85 years strong in South Belfast

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Laura Brown, owner of independent fine food store Arcadia, speaks to NR about the evolution of the business over the past 85 years and what consumers want in 2018.

Being at the heart of a community is a bold claim to make, but Arcadia, the luxury deli and fine food specialist located on the Lisburn Road, has become something of an institution since first opening its doors back in 1933.

Opened by Ellen Brown as a bakery and general grocery store, Arcada has been passed down for three generations and is now run by husband and wife team Mark and Laura, with Mark’s father William Brown still working hard behind the counter.

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Speaking to Neighbourhood Retailer, proprietor Laura Brown beams about the deli’s accomplishments and having reached this significant milestone. And rightly so: the shop has evolved with trends and customer demands over the years, to maintain its standing within the community.

“It’s great to have reached 85 years,” she says. “Retail is hard and it’s a tough game to be in, especially ours with so many suppliers and producers to keep on top of. We have hundreds and hundreds of products and that’s what people love about the shop.”

To celebrate this significant birthday, Arcadia has printed limited edition tea towels depicting a watercolour painting of the shop, in addition to launching an 85th birthday hamper stocked to the brim with local products.

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The Arcadia Delicatessen on Belfast’s Lisburn Road.

For the current generation of Browns, the husband and wife partnership work closely but there’s a clear division of labour to make sure the shop runs smoothly. Mark looks after the cheese and a host of other business functions within the shop, while former marketing executive Laura directs Arcadia’s online presence and pushes its public relations.

“Social media takes up a lot of time if you want to do it right, so we are on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – you’re always looking to sell your shop and make people want to come in,” she says.

While many independent retailers may overlook the benefits of social media and developing the business’s reputation online, Brown is adamant that it should be considered a key function within the business as the days of relying merely on word of mouth to publicise a business are long gone.

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“It has to be done now. You cannot stand in a shop and not tell anybody about what you are doing. It’s about getting out there and beyond just the people that just come into your shop.”

The deli, which has a reputation for its luxury hampers, receives orders from far and wide. Northern Irish expats living all over the world often order hampers for Belfast-based relatives and online reviews have helped to drive interest.

Over the past few years, the team has moved with the times and extended its deli offering to the web, with orders flowing in through the Arcadia website. Its product range has also lengthened, with a wider range of hampers and tiered wedding cheese cakes. Brown says the online presence has been crucial, with shoppers engaging with high street in a different way.

“You just have to think of new revenue streams. I think footfall probably has fallen but we have to work out how to make money and make it worth our while,” says Brown. “Website and hamper sales have really lifted things – things like that are just new ways of retail and we just have to adapt to the new world.”

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The Arcadia Delicatessen on Belfast’s Lisburn Road.

A family establishment

The trials of running a family business are well documented. Often, it can be difficult to communicate change and the economic climate changes or a store needs to evolve. The modernisation process can be a painful one for older generations, especially those who have seen success and who prefer things to stay the way they are. But for the Browns, it’s a matter of positive communication within the family.

“There are well known issues with passing onto generations,” Brown says. “You want to move things on and maybe everyone doesn’t. It can be difficult and we’ve just tried to sell it internally to everybody and say retail is moving on, we’ve got to move on with it.”

The couple have two young daughters Matilda (10), and Dolly (6) who are very good at putting up with their parents’ long working hours, especially over the Christmas period when business comes thick and fast. The daughters will have options, says their mother, rather than having the business forced upon them.

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The Arcadia Delicatessen on Belfast’s Lisburn Road.

“I don’t know if I would put it [the business] on them,” she says. “I would hope that they would maybe get a job out of it.”

“Maybe they could have a bigger scale operation, so that they could sit back and be a bit more hands off than we are.”

Brown also suggests that a larger operation could be a consideration, but the benefits and drawbacks would need to very carefully analysed.

“We are trying to do everything and it’s very hard to scale up because if you did, the pressure, I think, financially to make it work would be extreme.”

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The Arcadia Delicatessen on Belfast’s Lisburn Road.

The store itself has evolved over the course of its existence, and significant changes by William Brown helped mould the modern day Arcadia into the deli that it is today. He noticed the impact globalisation was having on retail, and customers’ opening their eyes to a wider range of products offered around the world, and so made the decision to make sure their needs were catered for.

“It’s quite a well-heeled area and people in the 1970s and 1980s would have been the first to go to the continent and they would come back saying they had this lovely cheese on their holidays,” says Brown. “William started bringing in brie and olives, things that they would have got when they were in Greece, France, or Spain, and that’s how the deli became a deli. We were reacting to customer demand and we try with each generation to move the shop on.”

But with change comes challenges, and the retail sector has gone through its ups and downs over the years. The resources required to successfully operate a modern retail business can be significant, but Arcadia does not shy away from what Brown refers to as “general red tape”.

“Rent, increased rates, high environmental health standards – and we keep them very high – all cost money and time. Things you know you wouldn’t have to deal with in the past.”

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The Arcadia Delicatessen on Belfast’s Lisburn Road. Pic: Proprietors – Laura and Mark Brown.

Successfully navigating these challenges and dealing with the costs is simply a matter of knowing one’s strengths, and the market in which the company operates. For Arcadia, and perhaps many delis, providing relevant offers and reacting to seasonal market demands is crucial.

“Obviously Christmas is good for hampers, but we are trying to build out hamper sales the rest of the year…Mother’s Day is coming up, there will be Easter hampers and for Father’s Day as well. We try to seasonalise our products and increase revenue year round,” says Brown.

The deli has been helped in recent years by what Brown describes as an explosion of exceptional local artisan food producers. By balancing the ability to offer goods from around the world with offering Northern Irish produce, Arcadia pulls in a range of clientele.


The Arcadia Delicatessen on Belfast’s Lisburn Road.

“People have realised what we do here is really good. Our customers are very clear in wanting to support their local shop and shop local.”

In the decade since taking over the shop, Brown has noticed a dramatic increase in local Northern Ireland producers making a name for themselves in the market.

She says: “Years ago Arcadia would have been a shop selling French cheese and Italian parma ham, whereas now we give our customers the option of buying salamis from Limavady and cheese from all over Northern Ireland.”

Brown believes Arcadia’s unique selling point is being able to stay close to their local values without being restricted by the tough world of the multi-nationals.

“We can choose what we want to have on our shelves and we can have the full range where Tesco will maybe put something on for a short while and then it disappears but we are consistent with our loyalty to local producers.”

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The Arcadia Delicatessen on Belfast’s Lisburn Road.

After so many years in the business, Arcadia finds themselves in the fortunate position of having many of their artisan producers approach them.

“Mark has become a bit of a guru, so quite often we don’t have to go looking for products, producers come to us,” Brown says. “We quite often give small producers their first step on the retail ladder beyond farmers’ markets and it’s really interesting to see. They come in and perhaps the packaging isn’t great for merchandising and then they work on that – we’ve seen people develop their product from feedback we’ve given them and it’s really nice to see people grow their business.”

It’s not just good relationships with their suppliers either, after 85 years in business, Arcadia has built up a reputation for excellent customer service, even on the highly saturated Lisburn Road.

“We know a lot of our customers by name and can nearly pinpoint when they walk in the door what they are going to ask for. We have a real knowledge of our customers and I think old fashioned customer service allied with an ability or want to go move forward is what sets us apart.

“The fact is we have a heritage that you can’t buy. Other shops can set up a deli, but you can’t buy 85 years of provenance.”

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