Ambitious Alan

MTJ's Young Butcher of the Year Alan Elliott has achieved stunning success - all by the age of 25. Ed Bedington went to find out how a young lad from Northern Ireland has taken the industry by storm

For most 19-year-olds, leaving home is a daunting enough prospect. But moving to another country and setting up your own business at the same time is not your average teenage behaviour.

Yet for Alan Elliott, a young butcher from Northern Ireland, it made perfect sense and, five years later, he's running a thriving business in Scotland and winning awards for his products.

It was Alan's sheer get-up-and-go that led to him taking home the title of Young Butcher of the Year at MTJ's Butcher's Shop of the Year Awards. Alan embarked on his career at the tender age of 14, joining Joe Hutton's shop in Cookstown on day-release before going full time at 15.

Initially, his ambitions did not lie in butchery. "I grew up on a farm, and that's what I loved, but our farm wasn't big enough and I didn't see much of a future in it. I thought I'd go out and get a trade and I could always come back." However, Alan found himself bitten by the butchery bug and, 10 years later, he's still in the trade.

Ambition is in his blood though, and he was determined to branch out on his own at the earliest opportunity. When Joe Hutton handed the business to his staff, the young Alan began to think of opportunities for himself. "I'd learned the job, in-house, with some of the best butchers in the country, but by the time I was 18, I thought I was doing quite well and wanted to have something on my own, so I started looking around."

But with prices in Northern Ireland out of reach, Alan was forced to look further afield to branch out for himself. Opportunity arrived when a family friend passed a brochure for a butcher's shop in Dalbeattie, Dumfries, to Alan's brother.

"My brother brought in that brochure and I think he was doing it as a joke and thought that no way would I end up doing it! Joe Hutton came over with me to look at it and said, 'Go for it', so I did. I came over on my 19th birthday."

Despite his ambition and enthusiasm, the move still came as something of a shock. "I wasn't really prepared until I went for it. I was leaving all my family and all my friends that I grew up with.

"There's no doubt that, for the first couple of years, it was hard - a really steep learning curve," he says, with a wry smile of understatement. "The shop needed lots of work doing to it - it was like walking into something from 100 years ago. And I had a lot to learn - issues such as managing people. I was perhaps a little ambitious; I'd only worked in one shop and only seen that one way of doing things. With hindsight, it would have been good to have done a few different jobs before."

He said he encountered a lot of problems in the early days, but never got to the point where he wanted to give up. "I wouldn't walk away until I'd achieved something. I wouldn't want people thinking I couldn't do that. But it was tough, at 19 years old, trying to manage a team of staff and deal with suppliers, being away from everyone I knew.

"But to be truthful, it's the best thing that ever happened to me. People need to learn from their mistakes - as long as you don't make the same one twice."

Despite those mistakes, Alan has managed to create a thriving and successful business, which continues to grow. What makes that success all the more remarkable is that he has achieved all this despite having two other butchers within 200 yards of his shop, in a town with a population of around 4,000.

"It is rare to get three butchers in such a small town," he agrees, "and we do have to fight for trade - it's tough. We also have several good butchers in neighbouring towns as well."

One way Alan has managed to stand out from the crowd is through competitions. He has taken the best Scottish haggis and steak pie titles in recent years and has generated plenty of buzz around his shop as a result. "The product awards have been very beneficial for the shop and winning the Young Butcher award has been very beneficial within the industry - in terms of getting respect and dealing with suppliers. It all helps."

He says the key to winning awards is to make consistently good products year-round. "Anything I've put into a competition has been taken straight off the shelf, not made especially. It's the same product I offer my customers, day-in, day-out."

Of course, it is not just about winning the awards, but also about Alan's enthusiasm for shouting about his wins - and making the most of the resulting PR that has helped secure his reputation. He was even approached by Selfridges, which was keen to stock his haggis.

So, having conquered the Scottish haggis scene, taken the title of UK's best young butcher, is there anything left for Alan to conquer? One thing is sure, he has no intention of contesting his titles. "I don't tend to enter competitions again. If I've won that award, I don't think I have anything to prove by entering again." And there are still plenty of competitions for him to go after.

Yet for a young man who hasn't taken a single holiday in five years, perhaps now is the time to have a break. "I work too much," he admits. He does intend to step back from the day-to-day running of the shop, instead of concentrating on the business' development.

True to form, he has ambitious plans. A total refit of his Dalbeattie shop is on the cards, which will see the premises remodelled and extended. "The refit is all about getting existing customers to spend more in the shop," he says and aims to raise average spend per visits from 5-6 to 10.

A new website is also in the pipeline, but his main ambition is to set up a small empire, with a further two or three shops a few years down the line, backed up by a manufacturing unit. So there are some extensive plans for the future, but when you look at what Alan has achieved so far, all by the age of 25, there is no doubt he will be a name to watch.