Miles ahead of the curve: Milestone Rathfriland store profile
While many convenience stores are just dipping their toes in the food-to-go market, Milestone Rathfriland is well ahead of the curve.
Food to go and ready meals have been a mainstay of the business ever Milestone Rathfriland launched 33 years ago and they’re still leading the way, with more than 1,000 own-brand products.
The most recent move for Milestone was to launch their own restaurant upstairs in the complex, named Loft 56 after the historic milestone which dates back to the days of Cromwell, that still sits on the site – it was 56 Irish miles to Dublin.
The restaurant has been proving a major draw in the area, especially at weekends, despite the hiccup caused by the pandemic, says general manager Noel Hadden.
“The licensed restaurant opened in October 2019, but it was only going a few months when the pandemic hit, so it has been off and on since we were allowed to open again,” he says.
“Open from 12 noon daily, it serves not just the local community but people coming from further afield, attracting strong support especially on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings.”
Milestone Rathfriland started life as a small filling station with a kiosk, bought 33 years ago by Tom, who was an engineer by trade.
”I had absolutely no intention of keeping it for too long – I was just going to get it up and running and move on,” he admits.
“33 years on and I still haven’t moved on – I just got immersed into it. I really do enjoy it and it’s all-consuming, but it’s rewarding at the same time. If I don’t keep pushing, it gets boring, so that’s why we keep trying to innovate and in turn elevate the business.
The store has gone from about 500 sq ft to more than 16,000 sq ft and from a handful of staff, it now employs in excess of 200 staff.
Over that time Milestone Rathfriland has been extended and renovated on numerous occasions and it can now claim the honour of being the largest employer in town.
“The biggest change over the years has been the development of the whole food to go and ready meal side of the business and bakery side of the business,” says Noel.
“That’s been our unique selling point and there has been a great deal of development in those areas. We’ve seen growing demand for good quality food at the right price. Food has to be consistently good and it has to be available at the right price.
“There is more and more demand from customers who want restaurant quality food ready-made for them so they can take it home. People have been time scarce and are always on the go, always working hard, and that need and demand has been growing over the years.
“We have been ahead of the curve on this and the business has been going from strength to strength over the years with continual investment and development in these areas.”
One major draw is the bakery, with a wide range of products, including morning goods, granary breads and wheaten breads as well as pastries, buns and cakes. People can also order cakes for all occasions from the bakery or online which can be decorated to their specific needs by the skilled decorators.
“It’s the sort of product range that people travel for – it means it’s a destination that people will travel to especially on a Saturday or Sunday,” Noel says.
“We’ve also continued to extend the range at the deli counter and we keep it interesting by continually introducing new products.
“We do have our core products that people buy all the time but we keep adding to the range. We’re well known for our chicken curry – that would be our number one brand.
“The key thing is to have the right people in place. We’ve invested a lot of time in our people here and we have a very good team.
“One major challenge over the past year was the introduction of Natasha’s Law and the necessity of labelling all products with the full list of ingredients.
“This analysis is carried out instore by our team of expert food nutritionists, chefs and production engineers. Having this onsite allows us to introduce and change our product range at a faster pace than many of the larger multinational stores.”
After the pandemic hit, the company moved quickly to install measures to keep customers and staff safe.
“We streamlined our deli operations as there were a lot of people working in close proximity, changing work patterns to include night shifts.” Noel says.
“We reconfigured the over-the-counter services at our deli and butchery to a grab-and-go service – all products that you would have bought over the counter were now grab-and-go, pre-packaged and vacuum sealed and could be bought with little interaction. That was a huge step change for us.
“We also introduced some self-scan tills – that was something we had thought about doing some time in the future but this accelerated their introduction.
“Customers wanted to reduce interaction – they wanted to be able to come and not speak to anyone, just grab produce and pay.
“As time has moved on we’ve found many customers do still enjoy their interaction with staff but there are those who want to self-scan and go, usually people that are time scarce and want to shop quickly in the morning and evening.
“We noticed in the pandemic that customers’ shopping habits had changed – they went from shopping little and often to going for the big shop towards the middle or end of the week. It was back to the habits of 10-15 years ago.
“We also found that during the lockdown, people switched from fresh ready meals to making traditional home cooked food.”
Two years later people are switching back to buying on a daily basis, he says.
“Our plan for our food side is to continue to develop our own brands that are our key focus, build our supply routes and build up good suppliers, as well as concentrate on the local supply chain.”
Owner Tom has paid tribute to the hard work of the staff throughout the pandemic.
“It was a stressful time, but we managed to keep the shop full of stock and managed to keep it going. It ran well above where it normally would sit,” he says.
“It has been a test of everybody’s character – our staff were put under a lot of pressure but they all performed brilliantly. They followed strict Covid guidelines and it paid off.
“The staff are the most important element of the shop. We are thankful that we have a really good squad and they all stepped up to the mark, with many swapping traditional job roles to assist in new work areas within the business to facilitate changes during the pandemic. This helped tremendously to build a solid team. Flexibility was key to this success.”
Noel says many Brexit and Protocol issues really came to light in January last year and continued throughout the year, creating issues in supply chains and restrictions in some lines.
“We looked at the issues – how do we get around them – and we decided to work with it and educate ourselves on how to work with the new customs rules and with the hauliers,” he says.
“You have the knock-on effect of the supply chain issues as well from the main suppliers – if they couldn’t have their pickers and drivers in, that presented a problem and it all had a knock-on effect along supply chains.
“We opened up some new supply chain routes ourselves as we got control of that ourselves and we developed quite a lot of good opportunities. That gave us our ability to remain competitive and trade well throughout the year.
“We worked with the Protocol as best we could and what it did do was push us to find new ways of obtaining products and new supply chains. We couldn’t afford to sit on our hands and be complacent.
“So on the plus side, when we opened new supply chain routes with new companies, we found some better costs, better range and better availability and that was a huge plus for us.”
The shop’s own brands traded well in the second half of the year, Noel says.
“We were able to increase the footage of store space for our own brands and growth in that was very good.
“One of the things I saw again this year was that there was a huge opportunity in the gifting and hampering trade from corporate companies and businesses who weren’t doing any party nights for their own staff, so we were well prepared for that this year.”
Rising costs will dominate in early 2022, Noel says.
“We think going into 2022, we are all going to face increasing costs, from energy costs and commodity costs on raw materials for bakery, deli and restaurant, to increases in standard cost price of goods across the board.
“We have been seeing that from before Christmas and it’s steadily on the increase. We are still not out of the woods yet with Brexit and the Protocol and it remains to be seen how that ends up.
“We’d like to think the whole Covid restrictions will get easier as we go on. Hopefully it will be a little more relaxed later in the year and we will continue to work through it,” Noel says.
To read the full store profile in the Neighbourhood Retailer yearbook, click HERE.