Saving your bacon: Millar’s Meats unveils stunning new premises in former bank

Saving your bacon: Millar’s Meats unveils stunning new premises in former bank

After 18 years in a small shop, Millar’s Meats have just moved across the street into the beautiful former Ulster Bank in Irvinestown. Award-winning butcher Stephen Millar outlines his labour of love.

Millar’s Meats has been a fixture on Irvinestown’s main street for 18 years now, but for a long time butcher Stephen MIllar has been on the look-out for larger premises that would allow him to stock a much wider range.

He finally found the perfect location when the historic Ulster Bank building across the street came up for sale.

“I had been looking and looking, and then the former Ulster Bank came up for auction – and I knew that was the one I wanted,” Stephen says.

“I purchased and made the decision to start the work on it literally as Covid was kicking in – so that delayed the whole process by a lot. And when you purchase an old building you probably don’t realise the amount of problems you’re going to encounter as well.

“At times it felt as if we were never going to get there, but we did and we opened this summer. There are still bits and pieces to do but we’re delighted with it and the feedback from people has been amazing.

“A lot of people in the town have been very nostalgic about it and they’re glad to see the old building being used again.”

Farming background

Now aged 41, Stephen grew up on a beef farm in Newtownstewart, Co Tyrone, but realised early on that there wasn’t going to be a living for both him and his dad. He had already completed a one-year agricultural course at Cafre’s Enniskillen campus, but decided to change tack and go into butchery, completing a course at Portadown college.

“I would have worked in a couple of butcher’s shops as an apprentice learning the trade and then went to Cafre Loughry campus to do a HND in supply management – that gave me all the management background for retail,” Stephen explains.

“I  took a job as a butchery manager at a supermarket and then got the opportunity to open my own shop in Irvinestown 18 years ago.

“When I first started it was as a basic raw meat butcher – sausages, burgers, all that kind of stuff. But over the years I developed my own twist and tweak on many products and have a reputation for having a great range of products.

Competitive element

“I also entered a lot of butchery competitions, and over the years I won quite a few of those competitions for my burgers and sausages, including the steak element of the European Aberdeen Angus steak competition. So all that increased my knowledge.

“I think my farming background definitely contributed to the success of the business too – bringing our own animals through the shop, buying animals at the local mart, buying animals from even some of the customers as well.

“I would also have had people from the Newtownstewart area supplying me as well and I have loyal customers there that have always purchased from me. We have established that every Thursday is delivery day to Newtownstewart – we have a van who delivers there.

“So it started off as your very basic butchers, but over the years it developed and we started to do the Heat To Eat range which has expanded in recent years as people require convenient good quality food.

World champions

Stephen puts part of his success down to the knowledge he gained as a member of the winning Team Ireland that triumphed at the World Butcher Challenge in 2019.

“It was held at Titanic Belfast with butchers’ teams from all over the world and Team Ireland won.

“We put in a good two years, practically, training at that – the side of a cow, a pig, a lamb and chickens – and we had so many hours to prepare a table. It was an amazing event.

“Technically, we’re still the reigning champions, although it’s kicking off in Sacramento this September. That experience has been invaluable and it took things to a different level.”

Great Taste Awards

He’s also achieved a long list of wins in the Great Taste Awards over the years and received news of winning three awards in the latest Great Taste Awards just a week after launching the new shop in the bank building.

“I got two stars for fillet steak on the bone and one star for fillet steak and my ribeye burger . The results came out a week after I opened the new shop so the timing couldn’t have been better!”

The renovation of the building proved challenging, taking more than two years, but the results are spectacular.

“One of the first things was getting rid of the safes. There were two safe rooms and we needed machinery to lift them out, they were so heavy,” Stephen says.

“There’s a lovely safe at the front where people would have lodged money into the night safe. So we kept it as a feature and everybody notices it.

“Because we were going from an office to a retail space, everything had to be Building Control compliant, so there was a huge amount of work there, and then conforming with disability legislation as well – there were a lot of hoops to go through.”

Heritage building

Well known local historian Briege McCusker sourced a photo of how the main street in Irvinestown looked years ago.

“We managed to put it on the side of a chill, so whatever way it looks, it looks as if it’s 3D and as if youre looking down into the street in Irvinestown years ago,” Stephen says.

“The first couple of days it opened I couldn’t believe people’s response to it – particularly for older people in the town, it was really nostalgic.”

Stephen describes the look of the interior as traditional with a modern twist.

“Everything is white and grey and then the ceiling is a darker colour with really bright lights. One of the main features is the beautiful terrazzo floor and I have to say the amount of comments we’ve had on it is amazing.

“It’s kind of white but it’s brought in coppers and greys, so we haven‘t gone with any real colours as such – I just wanted to keep it black and white and grey with a splash of gold in the floor.”

History of banking

There are even plans for a memorabilia wall reflecting the history of the building – and featuring some of the Henri Hippo merchandise that many customers fondly remember.

Stephen says he is delighted with the space he has now and how much it will widen the scope of the business.

“The space is amazing. Before, we could only keep very limited bits of bakery items, whereas now we can have the full range of the local suppliers. We have Mallard Bakes, we have another guy who’s an artisan baker, Joe from Enniskillen who does sourdough,” he says.

“In addition we’ve now got the hot food and the cold food to take out, we didn’t have that before so we’re doing breakfasts from 8.30am and dinner from 11.30am – I have to say the dinners are going really well.

“And there’s a cold food counter doing toasties and that sort of thing. We can heat them up for you or you can bring them home yourself and heat them up in the evening.

Local provenance

“We’re also able to keep food-oriented gifts like shortbread. We’ve got Eringrove, who do the jams and chutneys down round Fermanagh, we have eggs from Sydare Eggs, we have Ballylisk cheese which is going down really well – and we’re hoping to just expand the cheese provision a bit further.

“The business is called Millar Meats and Fine Foods – we are stocking a full range of wonderful fine foods to enhance any dinner table offering.

“Another idea that we’re going to have in store, I hope, is for local businesses to come in once a month and do a pop-up shop. It may be just someone who’s starting out locally and wants to tell people about their product. We’re not charging them for it, just saying keep the staff supplied with buns! If they bring in customers, it’s a win-win situation hopefully for both.

“We’ve a full range of minerals, crisps, etc and our coffee machine – we went with a brand called Smokin Bean which is ethically oriented and promotes sustainability.”

Pandemic challenges

Not only was Stephen embroiled in the renovation of the building over the last couple of years but he also had to face all the challenges of the pandemic.

“We implemented closing the doors and only letting two customers in at one time, we were quick to put the perspex screens up and they stayed up until we moved shop. We had arrows on the floor and PPE for the staff and so on,” he says.

“Another thing was doing a local delivery service to folk, initially to  those who were shielding or those that were isolating, but very quickly there were two vans on the road at the time. “My brother helped out as well and my mum and sister-in-law –  they actually looked forward to their Tuesday delivery because it was an excuse to get out of the house and working.

“Nobody was really going to the supermarkets at that stage and people weren’t really going to Enniskillen – they were buying their food in Irvinestown.

“To meet the market and make it easier for people, we devised £25 or £50 meat packs – when people were ordering it was easier to order than saying ‘I need mince, I need burgers’, whereas these meat packs were just designed to make it easier for people.

Making life easier

“That’s what it’s all about now – making it easier for people – and that’s one of the elements of the business, all these meal solutions for people.

“Not just mince but meatballs in a sauce, or  not just a chicken fillet, but doing chicken in a Bushmills sauce or a mushroom sauce and putting it in a tin tray so that all a person has to do is put it in the oven and you still feel you’re cooking.

“We do a lot about it on social media, Facebook, Instagram and even TikTok – we know the branding is so important.

“We got a lovely photo and message on Instagram on Saturday evening from a visitor to the town saying that tehy had just had their best steak ever.”

Stephen has thanked the existing staff and the new staff who have come on board.

And he points out that the meat element is still a pivotal part of the business.

“Ultimately the core thing is still going to be the meat and we pride ourselves on the steaks and the dry ageing process,” he says.

To read the full feature in Neighbourhood Retailer magazine, click HERE.