There is a saying that bad things have to happen to allow a new beginning. That’s the story of the Hastings Europa Hotel in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I could tell you all about the awards the hotel has won, or the just how comfortable the ‘cloud’ beds are, but that’s not the story. This is a story of a man with vision, who brought people together to empower them with food.
Let’s go back a few years, Belfast was the scene of much political trouble with bombs and fighting between two sides, the Protestants and the Catholics over a little bit of land and who owned it; the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland. A story that is seen in many parts of the world today. The Hastings Europa Hotel is very tall and forms part of the iconic Belfast skyline. Everyone in Northern Ireland knows the hotel and the lobby bar is always full and busy with people meeting. However, this hotel was bombed 34 times. It used to be the most bombed hotel in Europe, that title has now passed to the Holiday Inn, Sarajevo. In fact, the hotel was so used to this that they were able to evacuate the 200+ rooms in 10 minutes! TV shows were made about the hotel and one series called ‘Lobby Lives’ made the current General Manager James McGinn a national treasure / celebrity. USA President Bill Clinton and the First Lady Hilary Clinton, journalists, celebrities and the cast of Game of Thrones have all stayed in the Hastings Europa Hotel.
People with vision impress me. People who see past the ‘problems’ and look at life and the reality and what can be done. People like Dr Howard Hastings OBE, the Managing Director of the family run hotel group with 6 beautiful hotels across Northern Ireland. What Dr Hastings saw and implemented started a ‘food revolution’ across Northern Ireland and his work with food empowered communities, brought confidence to the people and gave communities a chance to eat together from both political ideologies to realise they are simply both the same. When we eat we are the same, we talk and we learn from each other and find out about each others lives. Food tells the story of our history and our people, transcends politics and shows us what is actually important.
After 30 years of trouble in Northern Ireland, which is a beautiful, pure, green land people had lost their confidence. By using the food of the people and encouraging and supporting them to use what their ancestors in farming taught them a new confidence for the people of Northern Ireland arrived. So much so that the food producers of Northern Ireland are wining more food awards across Ireland and the United Kingdom than any other part of these two countries. Did this help to bring the peace we now have in Northern Ireland? Not directly, but it allowed people of different communities to meet, to talk and allow a period of reconciliation. The power of talking and sharing is linked directly to the one thing we all have in common: eating.
So how did Dr Hastings do this? Simply with starting with the first meal of the day, Breakfast. Dr Hastings found people in a hotel like to read the news over breakfast, but, what if a more positive story could be made, what if the story of breakfast was available to his customers. Each of the food products from the milk to the yogurt, bread to cereal each had a story. This was made into a booklet available on the table called ‘Who made my breakfast ?’. Producers were asked to pay for the production of this booklet, and happily did, in turn 10,000 copies were used in the first year. The food they were eating took on a new position, it was real, it was the story of other peoples lives and culture. The hotel caters for weddings and yes they cost more due to the local food being used rather than imported, but when shown a video about the food producers and the stories it makes the wedding meal even more special.
For me, food is all about the heroes and those with vision, food empowers and draws communities together and as Robert Oliver says: “when food is in tourism it’s tourism for everyone”. It’s also the business plan of the people. Food business’ need to compete to make profit, but what about competing by empowering everyone, the customer, the locality, the community and making the lives of those around you better. One man can change the world, all because he thought what matters when writing his business plan.
To download my food strategy for NI visit www.jamesmcintosh.co.uk/ni.html