Stewart's clan

Out of adversity came opportunity for Enniskillen butcher Gabriel Stewart, winner of the Northern Ireland regional heat in last year's Butcher's Shop of the Year awards.

His first shop, opened in 1979, was off the main thoroughfare and competing with around eight other butchers and two supermarkets in the town. However its location just outside the barricades sealing off many of the Province's towns and cities during 'the troubles' actually proved fortuitous, with locals able to pop in for their fresh meat, fruit and vegetables without having to pass through the security checkpoints.

And Stewarts of Enniskillen again found itself on the right side of the tracks when the business moved to a new site on busy Church Street in 1996 and, shortly after, the barricades came down.

Having trained as a butcher with his uncle since the age of 13, Gabriel ran the meat department in a local supermarket before setting up his first shop with his aunt. He had also worked in the meat trade in London and came back with the idea novel at the time that a butcher's shop staff could include women.

With the business growing, Gabriel purchased an old doctor's house, knocked it down and built the current premises. The new shop was bespoke-fitted by MCH Design & Shopfitting of Hillsborough, following consultation with five or six companies, picked out from the Yellow Pages. Display units were supplied by McGrath Refrigeration of Kesh.

Stewarts has not been afraid to innovate or experiment and, while a hot food counter and frozen display were short-lived, the deli counter proved a winner and expanded year-on-year, leaving no room for fruit and vegetables. "We had to get rid of it, as we had expanded the counter so much, there was no room any more," says shop manager Shane Stewart.

Very much a family business, Gabriel is still active in the shop, but now takes a back seat to son Shane. Two of Shane's sisters also work there: Aisling manages the deli and Kirsty Miss Northern Ireland 2004 serves behind the counter.

Aisling's Kitchen includes a 'Heat & Eat' range with pies, bolognese, traditional fare such as champ and root mash, and best-sellers lasagne and chicken curry, all produced on-site in the kitchen, which, along with a fully refrigerated cutting room, was added as part of a 100,000-plus investment. All the lines are available for outside catering, presented in oven/microwaveable trays or returnable dishes, alongside cooked meat platters and salads, cheeses and Mediterranean-style fare.

While butchers' shops in the town have now dwindled to a few, Stewarts faces competition from newcomers such as Tesco, Marks & Spencer and Asda; the latter said to be the third-busiest Asda in the UK. Half of customers shopping at the Enniskillen Asda are from the Republic of Ireland.

Customers have always come across the border to shop, but the weakened pound sterling accelerated that trend. Although trade generally drops off when the new stores first open, loyal customers tend to come back despite the supermarket's (often meat-led) heavy promotions.

Yet Stewarts also benefits from visitors crossing the border, and passing tourist trade, with Enniskillen the gateway to scenic Lough Erne and the surfing beaches of Donegal. "We've always had customers coming over from the South and we are seeing more now," says Shane.The shop also has its regulars driving several hours from Roscommon or Banbridge within Northern Ireland to pick up their meat.

All of Stewarts' meat is sourced from within a 60-mile radius, and identifiable by farmer. Every Tuesday, 18-20 sides of beef are delivered by Foyle Food Group-owned Omagh Meats and processed into primal cuts and products such as burgers, sausages and ready meals in-house.

Foyle also supplies around 16 lambs, while about 68 sides and 40 middles of pork come in from Sprotts of Portadown. Also weekly, 200 whole chickens come from Sixmilecross in Co Tyrone and Richhill in Co Armagh, while 600-700 chickens for filleting are supplied from Co Monaghan and Co Cavan to achieve consistency in size and quality.

Price labels highlight the meat's provenance, and Shane says interest in local sourcing has undoubtedly increased. "People have got more adventurous with food," adds Shane, "and if they ask for something, we will get it in."

The region, with a higher than average reliance on public sector jobs, has not suffered too badly in the recession, says Shane. However, people read about the credit crunch and are cutting back on top-end cuts, such as sirloin and fillet and buying, say, chump steak instead.

The growing deli counter has boosted average customer spend to 10, rising to 15-20 at the weekend. Seven servers are needed on a Saturday, and total numbers run to 12 full-time and five part-time staff, most of whom have been there for at least five years.

Turnover has been growing by, on average, 10% above inflation for over a decade, says Shane, and plans are in place to expand capacity in the cutting room already equipped with a mincer/maker, sausage filler, scales and vacuum packer. Stewarts currently supplies retail packed meats to 14 local convenience stores, and is applying for Invest Northern Ireland funding to purchase an Avery automatic wrapping machine, facilitating expansion to other shops in the Province and bordering counties in the Republic.

Supplying the catering trade, however, has been ruled out. The sector is too price-conscious and Stewarts would not like to be short of supplies for its walk-in customers, says Gabriel. "Local produce, that's what people want," adds Shane. "The quality is always better. That and the advice a butcher can give his customers."