Covid challenges: ‘Learning to live with it’ – NR talks to FFI deputy chair Gavin Emerson

Covid challenges: ‘Learning to live with it’ – NR talks to FFI deputy chair Gavin Emerson
Gavin Emerson with his father Henry, previous chairperson of Food Force Ireland

Gavin Emerson, Deputy Chairperson of Food Force Ireland, talks to NR about learning to live with the Covid crisis.

Gavin Emerson Managing Director of Emersons Supermarket in Armagh city centre – a supermarket which has been serving the local community for 132 years – since 1889, and across four generations.

“We’re all in it together,” said Gavin. “Our business has survived through two world wars and so many other things since then. We have a lot of history stretching back to 1889 and Covid was just another part of our history.

“All these things are sent to challenge us but we adapt and survive. We’re not through the pandemic yet, but I do think we’re on the other side. Now we just have to learn to live with it.”

“The dynamic has changed – we just need to get on with it now, but a lot of businesses have been severely affected” Gavin told NR.

“The ‘pingdemic’, the supply chain issues and driver shortage have all combined in recent weeks to cause problems. It all kicked off, then some things are related to issues around the protocol – along with the spell of good weather and the holiday season. Put this all together and it was a really bad combination – especially the supply chain issues.

Supply chain issues

“Everything was affected – thankfully we have a large warehouse above the store so we managed to work our way through it – but the supply chain through Nisa was affected. There were cancellations and delays.

“The strength that we have as Food Force Ireland members is that we could rely on our local suppliers – we just couldn’t say enough about the importance of direct dealings with our local Manufacturers and suppliers.

“Local suppliers have recently really shown their worth and their weight.”


“Fortunately the ‘pingdemic’ didn’t really hit our staff too badly” said Gavin. “It’s been a rollercoaster through the whole pandemic though – every week there was a different challenge. The pingdemic seemed to really hit the supply chain though – it had a domino effect and was a vicious circle, holding up production lines and the supply chain. The protocol was just another piece in the jigsaw.

“We’re not alone in this – but what affects us as an independent must also be affecting the multiples even harder.

Full effects

“The full effects of Brexit haven’t been felt yet – especially as the goal posts keep changing. The grace period is just delaying the inevitable – but who knows, maybe the powers that be can pull a rabbit out of the hat.

“Nisa have told us that they won’t be able to supply pumpkins for Halloween. We will have locally grown Pumpkins from local suppliers – it’s not all bad but if nothing is done customer choice will be dramatically reduced.

“Christmas could be the same – we know already that some products won’t be supplied, so we will need to source alternatives.”

Supply routes

When travel restrictions were lifted, Gavin could see some evidence of shoppers coming up again from the south. The lifting of restrictions also affected off-sales, which have gradually returned to normal.

“When the pandemic first hit, demand for toilet rolls and off sales went through the roof. This year, when things started to open again in May, off sales returned to normal and our restaurant got busy again.”

Henry Emerson, Debra Johnston of FFI, PRM MD Philip Morrow and Gavin Emerson


Emerson’s has a full restaurant called Uluru (the Aborigine word for what was once known as Ayer’s Rock) which opened in 2014. It has won a string of awards including Restaurant Association of Ireland ‘best restaurant’ and ‘best wine experience’ for county Armagh. It has also been mentioned in The Michelin Guide 2014/15 and is the only restaurant to be listed in The Good Food Guide 2015 for County Armagh.

Emerson’s also has a post office, butcher, deli, full instore kitchen producing fresh meal solutions off licence and warehouse – so as an independent it’s a large scale operation.

Creative in the kitchen

When the first lockdown happened, the chefs had to be re-deployed – and thankfully, as there was already a fully operational kitchen upstairs, Gavin was able to turn attention to this lucrative growth area for independents – producing their own meals for sale downstairs.

“This has been a really important growth area for us – from our own brand pies, hot and cold deli and so on. When we took the chefs from the restaurant and redeployed them to the supermarket they were able to get creative, to come up with new recipes – it was a win/win. It gave staff options and they could be flexible – it worked well.”

High Street Scheme

The pandemic and Brexit have thrown multiple curve balls, but the High Street Scheme is a glimmer of hope – with people free to choose where to spend their £100 voucher.

“Everyone will choose to do something different” said Gavin “but it is a welcome injection i to the local economy.”

New customers

Gavin noticed many new customers coming through the doors – and coming back again having realised just what their local independent had to offer.

“Enhancing the customer experience for shoppers is so important. Encouraging people to enjoy shopping in the city’s historic City centre matters. Through the pandemic we saw a lot of customers who would have traditionally gone to the multiples to do their weekly shop, choose to come to us. This gave us the opportunity to prove again the strength of our own in-store experience, through the Butchery and the deli, our own home cooked range. I believe we have proven ourselves and will retain those new customers.”


Emerson’s launched a home delivery service, using the appyshop app.

“Each week, if there was a spike in Covid cases, we would see a spike in demand for home delivery. With the pingdemic and people having to isolate for ten days, the home delivery service has been on a rollercoaster since March last year. At that time we had around ten staff doing home deliveries, now it’s one or two – but we will continue to provide the service, to fill that gap in demand for home delivery.”

Gavin also partnered with a local taxi service – and that continues to work well.

“Taxi drivers were badly hit by the pandemic too – so the local drivers were grateful for the chance to do home deliveries. It was a win/win – working well for us, giving the taxi drivers some business, and people getting their groceries to their door” said Gavin. “That’s another one of the strengths  independents have – we can pivot, and react quickly. We’re more flexible.”

What’s next for Emerson’s?

“We will be building the team in the kitchen. What we’ve seen through Covid is that people’s appetite for our quality home cooked range is vast – and they are always looking for something new. There will be new product development and new ranges – and everyday will bring a new challenge – but we’ll just get on with it – it’s what we do.”