WHEN Crumlin man Thomas Ferris found himself on furlough because of the pandemic, after a career in the hospitality industry, he decided to do something positive instead.
Initially, the 33-year-old felt powerless as friends, family, and neighbours lost their livelihoods during Covid-19.
With the pandemic bringing a renewed interest in supporting and buying local, Thomas realised that outdoor markets provided a safe environment where shoppers could engage with and get to know the small business owners and learn about their products and processes.
With a background in events, Thomas was in a position to try and help.
He set up the first Urban Market in Crumlin in August 2020 and since then the venture has gone from strength to strength.
Thomas, Events and Operations Manager of Urban Events NI, secured a regular pitch at CS Lewis Square in Belfast and at The Junction and Urban Markets have now taken place across the borough, including a recent event in Antrim town.
Now a massive three-day event will be coming to the town across a number of locations in a bid to boost the local economy post-pandemic and create stronger links between micro-businesses and major national retailers.
Running from Friday 16 to Sunday 18 July 2021, the first ever NI Food & Craft Festival will deliver a feast of family fun, celebrating the best of local produce.
Developed in partnership with Antrim and Newtownabbey Borough Council and key sponsors, The Junction Retail and Leisure Park, Castle Mall Shopping Centre and Urban Events NI, the three-day long festival comprises of a jam-packed events programme across four locations.
The Junction will act as the festival’s food hub, showcasing local food and beverage producers, cooking demonstrations, award-winning food trucks and family entertainment.
Official drinks partner, Jake’s Cocktail Bar, will also host a pop-up garden where visitors can sit back and soak up the atmosphere.
Market Square’s town-centre location, right next to Castle Mall, paired with its historic backdrop will be an appropriate home for a twilight market and a variety of events and art and craft markets.
Antrim Castle Gardens will be the setting for a Picnic in the Park featuring a pop-up farm and will also provide festival revellers with multiple ‘Meet the Maker’ opportunities, and just a short walk along the river, visitors can enjoy family entertainment at the Lough Shore Park.
Additionally, restaurants, bars and retail stores within the surrounding area of the festival zone are signing up to be part of the weekend by offering specialised dining options and menus.
“I chose Antrim for the NI Food & Craft Festival as and the people of Antrim have been incredibly supportive of Urban Market.” said Thomas.
“Their support has allowed The Junction’s monthly market to grow and small businesses to thrive during what has been an unpredictable fifteen months.
“The NI Food and Craft Festival is our way of saying thank you to Antrim, delivering three days of entertainment and fun.
“I’ve got to know lots of the traders really well over the past year and I am constantly impressed by their creativity, perseverance, and passion for what they do. Urban Market has become more than a business, we are a community that helps, supports, and celebrates each other. I'm proud to call many of them friends.
“I could see that a lot of my former friends in the industry were struggling during the pandemic, especially those who were self-employed and could not access the Government support which was available to those working for bigger companies and I wanted to give something back.
“While it has been a difficult 15 months, I have had some really positive moments.
“Urban Market has grown from strength to strength, I got engaged, moved house, met some fantastic people, and made some amazing new friends.
“The support and community spirit I have been privileged to experience has been nothing short of overwhelming.”
Thomas said that the markets had taken on a life of their own and said that Antrim was the perfect location.
“It is an amazing town with big outdoor spaces which are either under-utilised or unknown.” he said.
“Markets are a great way to shop. When lockdown started, people switched to buying online or going to large supermarkets more - but when you go to a market and talk to a trader, you can see and feel the product and talk to the person who made it.
“Some of our traders make unique, one-off pieces which you cannot buy anywhere else, and they will tell you the story behind it - you can’t get that in a supermarket.
“The turnout and support has been amazing, people feel safer out in the open air and they are having an experience as well as going out and buying something.
“Before the pandemic, people couldn’t really go to markets if they were working nine to five and commuting.
“People have more time and have re-assessed their priorities, they are more interested in local produce and supporting local traders
“Especially with things like personalised gifts, people have been surprised, things that they would have ordered online and stressed about arriving on time, they can buy from a talented local person who lives around the corner.
“Anyone who attends the markets regularly will get to know the traders and build up a relationship, it’s a lot more personal.”
Thomas said that he was keen to promote links between businesses large and small - and dispel the attitude that The Junction and the town centre are somehow in opposition.
“The main purpose is to boost economic recovery,” he said.
“These markets are designed to re-animate town centres.
“There is some feeling that The Junction and the town centre are far apart, when they are a ten minute walk from each other.
“I want to build on a model of large retailers and micro-businesses working together rather than an ‘us versus them’ thing.
“There is this impression that the council, Junction and Castle Mall favour large stores and national chains but we see them trying to offer support as stakeholders in the town.
“People coming into the town for the market will also go into the shops in the centres and vice versa - these events drive footfall and support businesses large and small, everyone wins.
“Chris Flynn and the team at The Junction and Pamela Minford at the Castle Mall came on board straight away, the minute they were approached, and they have invested heavily in delivering for Antrim.
“The council has also been extremely supportive.
“This partnership working is a really good thing to see.
“Our first market in Crumlin last year created a real buzz and people came from miles around - I invite everyone to come along next weekend and see what is on offer.”
Mayor of Antrim and Newtownabbey, Councillor Billy Webb added:
“It’s great to see our local businesses working together and we are delighted to be hosting this exciting festival in our Borough.
“This is an excellent opportunity to showcase the outstanding facilities and visitor attractions that Antrim has to offer.
“I would encourage you to come out and support our local traders and businesses as they rebuild from what has been an extremely difficult year.
“We look forward to welcoming visitors from across Northern Ireland to Antrim and wish the organisers every success for an enjoyable weekend.”
A shuttle bus service will run between the three main locations on Saturday 17th and Sunday 18th July.
For further information on the event and admission fees, visit www.nifoodandcraftfestival.com.
Connect with NI Food & Craft Festival on Facebook and Instagram @nifoodfest.