Cunningham’s Butchers – going from strength to strength
A butcher’s shop, deli, bakery, steak house, cocktail bar and supplier of pre-packed produce to retailers across the region, Cunningham’s has grown its sales by 1000% in 12 years and sees only further opportunity on the horizon, as Managing Director James Cunningham tells NR.
For many independent retailers, the pandemic boon is waning as shoppers return to their old habits. Not so for Cunningham’s Butchers, which is putting the ‘d’ into diversification and continuing to post year-on-year growth amid a floundering grocery sector as inflation rockets.
“We’ve a really unique business here,” says James Cunningham, Managing Director. James and wife Donna Cunningham along with James’ brother, Christopher represent a fourth generation of the family business, established in 1919 by his great grandfather James Cunningham and continued by his grandparents Tony and Gertrude.
His father, also called James, ran Cunningham’s as well as teaching and farming, until he suffered a serious stroke at the beginning of 2022; only recently returning home to the care of his family after six months in hospital.
James had not initially planned to step into the family business, completing a degree in economics and Master’s in finance at Queen’s University Belfast. However, working in the shop while finishing off his Master’s dissertation, he took a new look at Cunningham’s and its untapped potential.
And his education has certainly been put to good use, with the business growing its turnover by 1000% over the last 12 years and expanding from three to 70 employees.
“In 2010, an opportunity came along to expand our production into the retail sector within our local community,” said James. “This was through the two Henderson SPAR retail outlets situated in our hometown of Kilkeel.
“What we offered was fresh local produce, including both pre-pack meats and deli offerings. This was a very challenging but somewhat daunting time for our family business as we were bringing the business into an area of retail that we had little to no experience in.”
Applying what would become his standard approach of rigorous market research, James trialled innovations to find the right products for the two outlets, while also developing a new ordering system to improve efficiency and restocking.
“This process became very successful, and it enabled us to increase the range of products we sold, not only in the supermarkets, but in our main shop as well,” he said.
With the boosted turnover facilitating expansion of Cunningham’s production site and team, by 2012 the business was supplying two Henderson stores and four privately owned shops, including a new butcher’s shop in one of the outlets.
“We opened the butchery in the Quays Shopping Centre, Newry in 2019 and it was the main driver in giving us as a business the chance to see that we were capable as a family and team to run shops in multiple towns across Northern Ireland.
“The Quays has been a massive success, even with the extremely detrimental effect the covid pandemic has had on the Quays Shopping Centre, where its located.”
James added: ‘’The Quays is a tough one, still trading very well as a stand-alone store, with a very loyal customer base. The only concern is the continued rent rises all shopping centre outlets face each year, on top of massively inflated rates and service charges.
“The shopping centre model has a lot more fixed costs than any other high street model and is the main reason I feel shopping centres are suffering all over Northern Ireland, as they are so expensive to do business in.”
Having opened its second standalone store in the Quays Shopping Centre, Cunningham’s then unveiled its third butchery concession in partnership with Henderson Retail in their new EUROSPAR Newcastle in the summer of 2021. This growth has continued in 2023 with their new Eurospar concession opening in Eurospar Wallace Village, which boost their full range or pre-packed lines plus a stand alone butchers counter. They also service a second Eurospar in Lisburn on the Saintfield road with pre-pack only offering.
‘Cunningham’s Butchers is putting the ‘d’ into diversification and continuing to post year-on-year growth amid a floundering grocery sector as inflation rockets’
“That brought the business to five butchery counters, a restaurant, takeaway deli and bakery, so there is a lot going on every day,” said James. “We are producing all our butchery, bakery and ready meals in-house, which is our niche.”
Cunninghams will continue their expansion this July by opening another concession in Eurospar Holywood, bringing the total to three new concisions opened in 2023 alone.
A MULTI-AWARD-WINNING SHOP
The last decade has also seen James develop the original Kilkeel store into a multi-award-winning site, with its string of accolades most recently including Best in Northern Ireland at the Farm Shop and Deli Awards 2022 and also extending to Best Butcher Shop in the UK and Ireland in 2018 and 2019. This was topped when they were recently crowned the very prestigious overall ‘UK Retailer of the Year 2023’ becoming the first retailer from Northern Ireland to win.
James said: “I am still in shock, but so proud. We as a family work so hard at our business, we couldn’t do it without the brilliant team we have, we appreciate every single one of them and our loyal customer’s support.
“Northern Ireland has a thriving retail industry, there are so many brilliant businesses. So, to be named best in NI was a massive achievement, but to go and win the overall UK Award, it was very overwhelming. A moment we will never forget.”
In 2014, Cunningham’s purchased and knocked down a hardware store beside its Kilkeel shop, adding a carpark which James says has been a gamechanger for the business.
The additional space also allowed for expansion of the original shop in 2016, adding a new food hall with a butchery, fresh food deli, hot food counter and home-made gelato ice-cream, as well as a 50-seater steak house and cocktail bar. A more recent addition to its extensive offer, during the pandemic, has been Whisk Bakery.
Describing development of the new store layout as a huge time drain, but worth the effort, James added: “With so many different departments, from butchery to deli, ice cream to the bistro, we had to make sure first and foremost that the customer’s journey around the shop was natural and enjoyable.
“Everything was driven towards fresh food, which helps offer the business the maximum opportunity to increase customer spend.”
Efficiency and hygiene were also a focus, with the new kitchen separated into pre-pack and deli, restaurant service and cleaning areas, alongside a modernised butchery with dedicated packing.
“We installed a new EPOS system into our new food hall, allowing us to see in greater detail the top performing products and customer basket items,” he said. “We now have tailored a number of lines into multi-buy options so customers can mix and match items that complement each other. This has been a big factor in almost doubling average customer spend.”
Customer loyalty cards have, meanwhile, proved a particular hit with younger shoppers, a strong demographic for Cunningham’s, driven by its extensive range of healthy, gluten-free and vegetarian options.
The breadth of its offer attracts shoppers and diners of all ages and geographic locations, with visitors often travelling from all over Northern Ireland and over the border from the Republic of Ireland to visit the shop.
FOCUS ON LOCAL PRODUCE
“We only sell the best local produce,” said James, with beef, lamb and potatoes from the family farm supplemented by other local farmers. “We are very lucky in Northern Ireland to have so many wonderful artisan food producers.”
Fruit and veg is delivered fresh from a supplier in Newcastle, fish from the harbour in Kilkeel and local honey from the Silent Valley reservoir.
“All the fresh food and cooked items are produced in store by our own staff,” added James. “We produce over 1,000 product lines fresh every week. We never sacrifice on quality but understand our customers want quality, value and service; something we know we excel at.”
James says Northern Ireland’s butchery sector is flourishing, with the pandemic having reinforced the importance of shopping locally.
“We are able to offer quality and service supermarkets can’t compete with,” he said. “All of our beef sold over the counter is still taken in on the bone, the same way we have done it for 100 years.
“We source as much as we can from our own farm or a network of local farmers and are lucky to have the work force that we can take the time to bone the beef. With the restaurant, we use all of the animal. Bones make the best gravy stock, and we make our own beef dripping.
“Farming has always been a big part of our life, with myself and my brother getting down most evenings to the farm. Farming might not offer the financial rewards the hard work it involves merits, but the family time and the fun in the open air is priceless.”
Cunningham’s boasts its own Himalayan salt chamber behind the butchery counter, creating theatre while serving as an educational tool for customers on the advantages of dry aging.
The business uses traditional outlets such as newspapers and radio for marketing, as well as embracing social media across Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and particularly Facebook.
“We have over 17,000 followers across our channels, and we used this to promote our online shop which was so successful during lockdown,” said James.
“We do a number of videos as well of our history and tradition, showing people a glimpse at the inner workings of our business. Customers love a story and if we can show them our farm, how we rear our animals and then follow it through to how we produce our sausages or steaks, they really buy into what you’re trying to do.”
With the business open every day and operating four nightshifts per week, staffing has not been without challenges, said James, but Cunningham’s has been fortunate in recruiting most of its 70 employees from within a 20-minute radius from the shop.
“By employing local people, you are bringing the whole community to your shop,” he said. “So many customers are on first name terms with staff.”
Training is a priority, with all employees undergoing Level 3 Food Hygiene, an apprenticeship scheme operated with the local college and a focus on opportunities for promotion.
“We do regular talks in our local primary and secondary schools showcasing the work we as a business put into our trade, which we hope will offer students a pathway to butchery, one of the most fulfilling and skilled trades,” added James.
His wife Donna, with who he shares daughters Charlotte and Sophia, has recently left her role with a plc to manage accounts for the family business, affording James more time to get back out on the shop floor and plan the next evolution of the business.
“We have plans to open more shops in the future,” he says. “We have a brand and a passion for food, and we will continue to bring it to neighbouring towns in our area where there are currently no butcher shop offerings.”
TO VIEW THE FULL STORE PROFILE ON CUNNINGHAM’S BUTCHERS IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD RETAILER JUNE ISSUE, CLICK HERE