Doing it old style
Combining two traditional focal points of an Irish community, the pub and the corner shop, Robert and Fiona Byrne are taking customers back to the good old days.
8 July 2009
It’s not just the marketers of ‘retro-chic’ brands who know the value of the past for enticing today’s market. Retailers Robert and Fiona Byrne have also taken inspiration from an earlier era by combining two traditional family businesses; the public house and the corner shop.
Bobby Byrne’s XL Stop & Shop stands directly in front of Bobby Byrne’s public house and the two share the same kitchen, allowing the shop to sell the same freshly prepared homemade food as the popular pub and restaurant. The only difference is that it’s available at a fraction of the price in handy microwaveable containers. Robert Byrne explains: “We also extended our bar licence into the shop, so technically the shop is now part of the bar. In legal and licensing terms it’s actually a bar with a shop, so we’ve almost gone full circle. We’ve gone back 100 years where you had the pub and customers could go into the back room and get the sliced ham.”
According to Byrne however, and to XL Stop & Shop business development manager Marc Collins, the brand’s vibrant image and growth is anything but retro. “We’re one of the few businesses that’s still growing year on year,” Collins remarks. The XL brand has opened 15 stores already this year and could potentially open between 20 and 25 stores by the year’s end, which he says, “would be a very good year for us.”
Robert Byrne first hit upon the cost-efficient, not to mention space-efficient idea of sharing one central kitchen, primarily because he wanted to deliver a wider food offering, one that would stand out in customers’ minds. “We said there’s an opportunity here in that we have an existing food business, so if we can connect the two premises and have one central kitchen we can go down the road of offering a wider range of fresh produced foods.”
Give us our daily bread
In fact, the XL store bakes its own range of daily breads and fresh meals such as chicken and beef dinners, or stroganoff and bolognaise, available either hot, chilled or frozen to offer customers maximum flexibility. Byrne notes: “In an area like this where you’ve a lot of elderly people it’s ideal that they can get a meal that they can take away hot, or that they can take away and reheat, and it’s ready-to-go homemade food.”
What’s more, Bobby Byrne’s store also offers busy parents the option of stocking up on family-sized portions of stews and lasagne, and sells homemade soups and sauces alongside mainstream grocery brands. “It’s given us a whole new dimension to our food sales,” explains Byrne, “and it came along at a very appropriate time, as the downturn started to come in the food and drink trade where people were cutting back on what they were spending. Now they’ve an option to get basically the same food cheaper.”
Byrne brands the store’s home-cooked food with a Bobby Byrne’s hand-written label, which provides a homely touch. He would, however, consider having the store’s own branded artwork professionally designed: “I actually visited a few stores in Cork that had done that and it really finishes it and it looks well. We still have work to do to get to that stage but there’s endless potential for growth in that area because people want quality, they want fresher and healthier options now.”
The trend hasn’t led to the demise of the eponymous breakfast roll in Byrne’s book though. “The days of builders on every corner, that’s gone, but still there’s good demand there, the breakfast roll is still as popular as ever…There’s also some big construction projects coming online in this area; two and three year projects.”
Constant flow of customers
Fortunately, due to his central location near the city centre, surrounded by seven schools and a college, Byrne finds he still has a constant flow of customers all day long. Furthermore, well-known local staff have proved a valuable asset for the business. Store manager Frank originally worked in the bar and has many years’ experience in wholesale and grocery, working for both BWG and Musgrave as a purchasing manager. Byrne adds: “His sister Ann is second in command out there and she’s been there a long time now so they know all the customers, it’s great.”
That said, value has now also become central for many customers, and Byrne feels the re-launch of XL’s Family Value own brand line has helped him to compete. To this end, he decided to dedicate one stand exclusively to Family Value lines. “It’s probably a value item in a convenience shop that wasn’t there before and we needed to strike that [balance],” adds Collins.
The fact that Byrne has allocated this space to Family Value indicates its strong performance, as he’s keen to maximise every possible space in a store just over 1,000 sq ft. Originally, the shop was 600 sq ft, but after purchasing it last year Byrne decided to convert its storage space into shop floor space. Fortunately, Byrne’s XL Stop & Shop also has the use of space next door, although the fact that the store receives six deliveries a week from the nearby Value Centre means it requires limited storage in any case.
Flair for renovation
“We then basically squeezed every bit of space out of it,” says Byrne jovially. The L-shaped store can now accommodate a large deli counter, off-licence and a “good and well laid out and designed grocery section.”
It’s not surprising that Byrne put a great deal of thought into designing the store, considering that he developed a taste for renovation during his earlier career; both he and his wife Fiona started out in the hotel industry. He worked with Great Southern Hotels for 13 years, progressing from trainee manager to group operations manager. He explains: “I oversaw the capital development of the group and we built a number of new hotels and developed all of the existing properties. So I suppose I got a bit of a flair for building and refurbishing, and that’s when I bought the pub six years ago, when my father was retiring. Basically we doubled the size of the pub and we introduced food.”
Flexibility is key
Having previously worked for large companies, Byrne felt it important he should retain his independence when starting out on his own. He therefore appreciated the flexibility XL could offer. Collins agrees: “As Robert said, maybe we’re offering something to the customer that some of the bigger groups can’t offer. We’re giving them their independence while giving them a full back-up service.”
He adds that while other symbol group brands might have an agreement that 90% or 95% of product be purchased from them, this is set at 70% within XL Stop & Shop. “It’s very, very flexible,” says Collins, “by offering that to the customer we’re giving them the freedom and the opportunity to look elsewhere, but we always know that through the Value Centre cash and carries, that we can actually provide the price and deals, that they won’t go somewhere else. And 99 out of a 100 times it’s proven correct that we end up getting 90% up to 95% of purchases.”
Byrne is also impressed with the nearby Value Centre, adding, “If we send an order in at 8.30 or 9am in the morning, we’ll have it by 10 or 10.30am.” And it’s this sort of support that has had a tangible affect on Byrne’s business. “I think if I had the choice in the morning to open another pub or open another shop, I’d tell you it would be a very easy decision. Another XL I would have absolutely no difficulty with.”