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Orkney food and drink learning journey

Regional food groups from across the Highlands and Islands visited Orkney in April 2022

Taking a leaf out of Orkney’s food and drink book

Thanks to HIE grant funding, regional food groups from across the Highlands and Islands converged in Orkney in April 2022 to experience an immersive food and drink learning journey.

For Claire White, Shetland Food and Drink’s project manager, it all started with a tomato farm in Iceland. Claire visited the farm while on holiday in 2015, where she learned how the owners had turned their polytunnels into a multi-faceted tourism experience. A seed was planted (pardon the pun), so when it came to creating Shetland’s food and drink strategy, Claire was determined to include a learning journey for member businesses. “In my opinion, immersive, relaxed learning is the best kind there is,” explains Claire. “Seeing it and experiencing it implants it in your mind like nothing else does.”

Meanwhile, at the other end of the Highlands and Islands region, members of fellow food groups, Food From Argyll and Bute Kitchen, had also been discussing how useful a learning journey would be. The stars aligned when we announced our Regional Food Groups grant fund, which gave groups the opportunity to identify and deliver projects that would help their member businesses recover from the impact of COVID-19 and take advantage of new opportunities. With this funding available, groups could start planning trips - and Claire White knew exactly where she wanted to take the Shetland delegation.

Selection of drinks for group tasting

Visiting the “grandaddy” of regional food groups

Orkney Food & Drink has been in existence for over 30 years, and in Claire’s words, the group is “very proactive, well respected and high profile”. As a much newer group, she believed the members of Shetland Food and Drink could learn a lot from Orkney’s vibrant tourism sector and their collaborative approach.

When Claire mentioned the plans to visit Orkney to Scotland’s other regional food groups in one of their monthly meetings, Emma Goudie’s ears pricked up. As coordinator at Food from Argyll, she saw an opportunity not only to go to Orkney and learn from the businesses there, but to go alongside the Shetland group and multiply the networking and collaboration opportunities. They invited neighbouring group, Bute Kitchen, to come along too. Emma explains how the injection of grant funding from HIE was instrumental in getting the group’s learning journey plans off the ground: “We needed to have funding to subsidise the trip. It was something that members always wanted to do, but we needed the funding to make it happen.”

So, in April 2022, 20 delegates from Shetland Food and Drink, Food from Argyll and Bute Kitchen arrived in Orkney for a two-day visit. They were hosted by Orkney Food & Drink, celebrated food writer, and one of the Scotland Food & Drink Partnership’s food tourism ambassadors, Rosemary Moon. They enjoyed a packed itinerary designed to let them meet a wide variety of food producers and retailers.

We’ve come back feeling like there’s so much opportunity!
Mhairi MacKenzie, Bute Kitchen
Orkney Food and Drink learning journey

Inspiring opportunities

From speaking with Claire, Emma and their counterparts in Bute, Iona Buick and Mhairi MacKenzie, it’s clear that all three food groups wanted to explore similar topics during their visit to Orkney. This included how Orkney tackles rural challenges such as supply chains and smoothing out the peaks and troughs of the tourist season, how they’ve gone about building such a strong regional food and drink brand, and how they collaborate across the sector. These questions were answered during the trip, but what’s also obvious is that all four have come back feeling truly inspired. They talk animatedly about the experience, the people they met and the renewed energy they - and the other participants - have for their region and their own businesses.

“We’ve come back feeling like there’s so much opportunity!” effuses Mhairi, a Bute Kitchen board member and owner of a jewellery business and newly-opened coffee shop. “To see businesses two or three steps ahead of us was really inspiring. I was scared about taking the next steps for my businesses, but I’ve got much more confidence now. I’m now investigating premises. I wouldn’t have had the courage to do that before.”

Her thoughts are echoed by Emma, who has a fledgling chocolate business on Islay. “One of the best things was meeting face-to-face after having so long of not being able to do that,” says Emma. “The relationships, collaboration and connections across the group have been amazing to see. The trip has inspired people to make changes; it was so helpful to see that other companies face very similar challenges.”

Iona Buick, coordinator at Bute Kitchen, mentions a particularly memorable moment from the trip. “There was a card machine in the honesty box! Along with instructions on how to use it. It was so unexpected but it’s just brilliant.” She hopes that she can inspire businesses on Bute to consider incorporating technology into their own ventures.

kitchen training

From inspiration to action

Now that all the groups are back home, they have plans for how to share their learning with their wider membership. Food from Argyll is making a film using footage collected during the visit, Shetland Food and Drink will be sharing the experience and outcomes of their trip at the next quarterly member meeting (there are over 100 members), and Bute Kitchen is producing a report and inviting members to discuss how to implement the findings.

Most importantly, perhaps, those who took part in the learning journey now have a new network of friends and contacts, all of whom are as passionate about food and drink as they are. There are informal plans to visit each other's regions and businesses: Mhairi, for example, is going to visit Argyll Coffee Roasters, to help with her plans to create her own roastery in Bute. The group are keeping in contact through a Whatsapp group created for the trip.

Claire and Emma sum up the response from participants: “We've now received individual delegate feedback on the trip, and it's universally glowing. It was clearly a particularly memorable and worthwhile experience. Everyone involved made the whole event so much more than our group were expecting. By the time we had set off for Orkney, the friendship, networking and fun had already begun.”

The learning journey is clearly a huge success story - and one that undoubtedly hasn’t ended yet.

Shetland Food and Drink, Food From Argyll and Bute Kitchen are three of six regional food groups to receive funding from HIE to support their member businesses to recover from COVID. You can read more about regional food groups in the summer 2021 edition of our Focus magazine.

Or find out more about the Regional Food Fund on Scotland Food & Drink’s website.

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