Carnduff Butchers are off the hook!

The H&J Carnduff staff, with (from left) Jonathan, Hamilton and John

Northern Ireland’s butchery trade is having a tough time of it, as shopping habits change and local butchers struggle. Well, no one seems to have told H&J Carnduff…

“We’re up 300 per cent in the last three years,” said Hamilton Carnduff, as we sat in the large upstairs office overlooking Newtownards’ recently modernised Conway Square.

His son John and brother Jonathon – also key members of the family butchery – are also sharing the sofa, talking over each other as they recall a succession of interesting and impressive facts about this popular family-run firm.

The pride all the three men have in the business is not only palpable, but inspiring.

H&J Carnduff celebrated its 23rd year in the butchery trade in May, having opened its first location in 1993 in Saintfield.

A second store opened in Newtown Park, Belfast, in 1995. Its flagship store in Newtownards’ town centre (above which we sit) soon followed, along with stores in Ballyhalbert and Killinchy.

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Hamilton Carnduff checking the quality of the beef

Along with its popular stand-alone stores, H&J Carnduff have taken the bold step of entering the convenience sector, striking a deal with the Henderson Group to run instore butchery counters in Brackenvale and Rosehill in Dundonald, and Rathgael and Gransha in Bangor.

“It’s all organised from here,” Hamilton said, speaking about the spacious office.

“Most of the manufacturing is done right here as well,” he said, before adding firmly: “Although we have entered the convenience market, and have a number of outlets, we still see ourselves as a traditional craft and artisan butcher.”

Their status as a quality purveyor is fundamental to all three men, who explain how their sausages and burgers – many of them award-winning – are all made on site. Their beef is Northern Ireland Farm Quality Assured and dry hung for 28 days and over; their bacon and hams are cured on site, and they produce their own cooked meats.

Carnduff's pre-packed range

Carnduff’s pre-packed range

The company also has five chefs, dedicated to preparing their convenience meals and food-to-go options, such as their famous – and, of course, award-winning – beef sausage rolls.

One of only 15 members of the Elite Butchers Association of Northern Ireland, the business has won a series of awards, including the European Angus Award for its beef sausages (the company makes some 13,000 sausages each day). H&J Carduff also took the Best Independent Retailer Award at the 2015 Ards Borough Council, while their dried cure ham won Gold at the Elite Butchers Awards, as did their chicken and dried cure ham pies.

Their Midas touch has also rubbed-off on some of their wholesale customers, with Pier 36, the Parlour Bar, and Harbour & Co restaurants all award winners too.

Meanwhile, everything sold in store – if not made in their Newtownards facilities – is bought locally, adding to their artisan credentials.

“In terms of using local suppliers, some customers really do care – it’s a regular question, ‘where does that come from?’” says the youngest of the trio, John.

“Everything from our jams to our pasties are made here or locally-sourced. If we support the local economy, then the local economy will support us.”

While their steadfast commitment to quality has secured their reputation among customers, it has been their partnership with the Henderson Group that has driven volume.

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Outside the Carnduff store in Newtownards

“It’s worked very well for us so far,” said Jonathan. “We went into the independently-owned Spar Ballyhalbert first, beginning with tray packs. Soon we were delivering trays twice a day, so we decided to put a butcher in the store.”

The Carnduffs explained there are two different types of customer – the convenience shopper, and the high street shopper.

“The high street shopper will come into the main stores twice a week, while the convenience shopper is purchasing day-by-day in their Spar shop, and they are looking for quick, quality meals they can prepare in 15-30 minutes,” Jonathan said.

The Carnduffs have found their convenience presence has helped boost sales, with their traditional butchery products now available to quick-stop commuters, buying that evening’s dinner after the butcher is traditionally closed.

But speaking more generally about the business’s success, John explained it wasn’t just their convenience side delivering growth.

“Our high street shops are growing in all areas, up 30 per cent on last year,” he said.

“A lot of it is down to product range; it has to be right, the look of the product has to be right, your staff have to be right, and everything has to fit into place.

“Eight years ago, all we were supplying was red meat and chicken but now it’s completely different. The economic and practical dynamics of butchery have changed enormously in the last decade.”

A selection of Carnduff's quality meats

A selection of Carnduff’s quality meats

Their ability to outpace the market is a source of intense pride among the trio, as is the skill and experience of their staff.

“We built-up this ourselves,” said Hamilton, who has been in the butchery trade for over 30 years.

“A lot of businesses we speak to are of a good standard, but we think we have the best staff in the country. The level of experience, the skills, the professionalism, and the quality of customer service we offer is second to none.”

That commitment to quality extends to H&J Carnduffs’ convenience range.

John explained: “The growth in ready-made products is down to how working families have changed their approach to cooking. There is no longer enough time to cook a large meal after work, and people are sick of unhealthy take-away foods.

“They want quality, healthy alternatives that can be ready in 30 minutes, and that’s what we provide.”

Jonathan explained that the business is also involved in product development, using their convenience sites as testing grounds for new innovations.

And H&J Carnduff is also planning to open two new stores in the next two years, one in the Carrowdore Eurospar, and another in Hartford, Newtownards.

Running such a huge operation from the modest Newtownards office must be difficult, but while the trio have their hands full, they are still doing what they love.

“We are going to see how things are going in the new stores over the next two years, but we don’t want to take too much on and see our standards suffer,” Hamilton said. “We are very busy, but it gives us all a lot of encouragement when we see how well the business is doing.”

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