Let’s talk Provenance, Heritage and Artisan
7 min read
When anybody approaches me with an artisan product, I immediately look beyond the physical aesthetics’ of the product in front of me. Instead I dive headfirst into the nuts and bolts of the product – (which I might add is a metaphor for the producer, the process and the ingredients, not actual nuts and bolts as that might get me into trouble)
Usually, I disregard the authentic and alluring brown paper packaging the product is dressed in. Which more than often is held together in a rugged as you can get twine, which was collected, gathered and lastly dipped in your granny’s, granny’s good old raw bainne…
However, beneath this mystical twine usually lies a beautifully designed logo or image of old. Theatrical as they come, just simply dying to sell that feeling of “heritage” or “artisan” to you. I get it, and I understand that provenance and heritage sell because it feeds into that trusting part of our brains! But depending on how good your marketing team is (or how much you pay them) – how well they can wrap your story up in a little box and bow can sometimes be the difference between your products success and its ultimate demise .That is of course why marketing companies charge so much, these stories are easy to tell but harder to sell.
The power of a story
People love a story! Particularly us storytelling Irish. We loved them before bed as children, we love them now on any product we buy. Stories take us to another place, away from our current, mundane state of play. They have the power to transport us back to a familiar dimension, where we feel we may have been before. This draw’s us in, forces us to relate and allows us to get lost in the words we read. When you combine a story with ingredients and actual people or producers, you add a feature of humanity to your product. A neighbour’s fallen journey, a friend’s funny tale or your families’ trials and tribulations added to what could be just a pot of jam, a loaf of bread or a block of cheese. Stories mark the key events in thesepeople’s lives that have led them to where they are today in the world of food.
But what often happens, and what I keep seeing more and more these days, is people (or should I say the retail conglomerates) are throwing stories around and pairing them up with the words “Heritage”, “Provenance” or “Artisan”. Ultimately, these words who once had honest, unintended meaning are now beginning to lose their value.
Okay, so where is this going? What’s wrong with a good story labelled on my raspberry jam I buy in Tesco, Lidl or Aldi? So, what if it says heritage or not, it tastes good? Well if you are like me, I like to know what’s in my product, I like to know where it came from and most of all I like to know the truth. Retailers worldwide have acknowledged this surge for transparency, and that in order to sell product’s now, the story, the legacy and the farm to fork tale must be well endowedon the packaging. Therefore, truthful or not retailers are jumping on the heritage, provenance bandwagon and transforming it into a marketing tactic. The simple concept of telling a food producers journey and legacy is being, chewed up and spit out by the larger retailers and discounters we find ourselves drawn to again and again.
The losing battle
Let’s face it we can’t help but do our weekly shopping in these large multiples or discount stores. As much as we all would love to serve our families Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner from Marks and Spencer’s, its more than likely not possible for me or the everyday consumer. On the flip side, it’s also not realistic to chase down every local producer and source your bread, butter and milk from eccentric, niche farm shops dispersed country wide. No, in this day and age – time is money so sourcing these products for the conventional consumer is something they might like to do but their schedule and pocket says otherwise.
Therefore, I would never even attempt to say that this phenomenon of shopping in retailers or discounters is something that should/can be stopped or that these huge chains should be shut down. That’s a losing battle and it simply won’t happen.
But what is worrying and what is happening, on the other end of the spectrum, is that these food retailers are alluding pressure onto us smaller food producers and shutting some of us down. This is the matter I wish to bring light to.
Unfortunately, in retail and in business in general, someone always loses out. Smaller food producers out there who are trying to make a living under the pressure of their growing list of over heads, but with less footfall – are up against these monstrous retailers. It’s becoming near impossible for some businesses, to compete day in day out and it’s getting harder and harder.
However, if and when these smaller food producers do manage to stand the test of time, it more than often narrows down to their one unique selling point. This unique selling point is their one competency and value that larger retailers can never take away from them, even though they will certainly try. It’s.. The Service. This unique and precious feature is centred around the genuine relationship and rapport small businesses and producers develop within their community and with their customers that promotes their survival.
Let’s look at this through the eyes of the relationship between you and your local butcher. The butcher trade is a dying one and is up against serious pressure from the discounters and multiples due to their ability to run week on week promotions. I asked some consumers to describe the service, relationship or experience that they once have had with their local butchers. Here’s what I came up with.
Describe the service you get from your local butchers…
It’s every September, when you step into your local butchers, frantically searching for the mince you can freeze or the meatballs your kids love. As usual you are greeted on first name basis, and are asked about how your youngest got on starting school.
Its every Saturday, where your local butcher offers calming advice as you panic over your demon mother in law, coming for Sunday dinner. Roast beef is her favourite and you’ve no clue what “basting” the roast even means. Your butcher talks you through the process and what the perfect point on the temperature gauge he gives you to take it out of the oven. He might even tell you the secret to a good gravy that even your mother in law will want to get in on.
It’s every Summer, when the drinks are flowing, the BBQ is on full blast and you’ve managed to impress every Yuppie at the party, with the recommended sauces and dressings that go best with your rib eye steak or your handmade beef burgers- all bought down the butchers.
It’s every Christmas, when the fear of poisoning your family and friends gets too much so you head to the butchers to seek guidance, leaving with more than just your turkey and ham in hand, but with a temperature probe and a well filled bag of home-made stuffing.
It’s every Friday, when you are sick and tired of trying to please the mouths around the table, you’ve ran out of interesting ideas stolen from Jamie’s 20 minute meals and your just about to give up. You walk into the butcher’s and they meet you with a friendly face, toss up dinner ideas with you, suggest a few recipes and advise you on how long, what temperature and even the meats freezing potential with you.
So. If you are still with me, it’s the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker who provide service with a smile that allows them to keep their doors open on a daily basis. That might sound like a romantic ideal or a notion of old but it is the truth. The reason it is so true is simple. These smaller scale shops have no other choice as any food products or idea’s they sell can be copied or are attempted to be copied by the greedy large retailers.
It is their service and their genuine interest in their customer that cannot be copied and that allows them to stand the test of time. They offer advice, assistance and a friendship all free of charge and in most cases, it is because they want to! Small producer’s passion for product is picked up by consumer’s and it is appreciated. They are just the same as you or me, just trying to make a living through products that they nourished from day one and simply enjoy spreading the joy and knowledge found through their personal journey. They are real people, that don’t want or need to understand marketing jargon, they simply want to sell you their best produce and help you get the best from it.
The scary part…
So, we have talked about the unique culture and atmosphere that can be found within your local butcher’s, baker’s, fishmongers that cannot be mimicked by the larger scarier retailers. Here however, is where it actually does get scary.
Next time you walk into your favourite large retailer, Tesco, Lidl, Aldi etc take a minute to notice the private label brand names. Take in the images and even the colour patterns on the products you buy. You might then pick up on how we are bombarded with packaging that has “heritage”, “provenance”, “family recipe” plastered all over them. Not only this, these seemingly family, home grown products are titled with some of what I like to call the great “Paddy Irish” names that an American could only dream of inheriting. For the sake of arguing and not disgracing any Irish family names, you can typically find names such as McCarthy, McManus, Kavanagh etc etc..the list goes on. These “Paddy Irish” families are known to live in places down the road, or over the bridge or across the country beside a beautiful lake or expansively well cropped field. Places like BallyMacKavanagh , Carrick na Macken or Kilmaccudy. Ever heard of them? Neither have I. Do they exist? No idea! But the point of using these “Paddy Irish” family and place names, is to pivot that unique producer story around. These names are these product stories platform.
Truth be told, these Paddy Irish products, may have a story but more than likely they are mimicked or fixed up to fit the eye of the reader and consumer. It’s a marketing tactic that the larger retailers are becoming talented at using.
The even scarier part..
This trend for provenance and heritage now adopted by the large retailers, is taking away from the genuine food producers, with genuine food stories, genuine Irish names and live in genuine Irish places! As I said, these discounters and multiples are literally chewing up and spitting out the words “heritage”, “provenance” and “artisan” and using them to probe the customer’s and lure them in.
So next time you are in one of these stores and you pick up a loaf of “Kelly’s” soda bread, apparently hand cut with knives used in the Irish Famine, featuring a mystical, creaky wooden mill on the front of the striking green packaging .. think of the smaller producer in your local town. Who may be a genuine Kelly, with regular knives and minus the creaky, mystical mill. Mr Kelly can tell you face to face the time he got up that morning to bake your fresh loaf. As he hands you that loaf of bread with a sense of pride only a true-blue food producer can transcend, his oven scars peak out from under his chef’s jacket sleeve. Hinting that this loaf is as fresh and as authentic as his early morning kitchen battle wounds.
Mr. Kelly can tell you about the awards he won with this bread and with vigour! As he can’t shake those memories of the long nights and early mornings spent perfecting this award-winning bread. The long and labour filled hours he spent, often to 4-5am in the morning, going through the same process – trial and error, trial and error. His kitchen at home, where flour has now replaced where dust used to lie, grain becoming ingrained into the wooden floor boards. Amongst the late-night/ early morning kitchen chaos, he remembers the delivery of bread that is due to the local café in a couple of hours. He perseveres, ignoring the thoughts that when everyone else is asleep he is elbow deep in flour and egg yolks. He perseveres. With each stir of the mix and with every knob of butter that’s weighed, he wonders if this was all worthwhile, will the reward pay off, will his take on his mother’s recipe be a success or another failed, costly pursuit. He perseveres.
Mr Kelly and his story of trial and error, his reliance of passed on recipes of old and his survival through innovation, is in my opinion what defines “heritage”, “provenance” and “artisan”. For the sake of all the talented and hardworking Mr and Mrs Kelly’s in this country, don’t fall into the larger retailer’s trap. Don’t let those value filled words be ostracized and dismantled by the bigger retailers and completely lose all their meaning.
Anne-Marie Maguire, October 2017