth to burger joints and sandwich bars before queuing for Sprout or Freshly Chopped, where lean, fresh produce has a low-cal count and a high-energy impact that will see them through the rest of an office day.

Consumer awareness

The influence of media medics like Dr Donal O’Shea, foodie blogger Rachel Allen and fitness icons from Rob Lipsett to Rozanna Purcell have increased consumer awareness of wellness and the futility of eating processed empty calories. Those with disposable income are taking control over what they are putting into their bodies.

Adrian Cummins, chief executive of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, is happy to see the upswing in healthy eating, as any impetus that motivates the customer to spend in Irish food outlets is a good thing for business.

“I think the prevailing movement towards healthier eating is a result of media awareness and the number of fitness and food-related programmes and wellness campaigns. The popularity of cooking shows is influencing consumers, who ultimately dictate the menu by voting with their feet,” says Cummins.

“The restaurant business is getting a lift in Dublin and tourism spots like the Wild Atlantic Way but there is still a lull in the midlands and less publicised towns.”

So does he think that the surge in fit food is a flash in a wok or a sustainable pattern that will survive competition from the increase in ethnic competitors like Boojum, Tolteca and Nando’s?

“There are always going to be distinctive food fashions and London tends to take its ideas from New York and Ireland also gets a lot of ideas from London.

“However, I think there is a particularly strong lunchtime trade for this style of healthier food and a drifting away from conventional carbs but people will always want the traditional fare of meats with sauces, desserts and all the trimmings in the evening. So I think there is room for all styles.”

Jack Kirwan and his brother Theo set up Sprout in 2013 and started off the green shoots of a fresh-produce business that now has six shops. The shops are attractive on the outside, full of shiny lettuce leaves and spinach greens – inside, a gallery of verdant veggie photos adorn the walls with lists of perky breakfasts, eclectic salads, soups, pressed juices, superfood smoothies and 3FE coffee. A large chart highlights the fruit and vegetables that are in season right now – beetroots, carrots, cucumbers, chia seeds are spliced, shredded, chopped and finally wrapped up in a recyclable box for the power-lunch punter.

“Our first restaurant opened in Dawson Street,” says Jack, who was a graduate of Ballymaloe Cookery School in 2012. “Before that, myself and Theo set up a juice bar in Avoca and sold Sprout juices to other stores and outlets as well.”

The brothers now have six outlets in total and work closely with Irish growers and farmers. “I have always been really impressed with the idea of freshly picking the leaves and ingredients we cook up here every evening. It inspired me to create an organic, fresh-food service that utilised the local produce and appeal to a like-minded community. Theo looks after the marketing and communication and I focus on the foods and recipes.”

Good Irish food costs a bit more, unlike its cheaper imported competitors that fill the shelves of Tesco with avocados from Chile, onions from Spain and strawberries from The Netherlands. This means that most of the takeout dishes at Sprout cost about €8.95.

There is also a strand that thinks all this clean living is a millennial foodie craze that is transitory. Jack Kirwan disagrees. “Eating healthy, seasonal food is for everyone who thinks about food and how it affects our health. We have all types coming into Sprout – older customers, rugby squads, fitness instructors and health-conscious office workers.”

Brian Lee, who owns Freshly Chopped with chef Andy Chen, came up with his healthy food chain when he lived in Australia. “I saw a totally different mindset that was focused on a healthier lifestyle there. I knew that people would switch onto the importance of what they are putting into their bodies. We have gone through the frozen-food era, then the processed foods phase and now this generation is more aware of what they are eating. Not only are they changing their own food habits but they are also educating their parents to think about nutrition too by telling them there are too many carbs in that or way too much fat in another meal.”

Part of Chopped’s appeal is the theatre of chopping up everything on show with the aid of Andy’s Mezzaluna knife. It adds a bit of drama to the dish.

“When we opened our first Chopped restaurant in 2012 on Baggot Street, the customers were blown away because we put the calorie count beside the dish on the menu. Now that’s a given and we have expanded to 31 stores in Ireland.”

Dishes like the Vegan Body Builder and Atomic Crunch cost about the €6 mark.

“The beautiful thing is that our customers range in ages from five to 95. Originally, our audience started out as those in the fitness community but since then our customer base has grown dramatically. Now we serve multiple demographic groups across the local communities in which we trade,” he adds.

Instagram is a dynamic food driver and Freshly Chopped has more than 25,000 followers feasting on explicit shots of seductive salads, saucy celery sticks, naked avocados and drizzling dressings.

Through the hard work and dedication of the founders, Freshly Chopped has seen strong growth from its original outlet that opened on Baggot Street in 2012 to more than 31 outlets in 2017 and it won the Outstanding Growth Award at the Irish Franchise Awards in May 2017.

Despite the eclectic range of dishes on his menu – like Mexican jalapeños and Lebanese falafels – the old Caesar salad is still a big favourite with his clients. The Training Menu is also in demand, with sports coaches and football teams with a disciplined holistic approach.

“More and more people in Ireland want well-balanced, nutritious meals and we are passionate about providing these people with the food they want. We are also committed to educating the wider population about healthy eating choices.”

On a cool wintry afternoon you can see Jack Kirwan’s latest Sprout boathouse bobbing down on Sir John Rogerson’s Quay and a throng of customers ready to graze.

Supporting Irish growers

Jack was just finishing a talk with Bord Bia at a seminar where he emphasised the importance of supporting Irish growers – the seeds of his thinking will influence how the Government can help businesses like Póg, Sprout and Freshly Chopped keep buoyant over the next few years.

Bord Bia’s latest report, released in November, shows that Ireland’s food-service market continues to grow and is now valued at a record €7.8 billion, comprising more than 33,000 individual outlets.

The report highlights that takeaway, or grab-and-go concepts, are one of the key drivers of food-service growth and that healthier foods are trending and influencing cafe culture. Maureen Gahan, food-service specialist at Bord Bia adds: “We’re delighted to report that the sector remains on track to grow at a compound rate of 4.9 per cent and to reach a value of €9 billion by 2020.

For the fit foodies and their followers that’s something to Sprout about!