Ahead of their time
Running since 1925, McCambridge’s of Galway exhibits all the hallmarks of a business guided by foresight as much as a strong sense of heritage
9 March 2009
There’s a knack in knowing when to launch a new product into the upper end of grocery retailing, says 73-year-old Pat McCambridge. “You had to be very careful not to bring a product in too soon or too late, or you would miss the market.”
Pat has worked since the age of 15 in McCambridge’s of Galway, the shop first opened by his father George in 1925, and has seen at first-hand the importance of staying attuned to what customers want. But then again, since its opening as “a high class grocery, provision, wine and spirit establishment,” McCambridge’s has long enjoyed forward-thinking management.
All in the timing
Pat felt it was important to “keep updating all the time” and together with his cousin John who also worked in the trade, wasn’t afraid to place conventional, contemporary ideas of Irish retail to one side and take inspiration from the international scene.
“I got a great kick out of looking at the food trade in Paris and London, and even America,” he says, although he was careful not to use this information as a carte blanche for foisting the latest craze onto an unsuspecting public. He did manage to calculate a working hierarchy of the various international food fairs though, which made his timing of new introductions into the Galway market easier.
“I had it very well figured out at one stage that Paris was kind of a step above London, not much now mind you, and then there was London and then there was Dublin, and there was a huge step between London and Dublin. Then you had to come to the West of Ireland.” At this point he lets out a hearty knowing laugh, which puts his son Eoin, who currently manages the store along with sisters Norma (project manager) and Natalie (off-licence manager), in mind of a humorous tale on timing.
“Thelma Mansfield was here during the time she was working at RTE, because her husband was from Spiddal,” recounts Eoin. “She was always looking for different products and one of the things was pesto. This was 15 or 20 years ago and none of the suppliers did it but I eventually got it from one. She was delighted we had pesto, took a jar, I think the rest of it probably went off…but nowadays we’ve probably half a dozen different varieties of pesto and if you go into a Spar or a Centra and they don’t have pesto you’d be giving out!”
A double first
This entrepreneurial willingness to try the new however, resulted in several firsts for the popular Shop Street store. Pat was the first person to introduce cooked chickens into Galway and soon found keeping up with demand to be a rigorous pursuit, having to bring in two new machines in quick procession. “It was race week and I couldn’t cook them fast enough. Every morning during the week I came in at 8 o’clock and the earliest I went home any night was half past 12.”
Then in 1972, Pat opened Galway’s first off-licence. The premises already had a full licence; previously it had incorporated a bar, known as ‘the long bar’, where Guinness was hand-pumped from wooden barrels. However George decided to close the bar in 1952, at which stage it became a storage area.
Pat was anxious to use their licence though, and convinced George that off-licence was the way to go. So in 1969 he sourced fine French wine supplier Bouchard Pere & Fils. Today, McCambridge’s are their oldest customer outside France, and still have wines shipped directly from their vineyards to Ireland.
Pat experienced huge success with this venture; he “increased turnover 300%.” He also gained an insight into the glamorous world of high-end French wine trading. At one stage he visited Bouchard Pere & Fils at the time of their annual November auction, which raised funds for the local hospice in the town of Bonne. “There were seven or eight different TV crews there, every newspaper in France must have been there, plus some of the English ones. If you winked you’d be buying a cask of wine. The hype was quite incredible.”
Pat also bought Bordeaux wines from Premier, and underlines the importance of knowing if the vintage was a good one. “You know if you get a wine from Premier you’re going to be holding them four, five, maybe 10 years and you want to make sure that they’d last that long. But then, they had rapid inflation at that time, I remember buying wine at about £10 a bottle and selling it at £100.”
Sourcing the best
Nowadays, while McCambridge’s still houses international product, it remains keen to support quality Irish produce. “We’re trying to introduce that aspect more and more,” says Norma. “It’s a big challenge to get more local fruit and veg which isn’t always easy because it’s so seasonal and we’ve also got a great relationship built up with suppliers like Foods of Athenry.” McCambridge’s also stocks “legendary strawberries” grown by another sister who is a landscape gardener, and which were voted tops in a Ray Darcy show phone-in.
But says Eoin, “One of the problems in Ireland now, is in the last couple of years there’s been a lot of talk about rip-off. But what’s happening now, luckily in our case, is that people are starting to open their eyes and are realising value isn’t just in price. There’s value in a product being local and seasonal also.”
However, sourcing the best Irish and international products is naturally a time-consuming process for an independent retailer with no central buying. “Our purchasing is getting harder and more busy because we’re going more and more to different suppliers for different things,” says Norma.
On the other hand though, Irish distributors are also improving their range of products, which makes the lot of an independent retailer easier. “Now there’s a couple of good Irish distributors that do a good range, like BR marketing and Casey Norton who will have good Italian and French ranges, and also La Rousse Foods and Pallas Foods. We tend to deal with wholesale distributors because we’re too small; we can’t go directly to suppliers in Italy most of the time. We source some things directly such as olives, but there’s only so much you can manage when you only have one outlet.”
“But with the likes of us, and Morton’s and Donnybrook Fair in Dublin, there’s more of a demand; so Horgan’s or Pallas Foods are looking for a nicer range because we’re looking for it.”
Opportunities for change
But it is evident that the McCambridges are not afraid of a challenge in any case. With all the talk of the dreaded “r-word” at the moment, theirs is a business which has regarded seemingly adverse changes as opportunities. In fact, never mind recession, it was far worse which first brought George McCambridge to Galway in 1922. Originally from Cushendall in Antrim, George had an altercation with a member of the Black and Tans and was warned that he should get out of Belfast as he had been black-listed!
And a major change was experienced by McCambridge’s over a decade ago. Galway’s main thoroughfare on which it is based, aptly named Shop Street, was pedestrianised. Whereas before “people would have pulled up in their cars and got a box of groceries, we went more towards the convenience end, concentrating on food-to-go.” says Eoin. The result is that the store now makes 400 sandwiches a day, most of them made to order.
Laughs Norma: “My kids are in two different schools in town and they say to me, “yeah mum, McCambridge’s is the best place for a sandwich, all of my friends say.” A shop floor redesign will also be completed soon, to “show we’re moving on, but not changing the soul of the shop,” she adds.
When another major food retailer with infamous golden arches moved onto Shop Street, some businesses weren’t happy, but Eoin immediately saw the positive side. “When McDonald’s came into the town, it was actually great because it drew families in,” he says. In some cases it even made McCambridge’s easier to locate.
“I was on the floor one day and there was a man on the phone trying to explain to his wife where McCambridge’s was, telling her it was beside Lynch’s castle. Listen I said, and I hate to have to tell you this, just tell her it’s next door to McDonalds. He looked at me and kind of laughed, because right enough, she knew where it was.”
An astute passer-by subsequently commented: “Yeah, the ying and yang of food retailing.” McCambridge’s may not be the ying to McDonald’s yang, but it’s a refreshing alternative to the usual homogenous high-street offering. n