‘Convenience without compromise’
With 200 of their own ready meal lines sold in-store, Chill Food Hall in Coleraine, Co. Derry, is carving out a niche for itself locally as a one-stop-shop for a satisfying yet healthy dinner. Gillian Hamill caught up with co-owner Michael Devine to learn more about the business which also supplies ready meals to a number of retail and foodservice customers
11 February 2015 | 0
Chill Food Hall,
18 Stone Row,
Retailer: Michael Devine
Store manager: Pamela Anderson
Factory size: 4,000 sq ft
Staff: 16 in the factory, Annie’s Traditional Food and 24 between the store and factory
Social media: 2,126 Facebook ‘likes’
Best-sellers: Cottage pie, Irish stew, sliced roast beef and onion gravy, pasta bakes such as chicken and broccoli bakes, curries. All made “as home-like as possible”
Chill Food Hall in Coleraine, Co. Derry, is a unique store in that the vast majority of its floor space is stocked with 200 of its own ready meal and accompaniment lines. These are all made locally in the store’s factory, Annie’s Traditional Food, located some six miles away in nearby Garvagh.
A clear round-price promotion operates throughout the food hall, where shoppers can pick up three meals for £10 or two accompaniments, such as mash, champ, chilli fries and garlic fries for €5. All the options are made in the company’s factory which is headed up by Sean and Brian Mullan, using local produce with a strong focus on quality. The business’ co-owner, Michael Devine explains more about the progression of both the store and factory, which have now been open for around a year and a half, and four and a half years respectively. As well as making ranges for their own store, the company supplies five products for the Chef in a Box company in the south and some products for Henderson Foodservice. “We try to have about five or six arms of business,” says Devine. “We do own brands for about ten good quality shops and we do quite a bit of business in the south. Probably about half of our business would be in the south.”
Diversifying their offering
At first, the factory started off making breads, but realised their offering would need to change and diversify in order to survive. “We started off as Annie’s Traditional Food and we began making bread and it didn’t work…We realised we were too small and you have to change and adapt so we stopped making breads. We made artisan breads with date and walnut, wheaten and fruit loaf but we realised it wasn’t working for us. So we started off making soups and stews, then we got into the ready meals and then it snowballed. To be honest at the start we wanted to be in every shop in Ireland or every shop in the north, but you soon realise that if you do that in business, you’ll be out of business.”
After following this change in direction, the business is now performing well. As Devine explains: “From wanting to go everywhere, we scaled back and then we took another angle and we decided it was a lot of hard work [but it was] the best way we could go.” One of the initial reasons for starting the store was to help with cash flow, but as Devine points out, now “the shop stands on its own two feet and it is a very good core business and does very well”. Another advantage is that the store now acts almost as a showroom for the factory’s prospective retail and foodservice customers. “We use our shop; our shop is where people come to our business and they come and say, we want to replicate that idea into our business. That’s so easily done and we say yep, that’s no problem.”
Some customers have actually asked if they can recreate the Chill label but Devine says: “It’s not going anywhere. It’s ours. In the future we will maybe do something with it. We had the idea of maybe opening five, six, seven shops if we want, but our core business is making ready meals for our customers and we gear them [towards] an own brand scenario.” Devine explains enthusiastically: “We say get your brand, your name on the label. Go with the same label format only take a twist and put the name of your shop on it and then you’re telling your customer, ‘Look, this is a top product here, we’re [prepared] to put our own name on it’.” So far, this approach has worked extremely well. In fact, as Devine points out: “We turn down more business than we take on and that’s being honest. We haven’t looked for business for about a year.”
Offering shoppers value-for-money is of major importance in the Coleraine store. “We give value; most of our products are three for ten, two for five, we don’t make money out of everything,” says Devine. “We have a lot of gluten free products; our gluten free chicken goujons for example, we would charge the same price as our normal goujons, but they cost us a third more.” When asked if the business would consider charging more to recoup their extra costs he replies: “No, because why penalise a customer? I mean we could, but you can’t turn around and say just because you’re eating goujons as a coeliac, you should be charged more.”
The company tries to make as many gluten free products as possible, but not at the expense of taste. “We label most of our products, as many we can, gluten free and in the factory we make as many sauces as we can gluten free and in the butchery counter, most of our products are gluten free. We try to do it without affecting the taste. If it’s not nice, we don’t take it on board or we don’t make the changes.” At the moment, Devine adds that the company is working alongside a top Indian restaurant to develop a new range of Indian sauces. “That’s the way we try and do it,” he says, “because you have to have a unique product; if you just go and do the same as everybody else, it doesn’t work.”
Showing what’s on offer
Letting the customer see what’s actually in the packaging, instead of having a picture of the dish that covers the front of the carton entirely, is vital according to Devine. “I find the biggest problem with shops is, you walk into shops and the stuff just sits there, people look at it, half of them don’t lift it because they don’t know what it is, [but] the idea here is that we make everything as fresh as possible, with as little additives as possible and source products that are healthy.” Samplings are also frequently held at the store to entice shoppers. “We do a lot of tastings in here,” says Devine. “For instance, we’ve got a new gluten free bread range [due in] next week, but we won’t bring it in until our customers taste it and they say yes, we want that.”
The shop carries a selection of other ranges, alongside its own ready meal products, but Devine is keen not to overly complicate their offering. For example, the store carries only one bread range from a local baker, and the retailer believes this works out best for everyone concerned. As he explains: “We don’t try and put 20 brands in, because it’s not fair on the person that’s supplying us. And if the customer likes it, we’re happy enough to have only one.” The store also carries some products in impulse categories such as confectionery and soft drinks and household essentials such as milk and sugar, in order to appeal to nearby office workers.
‘Brand is what matters’
Word of mouth has driven growth at the store, which Devine says they are constantly trying to improve. “The shop is a work in progress at the moment; we’ll be putting in new electric doors and new LED lights and you keep trying to upgrade the shop, to try and get a better brand….The more you work at it, you realise that brand is what matters. When your customer comes through the door, they have to feel special, you have to learn their name, you have to learn their needs. Well, not ‘have to’, you want to! They like you to know who they are and know what they want, so that’s important.” With this attention to detail in place, the store looks set to achieve impressive future growth.