Guillemot – bringing the soul back to Bangor
Named after the ‘chatty little birds’ that live and nest around the pier, Bangor’s Guillemot delicatessen and café has certainly helped bring the buzz back to the seafront.
With authentic seaside charm, the Guillemot is bursting with soul, style and it must be said, a certain panache.
Since its glory days as North Down’s seaside destination, it’s no secret that Bangor’s Queen’s Parade and seafront had gone in to something of a decline over the last few decades. While the marina is as picturesque as ever – especially on a sunny day – its frame has become somewhat tattered and torn.
Flair and vision
What was needed, was some forward thinking, creative individuals with business acumen, flair and vision to set the trend – then the rest will follow.
What was once the little Tuck Shop on the corner, became a thriving, bustling café featuring the finest of foods. A few years ago, the Guillemot deli opened next door.
The enterprising owner is Rachel Armstrong. Along with her family – especially father-in-law, the ex-Ireland and Ulster rugby international Ashley Armstrong, Rachel could see the potential for her the derelict site.
“It’s such a beautiful spot with the pier, the marina, and plenty of car-parking available. It just felt right. I really do feel that the soul is coming back in to Bangor.”
‘Chatty little bird’
Ironically Rachel opened the Guillemot just as the small seabirds were coming back to the pier.
“The guillemot is a fascinating little bird – they actually hold court and are very chatty. Small holes were drilled into the pier to encourage the birds to come back. It worked – now the pier has lots of guillemot setting up home.”
Just as the guillemot birds were making a comeback, the Guillemot café was thriving and bustling daily – often with queues out the door – when the building next door became available.
“The landlord asked if I’d be interested in taking it over. I’d always wanted to open a deli so it made sense as the next step. He has been amazing. It all felt really exciting and energising. Then Covid came along. We had to shut the café, but we were able to keep running the deli, doing takeaway and everything else from there” explained Rachel.
With a background in the hospitality and tourism industry, running the business came as second nature to Rachel – although the help and support from her family – particularly her father in law, has been a driving force.
Rachel previously worked with Aer Lingus and for the Hastings Hotel Group on its general management programme, when she left to start her family. Now that the children are 11 and 13 that drive and ambition for her own business bounced back.
Sense of community
“It was amazing how it all just seemed to fall in to place – although there was a lot of elbow grease put in. My father in law and the family were business people, so they understood the nature of taking a risk. His rugby background meant he has always been very sociable and likes to entertain.
“There was a real sense of community at the Guillemot right from the start. The rugby club is a huge networking body and they have been very loyal from the start. Local people totally embraced us and supported the business from the beginning.
“Yet we have to move with the times and keep it fresh and exciting. I went over to the Olympia trade show in London and met with loads of great cheese and Spanish suppliers, lots of European companies – and I also believe strongly in supporting local suppliers.”
Along came Covid
The deli opened over two years ago – and was thriving, the perfect accompaniment to the café – when along came Covid. The café had to close – for now.
Having the deli meant that business could continue – with all operations moved over to the deli – takeaway took off.
“We made a few changes” explained Rachel. “Coffee, ice cream and rotisserie chicken sold from the deli. People were definitely looking for a little bit of indulgence during the pandemic. They appreciate quality over quantity – they realise they can buy better, then make less go further. Customers have definitely been experimenting with food.”
Brexit has been ‘awful.’ “It changed everything,” said Rachel. “Some suppliers had been forward thinking and made preparations, but others simply didn’t have the resources. For small businesses it means there’s a lot more paperwork, but my mother-in-law has been particularly helpful. We have turned more to local suppliers – there are some fantastic Irish cheeses out there to choose from.
The good news is that the Guillemot is expanding – with plans advanced to open another outlet in Belfast. The Armstrong family had a financial advice business, and with retirement, rather than sell the premises they have decided to, as Rachel said, “give it a whirl.”
Again they have the ideal location – on the Upper Newtownards Road, in the affluent Ballyhackamore area.
“It will be called the Guillemot too – we have created a brand now, so it makes sense to build on that,” said Rachel.
She’s looking forward to the lifting of restrictions. “I can’t wait to get the café open again – to hear the buzz of the conversations, or to see people sitting back and enjoying the music. I’m looking forward to getting the Tapas nights going again, and my father-in-law taking historic walking tours of Bangor – then bringing everyone back to the Guillemot at the end.”
It’s all on the horizon – but for now, it’s still click and collect at the deli, with an app for ordering lunches.
The Guillemot is also supporting Bangor Market. Every Wednesday the deli has a stall – run by Ashley and her husband Steve. “Bangor market is great for fresh veg, fruit and fish – and the stall not only promotes the deli, but people can get our products there in one trip. A lot of older people support the local Wednesday market, and it’s encouraging to see more life coming back in to it – helping again to build a strong, local community ethos.”
Hampers also took off around Christmas and continue to perform well – with the outside catering side of the business also starting to soar.
“We can do everything from Board meetings to events – some businesses were even doing small hampers for zoom meetings, and being creative and imaginative in how they dealt with the pandemic.
“We will continue to use a lot of local suppliers for meats and cheese – they have been great, but my staff have been absolutely amazing through it all – I can’t say enough.
“We make a great team – they are all so dynamic and full of energy. We share ideas and they are so creative – but have life experience too. They come up with fantastic ideas and I let them just do it. Every member of the team is valued, and they work until they get the job done.”
*guillemot – a seabird with a narrow pointed bill