Making History in Markethill
NR talks to partner Suzanne Lavery about the fabulous new fine food hall in Alexanders of Markethill – and finds out how the Covid crisis led the partners to diversify their in-store restaurant into retail.
“Our Gift Shop, Cook Shop and Interior Design departments are still open and operating as normal, as well as our very popular Christmas shop; however, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting operational challenges and restrictions placed upon the working procedures within restaurants, we made the very difficult decision to close our restaurant and adapt it into “Alexanders Food Hall”, a new artisan food hall which opened on 3rd September 2020” explained Suzanne.
“Food has always been an important part of the Alexanders story and closing our restaurant was one of the most difficult decisions we have made as a business, but we believe it was necessary to ensure the survival of the business in these unprecedented times.
“We feel that our new Food Hall is a way of continuing the legacy we have created of serving excellent quality food to our customers and we are delighted that we can continue to produce many of our much loved foods for customers to enjoy at home, for example our homemade breads, scones, soups, salads, cakes, desserts, traybakes and a wide range of delicious take home meals. All homemade from our kitchen to yours.
“As a small business we understand the importance of supporting and encouraging local businesses and producers and therefore our aim through the Food Hall is also to contribute to the success of local food manufacturing businesses and the resulting positive impact this will have on our wider community. Therefore, we also stock a large range of locally sourced products from across Northern Ireland and Ireland e.g. Muldrews Butchers, Ballylisk Cheese, Burren Balsamics, Abernethy Butter, Orchard Smokehouse, Taste Joy, Corndale Meats, Tom and Ollie, The Yellow Door and Ewings to name just a few.”
Did you encounter any challenges in this?
“As expected with starting any new business there are always challenges and learnings along the way,” Suzanne told NR.
“For us, one of our biggest challenges so far has been around quantity and wastage. We produce everything on site, fresh from our kitchen using the best of ingredients. Therefore, it is important we produce the correct quantities each day to minimise waste. This is something we are learning as we go, as we analyse our shopper buying habits throughout the weeks.
“We are so grateful to the many people who have offered their support and advice to us over the last few months. Speaking to local packaging companies, local producers, the Food, Health and Safety team and the Armagh, Banbridge, Craigavon Council has really helped us with our transition into this new venture and we are grateful to be able to learn from those who already have experience in this area.”
What was the reaction like to your new offering?
“Overall we have received a great reaction to the new Food Hall. Understandably, some of our regular customers do miss the sit down restaurant but they also understand the reasons for the change and have been very supportive” Suzanne said.
“We are incredibly grateful to each and every one of our amazing, loyal customers who have continued to support us through these difficult times. We really appreciate the positive feedback we have received both in person and online, the feedback from our customers encourages us to keep innovating and adapting to ensure we continue to provide top quality products and the best shopping experience that we can.”
What challenges has the pandemic posed and how have you overcome them?
“Like a lot of businesses, we had to close throughout lockdown for 3 months which has obviously significantly impacted our sales and cash flow within the business. There have also been financial implications as we invested in installing protective screens at all pay points and sanitising stations throughout the store.
“Since re-opening, the footfall within our shop has decreased and sadly we have had to cancel some of the biggest events we have in the year due to covid-19 regulations which will no doubt have an impact on the business this Christmas. We recently launched our new website which we update regularly with new products. We hope this move to online will help us to address the challenges we face around footfall in store. You can check it out by visiting www.alexandersgiftstore.com.
How have you encouraged social distancing within your store?
“The safety of our staff and customers is of utmost importance to us and so we have put in place all safety measures required,” explained Suzanne.
“We are very fortunate that we have a large store which makes social distancing possible and we encourage all staff and customers to following the social distancing guidelines. Our staff are working within bubbles to ensure we minimise any risk. We also have hand sanitiser at the entrance/exit and throughout the store. All staff are required to wear protective face coverings and we ask all customers to do the same unless medically exempt.”
What are your plans for the future?
“The future for Alexanders as we see it will be to evolve and change and constantly strive to create ‘experiences’ for our customers within the Gift Shop, Food Hall and Interior Design.
“We need to invest in product and service innovation and so we are working on areas like bringing in more Irish food suppliers to support other local businesses, constantly changing store products and displays, changing ways of communicating with our customers, sourcing relevant good quality products at suitable prices and listening to ideas from both our staff and our customers.
“We believe that small family businesses still play a vitally important role within the business community, but we know we must provide excellent customer service and control the ever-rising costs in order to survive and thrive.
“We now offer a hamper service within our Food Hall and we already have lots of pre-made hampers that customers can browse. We can also make bespoke hampers for our customers if they would like to select their own items and create a unique hamper to give to someone special.
“We are currently working on a Click and Collect service for freshly prepared, cook at home food packs for Sunday lunch, weekend food, afternoon tea and BBQ packs. Customers will also be able to order special cakes and family sized dishes for special events and occasions.”