East Belfast institution remains a firm family favourite after 50 years
An East Belfast institution, McElroy’s Fruit and Veg Shop has enjoyed a decades-long success. Now under the helm of Gerry Lappin, the shop remains an integral part of the Upper Newtownards Road community.
Established around 50 years ago, McElroy’s fruit and veg shop is a stalwart of East Belfast, providing fresh produce to the area and helping to ensure healthy plates for generations.
Owned and run by Ivan McElroy for some 30 years, the shop has built an impressive legacy, with the quality of its fruit and vegetables regularly commented on.
Having moved on to pastures new a few years ago, Ivan handed over the reins of the business to Mark Turner, who had been a supplier to Ivan for a number of years. Mark steered the shop through the turbulent times of covid and has since passed the baton on to Gerry, himself a well-known face in the industry.
“I have been in the fruit and veg business since I was 19 years old and when Mark decided to leave, I said I would give it a go,” said Gerry.
“We have a really good customer base, with people who come to us all the time. During covid, Mark said it was like Christmas week every week, it was just so busy. Everyone wanted to stay local and get good, fresh produce.
“We have kept a bit of that custom on, although people have returned to the supermarkets more, we have maintained some of that custom.
“During lockdown there were also a lot of deliveries done, there were so many. We have our core group of customers that we deliver to, about 20-30 deliveries per week, although we’re always happy to do more.”
STAYING KEEN AND COMPETITIVE
Inevitably, following the pandemic and amidst a cost-of-living crisis, people have changed their shopping habits, forced by the necessity to manage their finances, however Gerry said people are still interested in eating well and buying the best that they can afford.
“People are still coming to buy, but they are buying less,” said Gerry.
“We have to keep prices keen and competitive to ensure people come back, but we can’t keep up with the supermarkets. We make sure we have fresh and local produce and stock the varieties that the supermarkets don’t have.”
To this end, they use a lot of local suppliers, including Hamiltons in Comber and get a lot of their stock from the North Down Group, based at Kennedy Way.
“We get a lot of positive comments about how clean the shop is and how fresh the fruit and veg is, as well as the variety we have – including of other foods, such as beans, marmalades, hams and even plants.
Over the years, as times and needs have changed, the shop has evolved with more and varying foodstuffs brought in to meet customer demand.
“When Ivan had it, it was your traditional fruit and veg shop,” said Gerry. “When Mark took it over, he saw more opportunities and increased the range and variety of products available. He took in a lot of different items and I am continuing that too.
“You are looking out all the time for different wee extras and something that will catch the eye and appeal to customers, and ultimately attract more people in.”
Now firmly into autumn – with the weather reflecting the change in seasons – Gerry has already planned ahead for the next festive event and is well ahead in organising for the December rush.
“Seasonal stock is a big seller for us, we’ll soon be getting the pumpkins in and then it will be all about Christmas.
“We stock a good range of Christmas trees and wreaths are a big seller for us. We brought on a new supplier for our wreaths last year and we sold a couple of hundred of them, so we’re looking forward to that again this year.
“We are also doing cheese baskets this year, and we think they will be a very popular item for our customers.
“Of course, when people are here for those items they buy other things, so it’s so important to get customers through the door.
‘We make sure we have fresh and local produce and stock the varieties that the supermarkets don’t have’
With a bright and colourful eye-catching display at the front of the shop, Gerry draws welcome attention to the extensive range of produce available, although bemoans the lack of parking facilities in the area.
“There is a great footfall in this area, especially at schooltime and a lot of passing trade. Although parking is an issue, there is a real lack of parking spaces here, so that can impact our trade.”
However, with the shop open seven days a week, Gerry and his two part-time staff ensure they are available for everyone whenever they need them.
“We support local schools too, they come to us once or twice a year as part of their school projects and we enjoy being able to do that. We also supply fruit baskets for local events and support charities close to us as well.”
And while, the shop may have diversified and introduced a wider variety of products, it is still the homegrown favourites that customers return for time and again.
“Fresh potatoes are a big seller for us, as well as the main vegetables such as carrots, broccoli and cauliflower. We sell a lot of fruit and we try to take in larger fruit, that wouldn’t be in the supermarkets, as they only really have the smaller fruits as they’re cheaper. It’s all about standing out from the crowd.
“We sell exotic fruits too, such as papaya and the younger ones are all looking dragon fruit now. It’s become popular because of trends on TikTok, so they’re asking their parents to come and buy it for them, although they don’t realise how expensive it is!”
Pricing is of course a hot topic now, with the cost-of-living determining how much and how often people buy fresh food, something Gerry has noticed as people are more cautious about spending.
“Generally, a lot of the prices do fluctuate normally, but when the supermarkets didn’t have any tomatoes or peppers, we were inundated. We had plenty because we were willing to pay the price to get them in – although we did have to charge more for them and it was difficult having to charge customers almost £2 for a pepper,” added Gerry.
“But if they need something, they come in and buy it. There are less items bought and people tend to buy as they need it. They are coming in a couple of times a week and getting what they need – it means there is less waste also as people are now much more aware of waste and don’t want to be throwing food out.”
TO VIEW THE FULL INTERVIEW WITH MCELROY’S FRUIT & VEG SHOP IN THE OCTOBER ISSUE OF NEIGHBOURHOOD RETAILER, CLICK HERE