Winning family fortunes

Between the 20% sales boost the following week, a deluge of early Christmas orders and camaraderie with fellow butcher competitors at the London awards ceremony, Shane Stewart is hard-pressed to pick out the best thing about winning Butcher's Shop of the Year 2010.

For Stewart's Family Butchers of Enniskillen, however, it probably boils down to the joy of winning. A two-time recipient of the regional title, the Stewart family headed off to the awards with high hopes, but trepidation that judges would feel it was time to pass the baton to another Northern Irish butcher.

To regain the regional award and then scoop the UK-wide accolade was beyond their hopes. "It was just great," says Shane, "and the fulfilment of a dream of ours. We strive to be the best and have been entering this competition for many years, getting quite close in the last couple of years.

"It's the icing on the cake for my father, Gabriel, who was 61 this year and has 31 years in the business. He can retire happy now."

While Gabriel who opened his first butcher's shop just around the corner from the current premises in 1979 is planning to slow down in 2011, there is unlikely to be a lighter workload for his son, Shane, daughters Aisling and Kirsty and 11 other full-time and six part-time staff members. Indeed, the round trip for November's award ceremony involved an early morning flight and return the same evening to be on hand for a visit from Avery Berkel the next day.

The equipment supplier had sent a team over from Birmingham to train Stewart's on its latest purchase: a WA210 Weigh Wrap automatic labelling system. The shop supplies small independent supermarkets and convenience stores in surrounding villages and hamlets with retail packed meat, and the new kit will facilitate expansion of the trade to 20 shops by January.

Stewart's had been hand-packing 4,000 to 5,000 packs per week, while the WA210 will handle 35 packs per minute. "It will not be replacing manpower, but will allow us to use it better elsewhere," says Shane.

Final proofs also came through in December for new labels to go on the retail packs, developed with support from Invest NI. Stewart's was keen to ensure the label reflected the right image, with constant attention to detail and an ongoing quest for improvement and progress among the qualities making Stewart's stand out from its competitors and ultimately lift the UK award.

Commitment to quality

The shop was the subject of an MTJ Extra profile in October 2009, which highlighted its commitment to quality, local sourcing, innovation and ongoing staff training. Since then, shop workers have enhanced their existing skills with training courses covering a variety of areas from marketing to organic gardening.

A small plot at the back of the town centre shop was subsequently developed to grow vegetables and herbs for use in its added-value lines, while also serving as a marketing tool for the shop. It is visible to regular passers-by, as well as the large number of church-goers streaming by on their way to Sunday services; an opportunity which did not pass by Stewart's when it erected prominent signage and banners carrying its regional Butcher's Shop of the Year wins of previous years on the back of the shop.

Stewart's was awarded Best Speciality Sausage by the Ulster Pork & Bacon Forum for a line featuring its own organic leeks in November, while the organic garden was also a factor in the shop winning the title of UK's Greenest Butcher as part of National Butchers' Week in March 2010.

Deli sales continue to grow, with the recession failing to quell demand for the firm's added-value lines. "We have stuck to our core values, selling quality product at a reasonable price," says Shane.

Popular product lines range from steak to chicken curry and speciality roasts at the weekend. All the added-value lines are produced on site in Aisling's kitchen, and any new additions are subject to taste-testing by a panel of staff and/or tasting days for customers.

Among further factors in the judges' selection of Stewart's as Butcher's Shop of the Year 2010 was its commitment to the ethos of a family business and inspiring staff loyalty, top-notch presentation and range, efficiency of operation, and attention to hygiene behind the scenes as well as in the shop.

Media coverage of the win included a two-minute feature on BBC Newsline, and stories across the national newspapers Belfast Telegraph and Belfast Newsletter, as well as local press. "It has had an instant impact on trade," says Shane. "We would probably know about 99% of customers, but now we're seeing a lot of strange faces in the shop. One new customer was a lady over on her holidays from England and she had seen the shop on TV in Anglia."

Another customer had travelled 10 miles after seeing the news piece and was pleasantly surprised when her bill came to 50; the same produce would have cost 80 in her usual shop, she said.

early christmas boost

Christmas trade, meanwhile, got off to an early start on the back of the buzz surrounding the win, with 250 orders already in by 1 December.

With the frenetic Christmas trade over, Stewart's may at last have time to savour its success, and reflect on the support of other butchers at the awards ceremony. "There was great warmth towards us," says Shane. "They were genuinely happy for us and were congratulating us afterwards, saying we deserved it."

However, any hiatus from the Stewart family's proactive approach to business is likely to be short-lived. "We have spent so long getting the shop right that the next thing for us now is the website," says Shane. "We have a lot of customers down south, and are planning to get it up and running in the New Year."

Stewart's will again be looking to Invest NI for advice and support on online trading. "When we do things in our business, we like to get them 100% right or at least 99%," Shane says. "When you go on a website, you very quickly make up your mind about how it looks and if it's right for you."