McAtamney’s cut in front

Pictured is McAtamney’s area manager Gabriel McTaggart, store manager Patrick McGoldrick, and store owner John Apperley

McAtamney’s Butchers in Coleraine are leading the sector to a bright future. After the store became Butcher of the Year at the recent Neighbourhood Retailer Awards, we paid a quick visit to find out more.

I still recall being in a Belfast butchers with my mother circa 1985, making shapes in the curious sawdust on the floor with my feet.

The shop floor in McAtamney's Coleraine

The shop floor in McAtamney’s Coleraine

Huge bloodied cleavers lay strewn and unattended on stained benches. Jolly butchers swapped profanities as half-a-pound of this and half-a-pound of that was spun in small bags and sealed with vivid red tape by a clunky blue dispenser.

The smell was visceral, while the sights were enough for a faint-of-heart seven-year-old to focus his attentions on pattern-making.

Today’s butchery is very different.

McAtamney’s Butchers, in Coleraine’s central but uncrowded Abbey Street, delivers for butchery what the future had promised.

Now we walk along large farmhouse tiles and brightly coloured mats. Wood-panelled shelves host aspirational cooking oils from quality local producers like Broighter Gold. Asian cooking sauces and bright cooking vegetables occupy the eye-line.

The ribs for boiling of old are now baby-back and smoke-cured, while liver and offal make room for delicately presented pre-prepared meals in gently lit fridges; ham-hock terrines, breaded-brie, dauphinoise potatoes.

A counter filled with delicious meats and sauces

A counter filled with delicious meats and sauces

“If you brought a butcher from 30 years ago into a butcher’s shop today, they wouldn’t recognise it,” said store owner John Apperley during our recent visit.

“Today, you have to be offering a huge range of products; we have ready meals, fruit and vegetables – it’s like a supermarket.

“But you still have to maintain the traditional butchery products, of course, and that hasn’t changed. We still do much of that the same way we’ve done it for 30 years.

“We’ve kept the core of the business, but moved with the times. We’re now able to cater for everybody, from all backgrounds and for all incomes.”

The truth of John’s observation was apparent the morning of Neighbourhood Retailer’s visit.

Local businessmen sought out their dry-aged meats, mobile phone-toting elderly ladies pointed out their prime cuts with care, while workmen lined-up with retirees to grab something for lunch or an evening meal.

The dry-aged beef cabinet

The dry-aged beef cabinet

At one point a chef stopped by, asking for 15 large fillet steaks, whereupon a member of staff provided authoritative advice on slow-cook timings and seasoning.

Store manager Gabriel McTaggart explained that each McAtamney’s outlet aimed to have a chef behind the counter to advise customers.

“We have a number of staff that have a background as a chef, and that gives us a lot of expertise. Some customers need guidance on how to get the best out of these cuts, so we are able to offer some tips for their roast dinner or how best to cook their steak.”

Gabriel said the store had an active training policy and a pro-active approach to developing their staff.

Indeed, their approach to staffing has made McAtamney’s a centre of excellence for the trade, with many young butchers aspiring to be part of a McAtamney’s store if they work hard enough.

“In terms of staff, we see ourselves as a market leader,” John said. “A lot of staff have been working at McAtamneys for over 20 years, and a lot of new staff are aiming to do the same.

“We have a staff development programme with many supervisor and assistant manager opportunities. Paddy McGoldrick is a good example. He is the new manager of the Coleraine store after progressing within the ranks.”

The protein enriched foods offer

The protein enriched foods offer

Gabriel, who was recently appointed area manager, added: “It’s key for us to invest in the shops and make sure we have well-informed, happy staff. Customers trust their local butcher to be able to advise them, and that’s something we’re able to do that big supermarkets are not.

“The supermarkets are always nipping away at the independent butchers, but if we keep doing it right we will always do well.”

And McAtamney’s in Coleraine has done very well, winning Neighbourhood Retailer’s prestigious Butcher of the Year title at October’s star-studded awards ceremony.

“It’s the second time we have won the award, and it’s always great to receive the recognition for the team and the effort we’ve put in,” Gabriel said.

John added: “It gives the staff a good morale boost. Everyone has worked very hard, so it’s good to get something back, and it’s good from our customers’ point of view too.”

There are nine McAtamney’s outlets throughout Northern Ireland at present, including one in Kenny Bradley’s Eurospar in Garvagh. Competition between them is friendly, if fierce, with annual bonuses for the most successful stores.

“Each quarter, there are awards for things like customer care,” John said. “Then at the end of the year, all the stores appear on a leaderboard, with the top store getting a bonus for the staff, so it’s very competitive but ultimately win-win for everybody.

“It keeps everyone on their toes, everyone motivated, and really helps bring out the best in the staff.”

The McAtamney's Coleraine staff

The McAtamney’s Coleraine staff

The stores also act cooperatively, with managers spending time in each other’s stores to highlight efficiencies, better practices, and learn about strongly performing lines.

While the stores are able to advise each other on what happens in-store, super-national political changes have to be tackled in a different way.

With much talk about inflation in the wake of Brexit in the headlines, we asked if McAtamney’s too had been feeling the pressure to raise prices.

John said: “Our products are all locally sourced, but with currency changes forcing price rises on imports from the Republic, some NI suppliers are jumping on the bandwagon. We have been hit with price increases, but we still remain very competitive.”

John added there was pressure too from consumers, who were also feeling the effects of economic turbulence.

“Brexit has given a bit of uncertainty to customers,” he said. “Footfall is still strong, but they’re spending not quite as much as they did before Brexit. If you believe the cost of living is going to go up, then you are going to spend a bit less.”

But with the onset of Christmas pushing international politics out of the minds of many, John, Gabriel and the team are confident of an excellent festive period ahead.

“We have an excellent reputation for our gammon and turkey breasts,” said Gabriel. “And we have a successful gourmet range, with things like honey roast vegetables, luxury sauces, ham hock terrines, and brie and cranberry wedges.

“It should be a very strong Christmas for us.”

The range is certainly there, and the customers on this chilly Friday morning keep coming. It’s no wonder McAtamney’s is going to continue its expansion throughout Northern Ireland.

“We have a new store opening in Galgorm in January or February, with plans for more stores in 2017,” John said. “We’re even thinking about opening a store in Belfast.”

Some classic butcher's sausages

Some classic butcher’s sausages

And they’re innovating too, with the launch of the McAtamney’s-To-Go store in Ballymena’s Thomas Street. A similar venture is set to be rolled out in their Cookstown store in December.

“We see a lot of growth in the food-to-go side of the business,” John added. “The days of the old lunch box is dead.”

He may be right, and in 30 years the packed lunch could soon be remembered with same the foggy nostalgia of a sawdust covered floor. Who knows what lies ahead for the butcher of 2046, but whatever it is, let’s hope McAtamney’s are part of it.

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