Farm to fork and everything in between: Alfie Murray Family Butchers
We find out why Alfie Murray Family Butchers in Killyleagh have won a haul of Great Taste Awards – and what they’re planning for the future.
Ask Alfie Murray what his most popular ready-to-eat line is and the answer won’t be curry, or pies, or spag bol – but coleslaw.
Despite Alfie’s status as an acclaimed butcher with a large haul of Great Taste Awards over the years, it’s his salad dish that is really topping the ready-to-eat tables and luring customers in their droves – all testament to the wonders of diversification.
“Coleslaw would probably be one of our biggest ready-to-eat lines – we would sell a phenomenal amount of coleslaw. It’s the quality that is there,” Alfie says.
Another reason for the popularity of the KIllyleagh butcher’s shop is its farm-to-fork ethos, a trend that many stores have been tuning into recently. But for Alfie it’s been a feature of the shop since it was founded by his father Alfie Sr 65 years ago.
“We’re probably the third longest established butcher in Northern Ireland and we’re now in our third generation,” he says.
“My father Alfie Sr started the business and I am Alfie too, just to confuse things, and then my son Ryan is the third generation coming into the business.”
His dad had originally worked as a butcher in Belfast until the Troubles prompted him to look for work closer to home.
“He had been travelling to Belfast from Ballygowan but the Troubles started getting worse and worse. Then an opportunity came up in Killyleagh for a butcher to come here. So he was here for a couple of years and the guy took a heart attack and offered the business to the workers that were here – and the rest is history,” Alfie says.
All the lamb reared at Ravara Farm, the family farm, comes through the butcher’s and the family also supply some of the shop’s beef, as well as poultry.
“We buy most of our beef from Lakeview Meats, which is on the hook, but we also try to buy as much as we can on the hoof – we buy from farmers and local livestock markets whenever we can,” Alfie says.
“We also rear approximately 300 turkeys for the Christmas markets as well as 50 or 60 geese, and we’re now diverging into Chunky Chicks – this is a big chicken that comes out for the Christmas market and is 9-12lb in weight.
“Ten years ago we started to produce our own fowl for the simple reason that we could not get the quality coming through from our suppliers.”
How it started
Back when the butchery was founded, all the beef would have been cut on the bone, including the likes of stewing steak, but around 40 years ago the shop moved to taking the beef off the bone and that remains the case today.
“We hang our own beef – we don’t work with a lot of vacuum-packed meat because our emphasis is on quality,” Alfie says.
“We would hang it for 21-28 days before anyone would be taking it to cook.”
But the biggest change since the early days of the butchery is the rise of the ready-to-eat market.
“We do around 300 different lines, from coleslaw and salads to pies, spaghetti bolognese, chicken curry and sausages – that’s the driving force behind the business now,” Alfie says.
Ready to eat
That move into ready-to-eat was launched around 20 years ago when Alfie rejoined the business after 13 or 14 years working elsewhere.
“I’d worked a lot in the supermarkets and I saw where their business was going. So I came back 20 years ago and took over the shop and moved into the ready-to-eat side, because I could see the need for it,” Alfie says.
“We only had a few lines back then – six different pies and a few sausage rolls – and it’s grown from that, from your home-made silverside dinner to chicken curry and rice.”
And that approach has stood them in good stead – the business has won numerous Great Taste Awards, including many three-star plaudits.
“We won a three-star award, which is the highest accolade at the Great Taste Awards, for our leg of lamb and boneless loin of lamb, and we’ve also won numerous two-star awards for our sirloin, chump steak and rib roast. We’ve also won quite a few one-star awards for our ready meals such as chicken pies,” Alfie says.
Search for quality
And the business is constantly on the lookout for top quality meat. For example, Alfie was a judge at the 2021 Royal Ulster Fatstock sales shortly before Christmas and went on to buy some of the award-winning stock after the show.
Following the 2021 Royal Ulster Premier Beef & Lamb Championships at Eikon Exhibition Centre in Balmoral Park, Alfie purchased the Champion pair of Suffolk Lambs over 42.5kg, Champion pairs of Dorset Lambs 36 -42.5kg & Over 42.5kg and the Best of Any Other Breed Over 42.5kg.
He said his customers were delighted with the quality.
“Northern Ireland produces some of the best lamb in the world and I am delighted to have bought top quality livestock from the Royal Ulster Premier Beef & Lamb Championships,” he said.
“This year the kill out rate was above average with a good yield on all the lambs.”
Not only did the award-winning lamb supply customers at his own shop, but it was included in his range at the EuroSpar shop in Crossgar. Alfie also supplies meat to the Spar shops in Ballygowan and Comber, as well as all 26 of the Russell shops.
At the time the pandemic arrived, he had been looking at whether to supply more Spar shops: “They’d approached us on several occasions, but we couldn’t come to a deal.
“”However they’ve come back to us this year and are hoping to go into another two of their stores. There’s a new store opening in Moneyreagh and a new store opening in Killyleagh which we will be supplying as well.
“When the pandemic happened, business went through the roof – there were more people locally because they weren’t working in Belfast and we had queues every day. It was like a weekend every day.
“We’ve held onto probably about 75% of those customers through the quality of our meats. People were coming back and mentioning how good the quality they were getting as well, from the fruit and veg we sell to what we were producing on the farm.
“For the first three or four months it was manic every day. Then once the restrictions lifted slightly, our biggest lift would be people that would have normally eaten out in restaurants – we had them coming in to buy steaks and going home to cook them.”
Fine dining at home
Many customers would have sought advice from the staff on how to cook the steaks and other products for the best quality results, advice that was freely given.
“We won over a lot of customers on our recommendations on how they should cook a steak,” Alfie admits.
Meanwhile, the butcher’s shop has been offering a delivery service ever since its inception 65 years ago, but that end of the business also became extremely busy during the lockdown.
“In the pandemic the demand for delivery quadrupled – we had to work longer hours to cope with it, and we had no idea how long this was going to last,” Alfie says.
“Thankfully throughout the whole thing we managed to escape many Covid issues.”
At the moment all the preparation is carried out in the shop itself and as demand rises, staff are finding things too cramped, especially with the increase of work on the wholesale side.
That’s why they’re now looking around to buy a unit to carry out their meat wholesale and food preparation work in a more spacious setting.
“We have so many wholesale customers coming to us that we’re having to turn them away because the premises aren’t big enough to cope with the business at the moment,” Alfie says.
To read the full feature in the Neighbourhood Retailer yearbook, click HERE.