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The best of rivals

When the 20th Gourmet Festival opens in Kinsale, Co Cork, next week, its 11 organisers – all local restaurateurs and members of the Kinsale Good Food Circle – will be shaking hands and slapping each other on the back. For in Kinsale it is the spirit of co-operation and not of competition which prevails.

“Although all 11 restaurants are in walking distance of one another, we don’t feel as if we are in direct competition,” says Jack Walsh, general manager of Actons hotel and its Captain’s Table Restaurant, and chairman of the Good Food Circle. “We work together.”

It’s a co-operation which continues throughout the year, even down to holidays, ensuring that six of the 11 are always open even during the winter season.

The culmination of working together comes in the organisation of the annual gourmet festival, when some 350 people each pay IR£75 for four days of eating, drinking and entertainment, in Irish and international style.

But it hasn’t always been this good. “Twenty-four years ago, there wasn’t a lot around here,” says Walsh. “It was a very short season. Then a small group of restaurateurs decided that there was more business to be had if they worked together.” The result was the Wild Geese Festival, a food and drink extravaganza celebrating the 1601 Battle of Kinsale. About the same time, Bord Failte (the Irish tourist board) began a substantial push into Europe.

Kinsale restaurateurs realised that, if Kinsale had something regular to offer visitors, then it could place itself firmly on the map. So they made good use of Bord Failte’s marketing powers.

Over the following two years the Wild Geese Festival was phased out, and in its place the Good Food Circle, together with its main event, the Gourmet Food Festival, was born.

The emphasis is very much on the idea of a circle. “No one is at the top, and no one at the bottom. We are all in this for mutual benefit,” stresses Walsh.

Criteria for membership are strict. New entrants must have been in business for at least a year, be professionally trained, and be willing to an undergo an anonymous, annual inspection which they themselves fund. This not only looks at the quality of the food, but also the atmosphere of the restaurant, its decor and the standard of hygiene.

When the circle was first formed, members paid an annual fee to cover costs of joint marketing and advertising throughout the year. But recently they have found that running events such as the Gourmet Festival provides enough profit to cover these costs.

Each Gourmet Festival has about a year’s lead time. There are two main revenue streams – ticket sales and sponsorship. In the main, sponsorship tends to be in goods rather than money, and focuses on existing suppliers.

Although the Good Food Circle does not act as a purchasing consortium for the individual restaurants, it is inevitable that, in a small community, several of the businesses share the same wine suppliers. In return for the volume of business throughout the year, these suppliers provide some complimentary wine for the festival and offer deals on additional purchases.

During this year’s opening Champagne reception, Walsh anticipates that around 18 cases of Champagne will be consumed, of which 12 will be provided free, with the other six funded through ticket sales.

One of the problems with organising an event of this nature is that every year the race is on to become bigger and better. Entertainment costs eat into the bottom line. But, even when all costs have been accounted for, there’s still a healthy profit margin of 35-40% to be ploughed back.

This includes taking a page in the Golden Pages (Ireland’s equivalent of the UK’s Yellow Pages) as well as stands at travel trade shows under the banner of the Kinsale Good Food Circle.

Outside the Gourmet Festival, the circle organises events such as Taste of Kinsale break weekends, offering food-related breaks during the height of winter when business would otherwise be slack. Members also act as a referral system for one another. “If one establishment is full then we never hesitate to recommend another. At the end of the day it’s all bringing business into Kinsale,” says Walsh.

There are, however, some unwritten rules. These include not getting involved in the running of anyone else’s business even if it is at odds with your own, and not poaching anyone else’s staff.

But do they really get on? “Most of us are not originally from Kinsale,” says Walsh. “Consequently, we come without baggage and without preconceptions and that helps a lot.”

There are some drawbacks. Walsh claims that journalists have coined phrases for Kinsale describing it as the “culinary capital of Ireland” and so on.

“In one sense this is excellent publicity,” he says, “but in another it can be used as a rod to beat you. Once you’re up on a pedestal, it’s easy for people to try and knock you down. We don’t claim that we are the best restaurants in Ireland, but we say we provide very consistent standards within a small area.”

Walsh believes that other restaurateurs could do what the Good Food Circle has done, and offers the following advice: “You’ve got to be close together. It’s no good having restaurants which are taxi rides apart. Meet at regular intervals, and discuss current problems such as the effects of legislation. Offer one another advice on aspects like training. Don’t be jealous of someone else’s success – they may be busier than you one night, but the following night you could be busier than them.

“If you’re not sure, then why not try it? When all else fails, it keeps you sane, and reminds you that you’re not alone.”

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