Shopping is a science at Centra Cathedral Quarter

Minister Simon Hamilton (second from left) at the official opening of Centra Cathedral Quarter store with owners Donagh (far right) and Orla McGoveran (far left) along with Michael McCormack, Musgrave NI managing director

When it comes to risk taking, could a background in experimental physics help? Donagh McGoveran explains the calculations behind his Centra store in the Cathedral Quarter

He may understand the General Theory of Relativity and know his way around a particle accelerator, but even Donagh McGoveran knows his £500,000 investment is not without risk.

Centra Cathedral Quarter is Donagh’s third store under the brand in Belfast. The store is light years ahead in terms of its design, and was officially opened on Tuesday June 21 by Economy Minister Simon Hamilton.

Located on Donegall Street in the north of the city centre, the store is at the gravitational centre of what is planned to become Belfast’s student district.

Echoing the bold and modernist design of the University of Ulster’s Belfast School of Art, which it stands opposite, Donagh’s Centra is a shrine to high-concept retailing.

The confectionery aisle

The confectionery aisle

The undergraduate market is one he understands well, having opened the highly-successful and student-friendly Centra in Stranmillis some ten years ago, while his Centra Malone is equally frequented by the young.

Donagh, originally from Dublin, had gained his retail skills under Musgrave’s graduate recruitment programme in Co Cork, before moving to Belfast in 1999 to manage a number of their outlets.

“During that time, I was advising a lot of retailers on how to manage a profitable business and doing a Master of Business Administration in Jordanstown.

“That gave me a view of strategies and management, so with all that experience and knowledge, I thought I’d have a go at taking on my own store. My father was self-employed as well, so it may have been in the blood.”

The sit-in café, and view of the university

The sit-in café, and view of the university

Donagh’s blossoming career in retail had been major switch from his university degree in experimental physics, but its lessons in engineering, entropy, and dynamic systems may have paid off.

While looking around for possible sites with his colleagues at Musgrave NI, Donagh’s hypothesis was that the Cathedral Quarter would hold serious potential.

“Musgrave NI did a lot of work in securing the site, and taking care of the legal side of things,” he said.

“The challenge was to update the Centra Store brand. It’s key to have the right environment to suit your customers and the area.

“People are more health conscious now, so we had to come up with a design that reflects modern life. Musgrave had been working on this concept in a South Limerick, so we took that concept and dropped much of it in here.”

The deli's hi-tech menu screen

The deli’s hi-tech menu screen

The experiment has paid off, with the store’s exposed ceiling, natural woods, and slick motifs adding extra dimensions.

The food offering, too, represents an event horizon for food-to-go, featuring a self-service wings and ribs bar, and a hot carvery for sandwich fillings alongside a large deli counter.

The kitchen also has pressure-frying equipment for the perfect southern fried chicken, while their well-researched burrito offering is already performing.

It’s also one of the few stores where you’ll find sushi (Donagh sells 10-12 packs a day) or a beetroot and quinoa feta salad.

Frank & Honest coffee

Frank & Honest coffee

Explaining that the food-to-go areas are where most of the investment was spent, Donagh explained: “The equipment was expensive, but that’s where you create a point of difference. It’s not something that can be easily replicated, and that’s where you get an advantage.”

His approach to coffee is equally original, creating a duality of options for customers with a bean-to-cup machine, or the chance to have it freshly prepared by in-house baristas.

Having purchased your beverage and snack, the store’s relaxing seating area is perfect from some afternoon people-watching.

Speaking about the range of offers, Donagh said: “We’ve used Musgrave’s Frank & Honest coffee concept, and we’re trying to build the brand around it. When it came to designing the seating area, we thought it was important that people could see it from outside.”

He explained the design had incorporated the area’s prospective redevelopments, including the removal of the large blue, black, and red buoys this writer is keen to see finally dumped.

“The idea was to create a social space, somewhere you can still get groceries or just call in to grab a coffee.”

A view from the entrance

A view from the entrance

Now Donagh is planning to revamp his Stranmilis and Malone sites into the same attention-grabbing style.

However, with the Belfast Metropolitan Regeneration scheme – a plan to improve much of the surrounding area – currently on hold, and delays to the student accommodation builds, this half-million pound convenience store is still a risk.

“I like to think of it as a calculated gamble,” Donagh said. “We have done our homework. There are lots of not-so-obvious office spaces all around here, and people coming in from the flats in St Anne’s Square, which is where a lot of tourists stay. If we were just relying on students, then that would be foolish.”

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