A cut above: award-winning Carnbrooke is having a double celebration
Carnbrooke was launched in 2011 by butcher Jason Hamilton as a supplier of quality meats to the foodservice sector. Now as it marks its 10th anniversary and fresh from winning NI Butcher’s Shop of the Year, it is making serious inroads into retail as well, as NR finds out.
Back in 2011, Jason spotted a gap in the market and decided to launch his own business. With just four staff and initially a small factory in the Co Down village of Dromara, he began supplying hotels and restaurants with quality, locally sourced beef, pork and lamb products, and soon found himself supplying the likes of Hastings Hotel Group, Deanes, Muddlers and OX with meat from Carnbrooke.
As the company turns 10, that foodservice side is still going strong, but Carnbrooke, now run by husband and wife team Jason and Jacqueline, has also found a healthy retail market as well.
For the company’s 10-year anniversary, it marked the milestone with a special charity golf day and evening dinner for the Northern Irish charity Buddy Bear which supports children with cerebral palsy and motor disorders, raising an incredible £18,727.
The company is doubly celebrating after snapping up the NI Butcher’s Shop of the Year award at the Butcher’s Shop of the Year awards.
The team first dipped a toe into the waters of retail in response to queries for bespoke cuts from members of the public by opening a small retail butchery shop in Dromara close to the factory but has now launched two food halls and employs a total of 85 members of staff.
Operations manager Cormac Rice says that when Jason launched the company, he was very focused on quality and sourcing local products.
“Fast forward 10 years and they supply more than 300 bars and restaurants, and the business employs 85 people. There’s now a 2,500 sq ft food hall in Lisburn and a 2,000 sq ft food hall in Dromore, Co Down, which has only just opened,” he says.
“That major growth in the last two or three years came about because Jason saw a gap in the market when it comes to retail as well – that same quality product that goes out to hotels, bars and restaurants is now sold out of our food hall as well.
“We offer beef, pork, lamb, venison and poultry, but there’s now a kitchen as well which supplies cooked products, pre-cooked meals, dinners and every side you can think of – it’s all restaurant quality and available to the public.”
New food hall
Jacqueline officially joined the business two years ago at a stage when the business was outgrowing its factory in Dromara and planning the opening of the Lisburn Food Hall.
“Footfall to the shop and growth within the meat industry and foodservice made them think that they needed a bigger site. So they looked at a number of sites, and came across the one in Lisburn, which suited the business,” Cormac says.
“It’s an old Volkswagen garage that was in Lisburn, so the workshop is now the factory and what was the showroom is now the food hall – and then behind the scenes there’s been a kitchen as well.
“They had always done an element of pre-cooked meals and it’s something they wanted to do on a bigger scale and needed a site that could have the kitchen and the factory all under one roof.
“So the food hall is for the public, and the foodservice is on the same site but is managed separately.”
As luck would have it, timing is everything – the food hall was due to open in the early part of 2020, but the launch was brought forward by days as the pandemic loomed.
“The food hall was due to open in March 2020, just after the date of lockdown, but they pulled the work forward by three days to get it open before the lockdown. Otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to open, because we weren’t trading at that point,” Cormac explains.
Day and night
“The likes of the workmen and the teams that were here worked day and night to get it open. At that time there were a lot of unknowns with bars, restaurants and hotels forced to close down. The original business was solely foodservice with a very small element of retail originally through the butchery shop in Dromara.”
While the foodservice element of the business would have suffered as a result of hospitality closing down, the new retail side proved to be a lifesaver, with the public taking to the food hall from the get-go.
“There could have been 50 or 60 people outside waiting to get in throughout the day,” Cormac says.
“Customers were coming here knowing that they were buying the same steak that they would have got in the bars, hotels and restaurants when they were closed down, so they were able to get that quality and bring it into their own homes.”
With hospitality closed, Carnbrooke was able to pivot many delivery drivers and staff into home deliveries, with up to 150 deliveries across Northern Ireland on most days.
Strength to strength
And unlike many retailers, Carnbrooke saw customer numbers remain high even after the Covid restrictions were lifted.
“When we opened, Carnbrooke went from strength to strength, and thankfully has maintained the same customers and the same sales since hospitality was reopened,” Cormac says.
“As things relaxed we were able to let more people into the food hall so the queues weren’t just as bad outside. Fridays and Saturdays were two of our busiest days, and still are, but we’ve maintained the sales. We expected a big drop but things have levelled out and we’ve maintained the sales.”
Carnbrooke now offers a modern food hall for more than 4,000 shoppers a week, offering convenience and ease of shopping, with its own label Carnbrooke range produced on site daily by a talented team of butchers and chefs, making up on average 80% of weekly sales.
The other 20% is made up of local bakeries and more than 40 artisan suppliers, some operating as close as two miles from the food hall.
The company has installed a Himalayan Salt Ageing Chamber, which creates an environment with controllable temperature and humidity, allowing the dry curing of meats.
A salt wall made of imported Himalayan salt blocks alters the atmosphere by purifying the air in the ageing room, creating the perfect environment to bring out the flavour of the meat.
Earlier this year, the company launched a new website featuring online shop and recruitment page.
“We deliver Northern Ireland wide so we have our vans on the road six days a week. While they’re out delivering food service, they also would take the home deliveries, so we’re able to cover a huge area daily,” Cormac says.
“The Lisburn food hall has been very successful and there’s been such a need for that quality product that Jacqueline and Jason decided to look elsewhere. There was one property that came up not too far away which has given us the opportunity to find our feet before launching more food halls.
“Our new one is in Dromore, Co Down, in Church Street. So far, it’s been very well received. Dromore is a growing area and there have been a lot of new businesses that have opened up in the last year. We had expected sales to drop slightly in Lisburn because Dromore would have fallen into our catchment area, but so far it hasn’t – so we’re obviously attracting a lot more customers from further afield.
“With Lisburn being our only retail site, we would have had customers coming from Downpatrick, Newry, Belfast and then more local customers from Dromara and Dromore. So we seem to be catching a different catchment areas in Dromore, with people coming from Lurgan, Banbridge and further afield.”
Third food hall
Jacqueline and Jason are now looking at a third site for a potential food hall – and say the next 12 months will involve a lot of training and investment in the workforce to continue the good work that is being done with a rapidly growing workforce.
“Eventually there could be a food hall in every county. Dromore is close enough that we can service it at the minute and we can learn, and then the plan would be to branch out further, “ Cormac says.
“We’re also constantly working on new products and NPD. We have a head chef over the cooking and the production manager is over the entire kitchen, food and production.
“Our head chef works very well at doing NPD and he has a team of junior chefs under him.”
While many companies have been hit with supply chain issues, Carnbrooke haven’t been affected too badly as they source locally, and also aren’t facing the same labour shortages as many others as a result of a very loyal team.
However, they aren’t immune to the food price increases that are being seen across the board.
“Everything’s going up at the minute. Fuel’s gone up, electricity has gone up, labour has gone up, packaging has gone up,” Cormac says. “We deal with a great deal of packaging, either through our butchery or through our kitchen, and pretty much every week or every other week we’re seeing increases coming through, but it’s about working with the suppliers and being smart.
“It was a big relief for our hospitality customers and for us when hospitality reopened. We have worked with a lot of the same hotels from when Carnbrooke started ten and a half years ago so it was a relief for the people we work closely with to open their doors. So we retained our sales in our food hall but thankfully we started to grow again on foodservice as well.
“Our goal is probably just to keep doing what we’re doing and working hard and trying to give the customers the best product that we can – constantly evolving and looking at new ways of doing things and improving ourselves.
“Covid was very difficult for everybody, whether you were a member of the public or you had a business, and it had a lot of effect on people. I think you just have to be ready to react and try to do the best you can.
“We focus on quality and service and that’s been the case with Carnbrooke from day dot for Jason and Jacqueline. A huge part of the business is the product we offer and the service we provide from foodservice and that now reflects into retail.
“We try to be different as a company, we try to concentrate on ourselves. We obviously look at what other people are doing but we’re very focused on what we’re doing and the best we can do and that’s reflected in what Carnbrooke are and what we represent.”