The popularity of Irish food products in the U.S. has never been higher.  Americans, even non-Irish ones, can’t get enough of items such as butter, chocolate and cheese made in Ireland. MOLLY MULDOON reports.

On McLean Avenue in Yonkers, the shelves of a local deli are crammed with Irish produce.  Playing up to the Irish population in the neighborhood a sign reads, “Special: Irish potato soup, 99 cents.” The local population in the Irish enclaves of Woodlawn and Yonkers guarantees a steady demand for the Irish necessities.

It all comes down to brand recognition according to Patrick Coleman, the owner of Food Ireland, an Irish food wholesaler and mail order company based in Westchester County, New York.

“People who are buying the products have been exposed to the brands either when they were living in Ireland or when they visited,” he told the Irish Voice.

Coleman, who has been in the industry for over 20 years, says that many American tourists who visit Ireland look for Irish products when they arrive home.

“It could be after eating brown bread or oatmeal in a bed and breakfast, tourists will seek these things out upon their return,” he said.

Launched in 1998, the Food Ireland website offers consumers over 1,200 products, ranging from chocolates and shepherd’s pie mix to Irish bread.

Apart from a dip in 2009, business has grown by double digits every year, Coleman says.

“There are four people packing boxes eight hours a day,” he said. The company distributes packages everywhere from the U.S. to Australia. His biggest sellers are traditional rashers, sausages, tea bags and bread.

“More and more people are getting interested in Irish food. The online community means people spread the word,” Coleman said.

The company’s biggest selling non-food item is peat turf, which is shipped from Co. Clare.

“It’s surprising as we sell more in the summer,“ Coleman said. “People burn it (turf) in their outdoor fire pits.”

Often taking requests from consumers for new products, when one customer asked the company to import some Flash floor cleaner, Coleman was not enthused.

“Initially I didn’t want to get involved with non-food items,” Coleman explained.

“I asked her why she wanted me to import Flash when at Costco a gallon of something similar costs one-tenth of the price,” he said.  “She explained, ‘When I wash my kitchen floor it smells likes home.’”

Coleman added, “There is an emotional value to everything that we sell, the stronger the brand, the stronger the value.”

It is this brand recognition that drives demand for such Irish products abroad, but such specialty products make up just a small proportion of Irish exports.

“Most of the Irish products that are driving forward are targeting mainstream consumers,” says Karen Coyle, North America market manager with Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board.

According to Bord Bia, dairy and meat sectors were the strongest performing categories in Irish exports last year as the value of Irish food and drink exports increased by 12 percent.

Ireland is the largest exporter of beef in the Northern hemisphere. It produces over 50% of the world’s cream liqueur, and Irish whiskey continues to be one of the fasting growing industries in the U.S.

Consumer dairy is also a strong growth area. In May, the Irish Food Board reported record sales of Kerrygold as it enters its 50th year. The popular brand continues to grow its market share and is ranked as the number one imported butter in the U.S.

Commenting on the figures, Kevin Lane, chief executive of the Irish Dairy Board said, “The international rollout of our new look Kerrygold brand has been tremendously well received, culminating in record sales, and we continue to enhance our presence in key export regions.”

The demand for such Irish products is fueled not merely by consumers of Irish descent, but food enthusiasts who feel Ireland has a positive image for food.

“These products underscore the quality ingredients that Ireland is known for,” Coyle said. “Those products are bought by people who want good quality.”

“Our agriculture system is still very rural and family based. Everything comes from the land, the dairy is sourced from cows eating the grass. It tends to be all across the country in rural communities.

“Customers are not just Irish-born or Irish of American heritage. It’s mainstream America as well.”

Coyle said that Bord Bia views Kerrygold “as very mainstream over here.  The farmhouse cheese sector has exploded.”

Currently there are over 50 farmhouses in Ireland making over 150 different cheeses, over 10 of which are available in the U.S.

“People appreciate a quality product that is all natural, and as a result Irish dairy is targeting everybody who appreciates good food,” Coyle added.

Developing a recognizable brand and getting Irish products into mainstream stores takes time and considerable effort.

“A lot of Irish food companies aspire to sell here in the U.S. as it’s the largest grocery market in the world,” Coyle said.

“There are a lot of people in the chain and it’s a challenging market because of the costs of getting here.”

For now, according to Coyle, it will remain challenging for companies to establish a foothold in the conventional U.S. market.

One Irish company gaining traction in the U.S. is Lily O’Brien’s chocolate café in Bryant Park in Manhattan. In March 2009, the Irish chocolate company opened its flagship store in the heart of Midtown.

Mary Ann O’Brien established the business in 1992, when she began making chocolates in her kitchen at home in Kildare. She named the store after her daughter Lily.

From these humble beginnings, Lily O'Brien's Chocolates has evolved into a well-known brand which manufactures over 80 tons of chocolate per week and is sold all over the globe.

“We are the only Irish chocolate store to put down roots in the U.S.,” says Cathal Queally, the owner of New York’s Lily O'Brien’s Chocolate Café.

“The first year was tough,” he admits. Opening up a relatively unknown company in the in the middle of a recession in New York City posed obvious challenges.

“No one really knew who Lily was. She could be somebody from Brooklyn,” Queally pointed out. “We tried to educate the customers.”

Over the past three years business has picked up significantly, as brand recognition increases.

“Within our immediate surroundings, all the office workers have become huge fans of the café,” Queally said.

“Christmas is the busiest time of the year for chocolates.”

Corporate gifting is a huge element also. “It’s great to see American businesses gifting Irish chocolates,” Queally said.

Just blocks from both Times Square and Grand Central Station, the café is located in a well-known tourist district. Serving a wide variety of chocolates, the café also sells Irish favorites such as oatmeal and Irish tea.

“The café is a lot busier during the summer, when a lot more people are coming to Bryant Park,” says Queally.

Appealing to a wide range of customers, Queally says the company’s Irish identity is an advantage.

“We don’t have any shamrocks or harps at the store to reflect that we are Irish, but definitely Irish and Irish Americans love to come here because we are Irish,” Queally added.

While chocolate remains a small segment within the export market, Coyle reflects that brands such as Lily O’Brien’s have established a good foothold in the U.S.

“It all goes back to the land,” Coyle says. “It is a quality source of ingredients. It’s real food made by real people.”

Kerrygold Cashel Blue cheese - American's can't get enough of Ireland's great Irish produceBord Bia