A fresh approach in Ratoath
Paul Sweeney has had a store in Ratoath, Co. Meath for over ten years but only joined Musgrave in 2012. His newly revamped Centra store has been welcomed by both staff and customers alike and is a great addition to this busy area. Fionnuala Carolan reports
15 October 2014
Owner: Paul Sweeney
Centra area manager: Pat Heffernan
Opening hours: 6.30-11, 8- 11 Sunday
Like most business owners who have toiled through the recession, Paul Sweeney is now a cautious man and takes a measured approach to his business. He is keen to expand but wary about investing in new concepts without being entirely convinced that they will work. One thing he is convinced of is the importance of good quality, fresh produce and the impact of good customer service, which are both on show in abundance in this store.
Emphasis on fresh food
Sweeney says that selling quality fresh food is very important to him. He comes from a foodie family with two of his brothers trained as butchers and his sister running a catering company in the UK. His mother’s family also ran a newsagents and a grocery store in Finglas when he was a boy. An in-store bakery was an obvious addition to this store for him and he converted a large room above the shop floor for it. He believes that this is one of his points of difference from other stores of a similar size. It was an investment he made some years ago but one he believes has paid off and will continue to pay off in the years ahead. “You can do it very cheaply but you need to have the free space already allocated,” he says.
“The particular fit out that I have here, cost me about €50,000. I built it for the future. We just have the bakery in it at the moment but we are going to introduce a kitchen where we can make home-cooked meals. Centra have their own range of ready meals/home cooked meals but we have our own brand, Sweeney’s Fine Foods, so we have a brand within the store. Musgrave are quite happy with that because the two brands work well side-by-side. The Centra model is really, really good for fresh food so their model and my own ideas, like the bakery, and doing our own ready meals, really blend and work well together.”
However he says that at the moment all he wants to do is manage what he has and keep doing those things well. “We’ve all made mistakes before. You jump in and you spend the money and then something might not work. So before I spend the money now, I’d be very cautious and have to analyse it properly.”
This store is currently supplying two other shops with baked goods and he hopes to grow this. “The idea would be to take on maybe half a dozen or up to ten stores, within a specific radius and to supply them. We need to start sweating the facility now. It’s probably under-utilized at the moment, that’s down to myself being a little bit cautious, making sure that what we are doing, we are doing right and we are getting the quality right. There is definitely scope now for me to start supplying others.”
To complement all the lovely bakery products on display in-store there is a very nice coffee shop area to your right when you enter the shop, which seats around 30. It encourages locals to congregate here and gives a nice, welcome air to the shop. Sweeney explains that while it is part of the store it is cut off enough to feel like a separate area. “The glass partition means that the person in the coffee shop can look out and feel like they are part of something that’s going on and you can people watch but you are still in a defined coffee shop area and not in a shop. It’s nicely cut off. It’s does feel like a separate business.
“The coffee shop works extremely well, primarily for the morning breakfast offer. The baked goods would be consumed in the coffee shop mid-morning but again the busiest time is lunchtime where sandwiches and dinners come from the hot deli.”
Another area that he hopes to utilise further is the deli. It usually closes around 7pm but he hopes to get a strong evening trade up and running. “It’s very difficult to get the evening trade right. I will certainly try it. I could fail, I don’t know. It’s very important to have the offering and we have to see what to invest into it.”
Sweeney grew up on a stud farm in Ongar, Clonsilla, just a few miles down the road. He now lives in Castleknock. He acknowledges the changes that have come about in the area over the past 10/15 years, when Ratoath was but a small village. Today the population stands at over 10,000. “Going back 14 years, this was a completely different place. The population was maybe 2,000. Now there are 10,000 people living here. It just shot up in a very short space of time. Most people came from North Dublin, Finglas, Cabra and Swords.”
Despite this, Ratoath still retains that village feel yet the proximity to Dublin is a real bonus for those living here, making it a prime commuter spot. One of the busiest times of the day for Sweeney and his team is when all these commuters come home from work and call into the store to pick up something for their dinner.
Trying to persuade these customers to make some discretionary purchases is where the challenge lies. Sweeney says the effects of the recession are still evident and consumers still place huge emphasis on value. “We have seen an uplift in terms of people’s general confidence. It’s only starting to show very slowly in their spend and the decisions of what they buy. I think that’s going to take a bit of time yet and will be next year before the average spend starts to go up. The average spend is €5.90. We need to get that up by an extra 30/40 cent, which is the discretionary spend like the bar of chocolate or the cake. We have been in the doldrums for too long now, and people need to loosen up and learn to live again. You hear on the radio and TV that the country is on the rise but it’s still too early days for the likes of us in the convenience sector to see the change.”
Flair for retail
Sweeney is now 20 years in retail so he has seen a lot of changes. Originally in the business of motorway crash barriers, a retail opportunity came up with the Maxol Group 20 years ago and he took that and found he had a flair for retail and enjoyed it. He made the decision to go fully into the convenience trade and says he has no regrets. “I love it. I got into it in 1994. The opportunity came about and I took it. One of the things I have found is that some of the very successful retailers come from a retail background of Superquinn or Dunnes Stores and they are really good operators. I feel sometimes at a disadvantage and that I’m playing catch up to these guys. At the same time it could be to my advantage where I don’t have any particular baggage from any other main retailer.”
Store of the year
Changing direction in his career certainly doesn’t seem to have impeded his success. After joining Centra in 2012, it didn’t take long for his retail flair to be noticed and the store was named in the top ten Centra stores that year. “We reached the top ten of the Centra Store of the Year in 2012,” he explains. “I was absolutely just delighted. Just to know that we were in the top ten of 470 stores… I felt it was a massive achievement for our first year. I was chuffed and the staff were really excited about it. When you know you’re in the top ten, you start to think that you could probably win it. There was an element of being gutted that we didn’t win it but I think that the people that did win it that year really deserved it.”
To get to those levels of success, your staff need to be fully on board. There are 22 staff in this store and Sweeney is a very present owner, admitting to being in the store seven days a week. At all times there are two staff on the tills, three on the floor and three or four in the deli. He credits his Centra area manager Pat Heffernan as being a great support to him. “I knew Pat before he joined Musgrave and when I opened here in 2012, Pat was actually my regional manager so it was great to renew the acquaintance again and he’s a terrific guy and I’ve a lot of time for him. You’re in your own bubble so it’s good for someone else to see it and I value his opinion as he had a lot of experience. Musgrave put a huge emphasis on being successful in your business. They want you to make money. The emphasis is on you being successful and I like that. They have their own systems and I buy into them because I think if you buy into a brand you need to buy into it fully and not be cherry picking the things you want.”
While it’s a long way away yet, Sweeney has some hope of handing the business down to the next generation. Two of his sons are completing a retail and service management degree in DCU so they are certainly on the right path. Of this possibility he says: “At some stage along the line, when this fuddy duddy wants to get out of it, they might come into the business!” Until then, he will continue to nurture the business and keep his focus on providing fresh, quality food for the people of Ratoath.