McKay Family Butchers: providing quality and convenience for generations

McKay Family Butchers: providing quality and convenience for generations
NR last caught up with McKay Family Butchers in January 2020, when they were preparing for exciting developments at their Ballycastle store and were hopeful of a promising 2020. Then the pandemic hit and the business was left facing unprecedented challenges.

A mainstay in the seaside town of Ballycastle for almost 50 years, McKay Family Butchers is one of the best-loved independent butchers on the north coast. Established by Sean McKay, his son Fergal is now also heavily involved in the business with the pair investing in the stores in Ballycastle and Dungiven and expanding its wholesale arm.

Back in 2020 with planning permission to extend the prep area at their Ballycastle store, they were looking forward to making that investment.

“We invested in modernising our prep area to allow for the increase in pre-pack sales into local retailers,” said Fergal.

“This involved a major investment in machinery, refrigeration and staff to allow for the increase in production. We continue to look at ways to increase efficiency in production without compromising on quality.”

Their supply into retail stores has grown significantly in the last few years, growing by seven with them now supplying 12 stores, after an investment in new packing machinery and equipment allowed them to keep up with demand, along with staff investment.

Fergal at one of McKay’s retail concessions

“Our pre-packed meat into retail stores has continued to grow and it’s a very important part of our business,” said Fergal.

“We offer a good quality product for that target audience. It also allows us to sell our product outside of our traditional opening times on Monday to Saturday, which makes our products readily available for customers who can’t make it to our own stores that day/week, with them receiving the same quality as they would in our own stores. It’s convenience without sacrificing on quality.”

Once the covid pandemic struck, Fergal said they noticed a significant shift in consumer shopping patterns and had to adjust their approach to suit.

“We saw a massive rise in shop sales being in rural towns as such, both in our own and in the retail stores we supplied as people couldn’t travel far,” he said.

“At first it was panic buying and then it settled into a more routine shopping, with bulk buys of our retail packs, phone orders and online app orders. Social media became massive as a way of communicating with our customers as we didn’t see them as frequently – once a week compared to three or four times a week.

“Additionally, people could also see what was available via social media and leaflets we had made. They ordered ahead and we could then reduce our opening hours as more customers collected orders.

“Cooking at home became the norm, and dinner time became the main part of the day during lockdowns. People got a good view of the range of products we had and the different ideas for dinners and they saw the quality was there locally.

“Of course, this affected our restaurant/catering trade as they were all forced to close. It gave us a real insight into how many people eat out and also just how reliant Ballycastle and tourism is in providing employment in the area.”

Coming out of the pandemic and with a relaxation in restrictions, coastal towns such as Ballycastle saw a sharp increase in popularity with footfall rising and businesses like McKay Family Butchers enjoyed some very busy summers. As Fergal acknowledged there were some challenges with that as covid cases increased again, coupled with staff shortages, but they were delighted to see their restaurant and catering trade back up and running.

“We have worked hard to maintain and retain all the increased custom since the pandemic, in our own stores, retail outlets and catering trade,” said Fergal.

“In terms of our shops, locally those who perhaps thought a butcher’s shop was too expensive, old fashioned or not for them have realised our own shop is clean and modern with a vast range of quality products, both raw and ready to eat. We also have ambient and frozen products making it your one-stop shop and very close to home.

“From a catering point of view, our customers receive a locally-sourced quality product with excellent service and a personal touch that larger wholesalers/distributors find hard to match and that gives the local independent supplier the edge.”

2020 was a pivotal time for McKay Family Butchers as they helped to establish the Irish Butchers’ Guild (IBG) to celebrate, promote and support the best of Ireland’s independent butchers, giving them a voice in the industry.

A group of highly motivated and passionate independent butchers and meat experts, the IBG is dedicated to delivering uncompromising quality, craftsmanship and innovation. With 52 members, the Guild is committed to preserving the knowledge, expertise and craft of traditional butchering while embracing modern techniques, to deliver the very best products and new experiences to their customers.

With a host of awards and accolades bestowed on its members, the Guild provides a platform for open exchange of best industry practice among members such as product development, promotion and marketing.

‘Customer satisfaction is a number one priority for us, whether it be in our own stores, a retail partner through our pre-pack meat offering or a restaurant/catering customer’

Indeed, McKay Family Butchers were a finalist in last year’s Neighbourhood Retailer Awards, with Fergal present on the night to take home their finalist’s plaque.

“It is always nice to be recognised for the work and effort our family and our staff put into our stores,” said Fergal.

“Customer satisfaction is a number one priority for us, whether it be in our own stores, a retail partner’s through our pre-pack meat offering or a restaurant/catering customer. Competition is healthy, stops our businesses from becoming stale and keeps you on our toes for new trends and products coming down the line. In previous years we have been shortlisted for Butcher Shop of the Year UK (Northern Ireland Section).”

While the butchery business continues to be challenging, Fergal added it is highly rewarding too.

“Sometimes things outside of our control affects things and adds to the stress of running a business. We need as much help from our local representatives as possible in keeping the high streets alive, especially regarding council rates.

Sean McKay

“I would certainly say the challenges of being an independent butcher have not eased. They are perhaps not as unpredictable, but definitely still very challenging.

“With the rising costs of electricity to an all-time high at one stage, it put massive pressure on us and there seems to be no end to the increases due to circumstances beyond our control, such as the war in Ukraine.

“Fuel is another cost that continues to put pressure on our business. We have recently had increases in rates and insurance and when you add these all together, it makes things not impossible, but certainly challenging.

“It has been a juggling act between balancing increased costs and overheads and getting our pricing right. Of course, we can’t absorb all the cost increases, but we felt we had to absorb most of it in order to see out the difficult times, especially during rising electricity prices. I think that will stand to us now going forward as a business – it was certainly an education!

“From a customer’s perspective, they are facing similar challenges as well. They have seen their mortgage rates rise, their council rates increase and fuel prices at high levels. We have to look at things from a customer perspective at all times.

“How can we drive footfall into our stores, especially with the increase in parking charges locally. We do this by trying to set ourselves apart from our competitors, offer a good range of locally-sourced quality products for the customer and their family with the goal of getting repeat custom.

“Yes, people want value but the quality has to be there too.”