Ahead of the game: McAtamneys Traditional Butchers
McAtamneys Traditional Butchers are well ahead of the convenience food game, producing around 25,000 ready meals a week – but the heart of the business is still the traditional butchery, as NR finds out.
These days, McAtamneys can boast a small empire of shops scattered north of Lough Neagh from Derry to Ballymena and supplies a host of other stores with thousands of meals every week from their Gourmet Kitchen in Portglenone.
It’s a far cry from the way the homegrown food store chain started life back in 1933 with a horse and cart, as brothers Declan and Mark Mc Atamney reveal.
Both operations and area managers in the burgeoning business, the pair represent the fourth generation of the Mc Atamney family and work alongside a host of wider family members who keep the business thriving, including their parents Oran and Libby.
Declan says: “My father’s granda started the company in 1933, with a horse and cart. He had a wee shop in Bridge Street, Kilrea, and it just went from there. So it was my father’s granda, then his son and then my father took over and it just went from there.”
In 1994, their father Oran moved out of his small butcher’s shop in Bridge Street, Kilrea, into new premises across the street, which would have been a cutting edge store in its day.
“It turned from a wee ‘sawdust on the floor’ type of shop to a modern state-of-the-art butchers,” Martin says.
“Moving from the old shop into the new shop at that time was a really big gamble because it was kind of unheard of, especially in a small town like Kilrea.
“Kilrea was the first shop, so I think moving from one to the second was a big jump at that time. But when he had the formula I suppose it was just easier after that to just replicate. The second shop in Maghera and a third in Ballymena proved that it worked and after that it was just a matter of replicating what he had already achieved and the blueprint was created then.”
These days, the business has expanded to a small empire of stores across Northern Ireland, including premises in Kilrea, Garvagh, Maghera, Magherafelt, Cookstown, Belfast, Derry, Coleraine, Galgorm, Ballymena, Ballymoney and two in Limavady.
The most recent development was the store at Lisnagelvin Shopping Centre in Derry and the next step will be to relocate the store on the main street in Limavady to new, larger premises a couple of doors down.
“It will probably be our biggest store to date and the most up-to-date,” Declan says.
“It will be a replica of what we’ve already done in Lisnagelvin in Derry in 2020, with improvements.”
These days, Declan says, they’re well on top of the trend towards convenience, focusing on ready made foods and pre-packed meats and vegetables in formats that are handy for the customer.
“That kind of range has got massive in maybe the last five or six years, so that’s kind of where we’re seeing the business grow, “ Declan says.
“We have a kitchen in Portglenone that supplies all our stores with readymade cooked products and they also supply external stores as well as having a contract with Musgrave.
“The Gourmet Kitchen opened in and around 2012, and there are now about 40 people working there and producing about 25,000 units a week.
“We do a lot of your home-cooked products like cottage pie, chicken curries, lasagnes, all that kind of stuff you would cook at home yourself.”
Mark adds: “We’re now in the final stages of signing off, where we had to do a refurbishment and a completely new layout. It means we’ll be able to do a minimum of double the output within the next three to four months.
“We’re just about to hire a product development chef to improve the existing lines and come up with new lines, with an emphasis on healthy meals – a convenient healthy range is what we want to achieve.”
Over the counter
However, the traditional over-the-counter service is still very much to the fore in McAtamney’s, as Declan explains: “We rely heavily on that service – we’ve that reputation for good beef and good customer service, so that’s a big chunk of our business.”
But Mark admits the serve-over business has shrunk in the last few years in response to customer demand.
“We can see the convenience nearly overtaking it in the last year or two. The convenience displays in our shops are getting bigger while the serve-over counters are getting smaller gradually over the last four or five years,” he says.
The business is renowned for its red meat, particularly its steaks, Declan says: “We’re always getting great compliments about our steak and the way we mature our beef – there’s a skill to it and we’re well known for doing that the traditional way.”
While many butchers now buy in boxed beef with a mixture of all sorts of grades and sizes, McAtamney’s still buy all their beef on the bone, Mark adds.
“We bone it out in our own factory, so we get to hand pick and we know what’s coming in the door. It’s not a mix and match and a lucky dip, so to speak.
“That’s the way it’s always been – I can remember my father heading over at 4am on a Monday morning to the abattoir to pick his own hindquarters.
“Because of the amount we buy, we get the first pick of the kill. We’re able to go over and pick the exact grade and size that we want and we’re able to take that back and bone on site in the meat boning plant in Garvagh, so that ensures we have a steady flow of the same quality coming in.”
Their main supplier of beef is Foyle Food Group in Omagh as well as Liffey Meats across the border and Hewitt Meats in Loughgall. Chicken comes from JS Foods in Randalstown while much of the bacon is from Europa and the pork comes from Galgorm Meats.
“We buy a lot of chicken from Kearns which is a family-run chicken producer in Dunloy, and we get all our Christmas turkeys from McKeown’s outside Rasharkin – we have done ever since I remember, 30 years anyway,” Declan says.
As well as selling directly to customers, the chain is also a big supplier of the hospitality trade, including Leighinmohr house in Ballymena, Sticks and Stones and The Balmoral Hotel in Belfast, Castle Leslie Estate in Monaghan, Amici and Urban in Portrush and the Salt House in Ballycastle to name a few.
The pandemic months
The business was just in the midst of opening its new Lisnagelvin store when lockdown took hold two years ago, so they decided to push on and get the work completed.
And as with many food stores, Covid boosted trade, Declan says.
“The restaurants were closed and I suppose a lot of people were learning to cook again and that definitely paid dividends for that shop – it took off really well and hasn’t looked back since,” he says.
“Shop trade probably went up 20-30% there across the board. We created an online app and we were doing click-and-collect service and home deliveries.
“We were also taking telephone orders for older ones who maybe didn’t have iPhones and that, so that they could avail of the service through the telephone.
“Now it’s probably back to normal but we supply a lot of beef into the hospitality trade, so they’re busy now and that end of it is good for us as well.”
Mark gives a shout-out to the staff who helped the business get through the pandemic.
“It was really tough and a lot of the staff worked overtime – they worked their days off and they really rallied together to make it possible. They chipped in and we all got through it together,” he says.
Declan adds: “One thing about us, we appreciate our staff. McAtamney’s have a great team of managers and overall the staff are number one – they’re what keeps the business going day to day so definitely a big shout out to them.”
The shop hasn’t been immune to the threat of food price inflation, he says.
“The prices are just rising weekly, that’s just ongoing. We’re trying to absorb the cost as much as possible, but inevitably we have to pass it onto the consumer – it’s definitely challenging times now.”
Mark says the business keeps an eye on the future in order to keep ahead of the trends.
“At the moment it’s difficult to tell what that future is going to bring as there is so much uncertainty in the market, we always try to look two or three years down the line and see what trends are coming and get ahead of them,” he says.
“At the moment it really is difficult, but one key trend is convenience food, so something we will be pushing towards is new products and new lines in the convenience area of it.”