Keep on truckin’
From a 200 sq ft kiosk to 3000 sq ft c-store, this trucker’s oasis in Ballinalack, Co Westmeath, has come a long way in the last decade
18 May 2009
Size: 3000 sq ft
No. of staff: 25 staff,
USP: Ample truck parking and truck wash
Of note: Next door to O’Reilly Commercials VTN test centre
Ballinalack Co Westmeath is no metropolis and you may well pass it without noticing, which is why it is surprising to find such a lucrative convenience business on its doorstep. On the Sligo road from Dublin however, it’s the first village you’ll meet, and David and Máire O’Reilly’s Mace-Texaco forecourt is the welcome mat.
Passing traffic therefore is the mainstay of this business, which is nothing unusual for a c-store and forecourt on a major national route. Unique to this spot though, is that it is also the site of O’Reilly Commercials VTN test centre and consequently has developed a vast clientele among the country’s haulers. Indeed, David O’Reilly has become personally well known to most Irish truckers, having made a business out of servicing their vehicles’ needs, so it is something of a natural progression that he and wife Máire have expanded to cater for the drivers themselves.
From small beginnings
“This started off as basically a 200 sq ft shed, but they were doing a phenomenal amount of pre-packed sandwiches, probably about 600 a week. So we knew that the business was there,” John Tully, retail operations advisor BWG, informs me as we sit with owner Máire O’Reilly and fellow operations advisor, Declan Weldon, in the store’s newly finished seating area.
Originally operating as independents with a simple kiosk and forecourt, the O’Reillys decided five years ago to convert to the Mace brand, when they built a convenience store of just under 2,000 sq ft on the site. As independents they had been customers of BWG’s Value Centre in Mullingar and so were already familiar with the group.
At this early phase of their convenience business, the store carried a disproportionate grocery allocation. “But it wasn’t their business,” says Tully, “they had two small Kenco cartridge machines and that was doing about 60% of the business; those two tea machines.
"So they had all that space for the grocery but the food-to-go was basically the business, because over 60% of the customers that come here are passing trade. Come summer when the matches are on up in Croke Park it’s even busier again,” he says, alluding to the fact that the forecourt also proves a popular coach stop, thanks to its ample space.
Bespoke food-to-go concepts
In 2008 the O’Reilly’s took the bold decision to invest in their business and expand the store, revamping the offer to focus heavily on food-to-go, and adding a spacious seating area for customers having a longer stop.
“The plan was, yes to have the grocery, but very much focused on the food-to-go and the minerals, and confectionary. Also to bring in the new concepts, the juice bar ‘Pipstop’ and our Fresco sandwich range, which is bespoke brand for Mace.” The group’s own branded juice concept Pipstop, produced by Sunshine Orange in Carlow, provides a bright focal point in the deli space, highlighting the fresh offer for customers in need of a healthy refreshment.
The deli offer expanded to include a carvery, to provide substantial lunch and evening meals; very much aimed at the store’s long-haul traffic. Apart from David O’Reilly’s VTN test centre, the forecourt itself also boasts a truck-wash, toilets and showers. As Tully puts it, “a fantastic facility for long-haul drivers. It’s great for them to be able to pull in here, freshen up, sit down and have a meal.”
The deli offering changes to cater for every day part, from a full breakfast spread in the morning to a broad lunch offer from 12.30, including the roasts and veg in the carvery section, which remains until dinner time. “They could go through joints of meat here at lunch time.”
In addition, Mace own branded coffee, Bess Heaton, builds on the previous cartridge operation that worked so well before, enhanced by two confectionary stands. “We find with the coffee and the confectionary, one and one makes three. It’s two high margin products side by side which, from an impulse point of view, work very well.”
Transient customer base
“We get some local trade too, mostly for takeaway food, but passing trade is the majority,”says Máire O’Reilly when asked about her predominant business. It makes her Mace store slightly unusual in that it is not geared towards a local community; the road is the main source of business, competing only with a Top station and one other small convenience store further along it.
Even from the two local schools, it’s their custom in passing the store collects for the most part. “We get a lot of buses from them with students travelling to Dublin, maybe from transition year, or fifth and sixth year travelling to see colleges. We get a lot of those buses,” says Máire.
“That’s why, the first time we gave it the grocery but second time around we said, okay, we’ll have the top-selling lines within each category there, but that’s all,” adds John Tully.
The store still carries an ample range for a convenience outlet of its kind, with two gondolas stocked with staple ranges and large standing frozen fridges towards the back of the store. “You have to have it,” says Tully, pointing out that the store is also a convenient top-up stop for people travelling up from Dublin to their holiday homes. At only an hour away from the capital, Ballinalack also sits on a commuter run.
O’Reilly affirms: “On Friday evening on bank holiday weekends the store is very busy for grocery, as John just said there. People will be travelling down to Mayo or to mobile homes, or in camper vans, and there’s a lot of traffic for grocery.
“On Saturday morning too, from about 11 o’clock onwards until about 3pm, and on Friday evening as well, there’s a real buzz.”
Despite the nature of the trade predominantly crossing Máire and David O’Reilly’s line, Tully is quick to point out that it’s not taken for granted, and the store has not been slow to refocus on value. He points to the Mace ‘extra value’ ends in confectionary: “People are price conscious now too, so they come in and pick-up the things on special offer.” He adds: “Most of the promotions that we do here are focused again on food-to-go; Coke two-for-one euro, Snickers two-for-one euro. It’s more or less all about that.”
Special deals of the day, particularly their deli meals, are advertised on an outdoor A-frame – as would be found outside any foodservice business – and change on a daily basis.
Keep on truckin’
Having such ample parking space, particularly for large vehicles, has been a huge bonus for the O’Reillys, so unsurprisingly there are plans to develop this space and further enhance the forecourt offering.
“Again, it’s all got to do with the VTN centre next door, it’s known in the area for that,” says Tully. The plans also include the installation of a carwash at the forecourt, to replace the one that was there previously but was removed to make way for the new extension, which houses the finely furnished seating area in which we are now enjoying coffee.
The empty unit sitting next to the O’Reillys’ Mace store is waiting for an eventual fast-food occupant, such as Supermacs or MacDonalds, which would offer a great additional draw for their business, and a major differentiator from the competition up the road, especially for attracting the long-haul traffic in need of refuelling.
“It’s in the early stages now but definitely it will be a fast food operator in there,” says Tully, “That brings in people in the afternoon and later on.”
There is also a compartment on site ready to go as a full off-licence, to compliment the existing wine offering and “to get the evening trade.” Wine is already moving in ample volumes, between local and passing evening trade.
With the shop now open five months since the revamp, are the O’Reillys ready for more developments? “My ambitions might but my pocket wouldn’t,” Máire O’Reilly smiles. That said, having soldiered through the revamp, keeping the shop open in the dust and cold during the winter months, to have any plans for further development now shows considerable endurance. That’s the spirit, we say.