The winner of the NOffLA award for Beer Specialist of the Year 2017, McHugh’s Off-Licence on the Malahide Road in Artane, sets a superb example of how to keep a beer offering from going flat! Gillian Hamill caught up with retailer Cathal McHugh to learn what makes it a real beer contender
19 October 2017
25e Malahide Road, Artane, Dublin 5
Size: 2,000 sq ft
Staff: Three full-time and four part-time
As our off-trade readers will be fully aware, the craft beer sector has exploded in both popularity and variety in recent years. The result of all this activity? In order to be named NOffLA Beer Specialist of the Year, you have to offer something truly special. That is exactly what McHugh’s Off-Licence on the Malahide Road, Artane delivers.
Not only do the store’s shelves boast over 600 different beers, but the off-licence even provides its own specially brewed series of beers, called ‘Road Trip’. As retailer Cathal McHugh points out: “We’re not afraid to experiment or innovate” and here at ShelfLife, we’d be hard-pressed to disagree! The decision to brew their own beer was taken to mark the store’s 20th anniversary in business. “We selected our favourite brewer; went to the brewery, brewed a batch and bottled it under our own brand called Road Trip,” Cathal McHugh, who runs the family business with his brother Diarmuid, explains. Sales of Road Trip were impressive, to the extent that McHugh’s is currently selling a fourth batch, appropriately named ‘Road Trip 4’.
Brewing up a treat
“The whole concept is that we select a brewer that we like and trust and we collaborate with them on the recipe development and then go ahead and brew it,” McHugh says. And customers have certainly reacted well to this innovative approach. In fact the first batch which was brewed in Kinnegar Brewing in Rathmullen, Donegal, proved so popular that the brewer asked to commercialise it himself, and it remains a part of his core range to this day, under the name of Cross Roads. Road Trip 2 and 3 were subsequently brewed in Independent Brewing in Carroroe, Connemara, with number 4 brewed just a few weeks ago in Howth, Dublin.
The McHughs have also innovated within the layout of their store. “When we redeveloped in 2012, we installed a divider down the middle of the store,” Cathal McHugh says. “You go to the right of the store for beer, and to the left for wine. On the wine side, we try to make it a quiet space; ideal for browsing. It’s almost like a library; people like to go in, look at the bottles, pick them up, read them, and then for the beers, we have a lot of refrigeration because most beers are intended to be consumed soon after purchase. We have a total of 5m of open deck refrigeration for craft beers and a further 5m of back-loading refrigeration for the [mainstream] branded beers.” The off-licence also invested in growler systems two years ago, whereby they are able to dispense draft beers in growlers for their customers to take home.
Indeed, innovation has continually been a feature of this family business, which McHugh’s father established back in 1962, when he set up a grocery business in Artane, Dublin 5. As part of their expansion, they bought the Malahide Road store in 1996. “It was already a long-established off-licence under the name of Kelly’s,” McHugh says. “We traded under the name of Kelly’s until 1999 when we switched over to our own name and branding. We also did major renovations in 1999, expanding the shop and installing very modern refrigeration equipment.” Further development in 2012 cemented its status as a strong contender within the off-licence sector.
Throughout all these various changes however, the one factor that has remained consistent within the family business is the focus placed on good customer service. “Customer service is at the heart of our family business,” says McHugh, “we’ve been steeped in customer service from a young age. Our staff are friendly, welcoming and well-informed about all our products so we can share that knowledge with the customers,” he adds. “I think that’s a point of difference of all independent off-licences but we like to think that we do it particularly well in terms of being educated about buying beers and spirits so if a customer needs to ask a question, we’re equipped to help them.”
Benefits of membership
The group’s membership of NOffLA is another important motivator in terms of driving standards, according to McHugh.
“It is a good community to share information in, and to see the standards that are required, especially through the Off-Licence of the Year Awards process. That encourages us to look at all aspects of our business and to improve on them all in order to prosper. Politically, we’re also confident that they’re representing our interests to government at all times.”
All-in-all therefore, McHugh’s Off-Licence has plenty to celebrate; cheers to that!