With The Irish Times currently on the hunt for the Best Shops in Ireland for the second year running, Gillian Hamill decided to catch up with last years’ winners in the campaign’s two specific grocery and food retail categories – Best Artisan Foods & Greengrocers and Best Butchers - to discover why Irish shoppers voted for them in their droves
13 August 2014
“We are an altar to meat,” is how James Whelan Butchers in Avoca, Monkstown, Co. Dublin, describes itself. This attitude explains a lot about how the store succeeded in scooping the title of Best Butcher in The Irish Times’ nationwide search for the country’s best shops. As Pat Whelan of James Whelan Butchers explains, the business has existed since 1960 but only opened its first stores in partnership with Irish lifestyle chain Avoca in 2011.
Bringing uniqueness to life
“The business has been based for a lot of its life in Clonmel, Tipperary,” says Pat Whelan. “At the heart of the business is the farm and the abattoir there, where we produce our products. In 2011, we opened our first stores in Dublin in partnership with Avoca and the challenge for us was to firstly bring our unique proposition and point of difference to the market, and then within the constraints of the store in Monkstown, to bring that to life from a consumer point of view, for shoppers who may or may not know about the brand.”
Although shoppers may not have been aware of the brand, Avoca certainly knew the quality it provided. “They approached us,” Pat Whelan explains. “We’ve had an online business since 2004 and they were customers of ours online in a personal capacity and there was an awareness of the product and the quality there and I think that triggered the approach.”
Reflecting ethos through design
James Whelan Butchers was a natural fit in terms of product offering for Avoca’s first ever food market in Monkstown, yet the move was not without its challenges. “We had the challenge of creating a retail footprint within a very small space [approx. 600 sq ft],” says Whelan. “A further challenge was that we were taking this business 110 miles north and while there would have been a certain awareness of the brand through the digital connection with people in the Greater Dublin area, there was certainly a need to communicate what made this product so special.”
The design of the store subsequently assumed an important focus, in communicating this uniqueness. “We brought the retail design team to a field on our farm in Tipperary and we walked them through the process of how the animal is reared, and then through the abattoir, through the maturation process and then on to the store in Dublin,” explains Whelan. “We said to them we need to communicate the value of all this into a retail plan.”
The designer’s use of glass was a clever way of illustrating the transparency that exists within the business, where the food’s journey from field to fork is 100% traceable, within just one site. “She came up with glass walls everywhere, so glass walls into the cold room so you see the meat in a really transparent way,” explains Whelan. Likewise, a glass preparation room, so when you’re standing in the store, you can see all the meat being prepared for the counter. The designer also included an Irish cut-stone wall as each piece of stone is both unique and natural, as is every animal on the farm. “That reflected the nature of the product that we were dealing with, so every element was considered and carefully chosen to reflect the product,” he adds.
Listening to customers
But while the “craft of butchering goes back five generations” in Pat Whelan’s family and is “part of his DNA” he says it’s essential that the business moves with the times, in offering a quick and easy range of meal solutions and marinades, in both its Dublin-based businesses in Monkstown and Rathcoole. “There’s no point of doing this for generations and generations if you don’t make it relevant to the customer that you’re serving at that moment in time,” says Whelan. What’s more, despite the recession, consumers are still demanding first-class quality products, which explains why the business is breeding its own range of world-class Wagyu (kobe) beef.
Customers nowadays are savvy and realise that the lowest price does not equate to the best value, says Whelan. “People are looking for a clean source of food, they’re looking for food that hasn’t been engineered or tampered with and I think they understand a value proposition. While the price points may not be €1.99 or €2.99, I think they understand the price per kilo…I see people trying alternative sources, but returning time and time again because quality at the end of the day wins.”
Likewise, “human interaction clearly wins over any communication on the back of the pack,” he adds, commenting that the butcher sees their customers on a weekly basis and therefore builds their trust and confidence. Now more than ever, after the horsemeat scandal. “That whole scandal was a breach of trust basically because the pack said beef burger but in actual fact, 33% of it was horsemeat and that reinforced the whole need for that trust and that relationship.
“Ultimately what the butcher plays is a key role in every community, in the same way that the chemist and local doctor do,” Whelan continues. “They are the conduit between the land and our food, and a connection back to the land…with good food being an investment in your future health and wellbeing.” As such, winning the coveted Irish Times award, represented “a huge endorsement of everything that everybody does at all levels of the company”.
Cracking on at the Cracked Nut
The Best Artisan Food & Greengrocers Award was scooped by Cracked Nut, located on Camden Street in Dublin city centre. This thriving business was opened by sisters Nikki O’Toole and Kelda Clermont in November 2012. Clermont explains their motivation for establishing the store: “We grew up with a dad who was really involved in agriculture so it was all about from farm to table [for us]. Even though we were living in Dublin, we were always down the country at trade shows and farm shows and we knew a lot about where our food is coming from and really respecting that side of it.”
With both sisters “very interested in health and nutrition and a lot of natural foods”, an artisan food store was always going to be a good fit. Despite the recession, they both felt the personal timing was right for them to launch the Cracked Nut two years ago.
The sisters believe they make a good team as they have both brought their individual strengths to the business, with O’Toole previously working in sales and Clermont in graphic design and marketing. This background impacted the design of the store with both sisters eager to give the shop “a natural, rustic feel”. To achieve this goal, they made their own bespoke shelving using 1940s French apple boxes. Although these have proved to be a hit in-store, with some customers actually coming in and taking photos of them, they turned out to be a real labour of love, with heavy sanding and “scrubbing down” required.
Providing Irish at the right price
While the shelves might be French though, the sisters are committed to sourcing quality Irish produce. “I think we’re really, really passionate about Irish products,” says Clermont. Providing nutritious foods at a reasonable price, is another key focus for the business. “We feel that everyone is entitled to natural, wholesome ingredients, to be able to eat that every day at a reasonable price and to sustain their health with it…That’s our promise to our customers.”
On the topic of delivering value for money, Clermont adds: “Our coffee is really good value, our Americanos are two euros, our lattes are €2.50; we’ve a really high end coffee and it’s also got two shots in each one so that’s a really good price. We do beautiful homemade scones [with] blackberries or apple cinnamon and that with a coffee up to 11 o’clock in the morning is only €3.50. Then our salads, we’ve brilliant takeaway boxes, we’ve a small one for €3.95 and a large one for €5.95 and it’s really substantial and the soups are €3.50, so I think we have really high quality food for a good price.”
All these options are made in-store by the Cracked Nut’s “brilliant chef”, Mark, who works full-time, with Sive and Nikki also rustling up treats in the kitchen. One of the business’ bestsellers is its supergreen soup. Indeed, superfoods are a major focus at the store, with more unusual options available such as Spirulina balls, Matcha lattes and Matcha green teas. These health-conscious options form a major USP for the store. At the time of our interview, the Cracked Nut was gearing up to add another healthy addition – a juicing bar – which the team was very excited about. “We’re always looking at new ideas, we’re always checking out what’s next, because I think it’s really exciting,” says Clermont. “Another thing we’re really looking forward to is bringing in on a Saturday, our brunch menu, so there’ll be more of our lovely French toasts with an Irish touch and feel to it, [options such as] lovely asparagus wrapped in parma ham, dipped into a boiled egg; very simple but really, really delicious.” A new website for the business will also be launching shortly which will drive business further, helping it to deliver more corporate orders such as platters, evening canapés and wholesome meals for office meetings.
“A warm welcome” is something the store always strives to provide, and local customers certainly seem to have appreciated this effort. Clermont attributes the store’s Irish Times win so early in its development to “our local clientele; we’ve a really lovely crowd of people that come into us from all the offices around, people living around the area as well, and they’re really supportive of us.” With such positivity in abundance, Cracked Nut will undoubtedly continue to grow its custom base and keep existing customers happy.