From black bacon to vegan sausages: O’Doherty’s Fine Meats store profile
Despite being renowned for their Fermanagh Black Bacon, which has graced the shelves of Harrods, O’’Doherty’s Fine Meats are now eyeing up the vegan market, as Neighbourhood Retailer finds out.
O’Doherty’s Fine Meats has been flying the flag for Northern Irish produce for a long time. Best known for their Fermanagh Black Bacon and their island full of pigs, the Enniskillen butchers supply the likes of Donnybrook Fair, Chapter One restaurant in Dublin.
Explaining how the Belmore Street butcher came to be on Harrod’s radar, Fintan O’Doherty says his dad Pat developed Fermanagh Black Bacon in 2004.
“It was a 10-year research project before the product was actually launched in 2004 when it became the only dry cure bacon that was available to the market at the time,” he says.
Isle of pigs
“But it was much more than that because my father purchased an island in Lough Erne called Inishcorkish – the reason for buying the island was so that he could give it back to the pigs. The pigs are reared out there for the production of the Fermanagh Black Bacon and then it goes through a three-month curing process.
“Harrods were so taken by the story and by the quality of the product that they had to have it!”
Almost 20 years on, the pigs are still thriving on Inishcorkish with anything between 50 and 200 roaming around the 75 acres at any one time. A children’s book has even been written about them.
“They’re reared in the wild with a very small amount of human control – we don’t get involved too much because if the pigs are happy you don’t need to. We’re making the pigs part of the ecosystem that exists on the island,” Fintan says.
A butcher’s shop has been on the site at Belmore Street ever since 1902 and it was bought by Fintan’s grandfather James in 1957.
Fintan says there have been huge changes in consumer demand for craft butchery since his grandfather’s time.
“At the moment one of the biggest changes is vegetarianism and people exploring the vegan lifestyle, so that’s been an exciting time for us as butchers to develop the business to cater for those customers.
“Even compared to 10 years ago, our vegetarian and vegan offering is 10 times better than what it was – 10 years ago it was zero! We still have a lot of work to do in that field and it’s a field that I am very passionate about.
“I could see our business diversifying away from something that is known solely as a butcher’s shop and becoming more like a specialty food store. The word ‘butcher’ implies meat, but one of the things we want is to be able to cater more for the vegetarian person, whether it’s to offer the ingredients for them to produce a meal themselves, or for the convenience customers who want a vegetarian or vegan ready meal of a high quality.
Switch to vegan
“So we do vegan sausage rolls, we do vegan burgers, we do vegan meatballs, vegan stir-fries, but we’re only really dipping our toes in the water at the moment. But there’s definitely been a noticeable increase in the number of these customers – they’re happy at the minute with what we’re offering but I think we could be doing so much more – I definitely think the vegetarian and vegan trend is here to stay.”
One thing that has been continuous since the shop’s inception has been the quest for top quality produce, Fintan says: “People will seek out our produce and we would find that most of our customers would travel from far and wide to shop with us. That’s what gets us out of bed in the morning.”
In the 1980s the shop doubled in size when James bought property at the rear to create more production space, and when the Fermanagh Black Bacon was launched, the downstairs became a bacon production factory.
“To be honest, we’re now at a turning point in the business and we’re excited to find out just which direction it’s going to go.” Fintan says.
“Demand has massively outgrown the size of the premises so we have an exciting couple of years ahead of us as we plan our expansion.”
O’Doherty’s supplies a select number of Spar shops, including Crawfordsburn Spar, as well as Fallon & Byrne deli in Dublin, Donnybrook Fair, Arcadia in Belfast and Gratton’s greengrocers in Donaghadee, and also hospitality venues such as the Great Northern Hotel in Bundoran and Chapter One in John Jameson’s house in Dublin. They’ve also appeared on the BBC’s Farm to Feast with Eamonn Holmes and Michelin star chef Dani Barry.
O’Doherty’s are renowned for their burgers, winning UK burger of the year, and are three times all Ireland burger champions.
“People hear ‘O’Doherty’s’ and think Fermanagh Black Bacon, but we’re equally as popular for burgers,” says Fintan.
“We have customers all over the country and we have a very small selection of shops that we sell the burgers in, to keep the exclusivity of it all, but the quality of our burgers is absolutely fantastic. That’s one thing that we’re going to be focusing even more on over the next two to three years.”
They are also passionate about charcuterie based products, particularly black and white pudding which they’re hoping to scale up massively for the catering and wholesale markets. Both products have won awards at national level and sparked something of a competition between Fintan and Pat.
“The black pudding is my father’s recipe – he won’t tell anyone what it is but it’s his own recipe,” Fintan explains.
“He entered his black pudding in the UK Black Pudding of the Year competition, and the white pudding is my recipe so I entered it into the National Meat Products Competition. Me and him were secretly having our competition to see who could win an award – but as it happened he won the black pudding category outright and I won the white pudding competition outright – so it ended with a draw!”
O’Doherty’s launched their e-commerce shop in 2019 – allowing customers to buy bacon for delivery anywhere in Ireland and the UK.
“We have a subscription service where you can subscribe and have your bacon delivered every week or every other week. It’s a very flexible system,” Fintan says.
“We found especially during Covid times, it’s really taken off. I would say it’s taken over 25-30% of our own bacon sales and really come into its own.”
When Covid kicked in, the catering market vanished overnight, but O’Doherty’s had their best retail trading year in decades, Fintan says.
“Obviously the loss of the wholesale business was a massive hit as well, so it was a time where we had to adjust our business model very, very quickly to be able to cope with the change in demand because there was panic buying happening, there was online ordering. Deliveries increased by close to 1000%,” he says.
“We had to take on eight new members of staff just to handle the deliveries and online orders and phone orders. We had to adapt very, very quickly and we were just lucky that we had a team that were happy to work during uncertain times when nobody really knew what the virus was at this particular stage and everybody was afraid for their lives.
“My wife was heavily pregnant at the time and we had a wee boy that was born in May 2020, Daithi, so for me, that was a great distraction from all the chaos and the negativity that was clouding the whole social structure of society at that stage. At the same time it was what kept me going and kept me motivated to keep on doing what we were doing.”
Fintan noticed that during Covid they took on a lot of typical supermarket customers who were concerned about mixing and have now retained many of those customers.
“Retail is as strong as it’s ever been and it’s just brilliant because it’s encouraged us as a team to try out new product ideas and to try different things on the market.
Heat to eat
“At the moment we’re developing our heat-to-eat range, the convenience food offering in the shop – gourmet style stir fries and other healthy things like turkey salad bowls and things like that. The healthier macro-friendly heat to eat range has been a big focus, especially during January and February this year.”
Around 95% of their products are sourced locally so supply chain problems have been less of an issue than for others.
“I know a number of businesses that have had big problems getting stock from across the water in England but we’re lucky in the fact that we don’t import, we use all the local products that’s on our doorstep,” Fintan says.
“By supporting our business you’re supporting our local agricultural economy. You’re supporting the local livestock farmers, the local dairy farmers, and the local vegetable farmers. Your supporting the small producers who love to do what they do – and do well.”
Fintan told us that the main goal for the next five years is to develop their black pudding and burger offerings, and the next five to 10 years will be even more exciting because they could be looking for a new home or somewhere to go alongside their current shop.
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