Sonas – the unique grocer offering a special community space

Sonas – the unique grocer offering a special community space
A unique venture in Lisburn is aiming to create a shopping experience with a difference, with sustainability at its core and reminding consumers about the heritage of their place.

Choosing Sonas as their name – the Irish for happiness – there was a certain serendipity that the specialist food shop opened in December 2023 just in time for the busy Christmas season, when people are full of festive cheer.

Indeed, the name has a layered meaning, as the co-operative business wants to be a community resource, available to the community in the widest sense.

One of the shop’s founders, Julie Hoey told NR that the venture is unique to Lisburn, with Sonas incorporating a grocer, café and community space.

“There is a sense of community about what it is we are doing. What was important to us was that we had chosen the right site and right in the heart of Lisburn,” said Julie.

“It’s a very busy part of the town, and there is also a great heritage about that space and that is something we want to reclaim as well as how we do commerce in Lisburn.

“It was also important to us that we looked after the building well. We got grant funding to do the outside of the building and restored it to what it was like back in 1910.”

As well as business planning and market research, the co-operative of three directors established ‘Team Sonas’, a group of 80 people who are their cheerleaders and who have also helped them as volunteers in the shop.

Selling high quality food stuffs not available elsewhere, their suppliers include Ballydown Milk, whose Greek style yoghurt is available in-store; Suki Tea, Miniml Refills; Best Greek Olive Oil; flowers from Mrs Bloom and Moocha Kombucha to name a few.


“It’s important to offer these things to customers and it’s also important for businesspeople, including female entrepreneurs,” explained Julie.

“People come from far and near to buy from us and that has been brilliant. We have lots of laundry and household cleaning products and we have tea, coffee and snacks for the weekend. Most of our ranges are affordable and those that are more expensive are so for important reasons, eg. they are handmade.

“We sell quite a lot of things that are priced lower than the supermarkets. We are not in competition with them. We are really keen to try to offer organic and local fresh fruit and veg, although that is quite challenging. We are in talks with someone who already serves customers here and we are thinking about how we can do that well.

“We are also interested in locally grown and customers who grown their own veg can bring us in their excess and can barter a price with us.

“We are trying to do new things with food. As a nation, we have to get used to spending more on food, but that is hard as we are so used to getting food cheap for so long and it’s hard to break free of that. We try to be joyful about it and not make people feel guilty or bad and there should be more joy around food.”

Julie explained they are keen to connect with people who are really interested in what they are doing at Sonas, including ditching plastic, buying local and organic food and buying what they need.

“We have got a few hundred lines of refill goods in store, from speedicook oats, to pasta, rice, flour, seeds and nuts to name a few. The response has been good to this.

“We get all sorts of customers, those who want to buy organic, those who want to save money, and lots of people who live in single people or couple homes who want to buy smaller amounts of what they need.

“There is no-one else offering what we do. We are still lucky in Lisburn that we have fruit and veg shops, but we are the only one to sell goji berries, pine nuts and pasta without the packaging. “It also allows people to buy their shopping in a way that is much more visceral and you are closer to the food.”

With aims to encourage people to consider shopping in this way, Sonas plans to run a promotion which will allow people to take in three containers and they will show them how to use the shop to their benefit, and will offer a loyalty scheme thus encouraging shoppers to return.

“It is unrealistic to ask people to convert totally to this way of shopping,” added Julie.

“We do need to get things in the usual shops, but if you want to be the change you want to see then it’s important to offer people that opportunity. Also, for younger people who are concerned about how we are using the earth’s resources, they can see efforts being made.

“We are also close to the South Eastern Regional College (SERC) Lisburn campus and there are lots of student chefs who need lovely ingredients but do not have the money. So, we give them the chance to get those ingredients in an affordable way.”

Julie with some cafe customers at Sonas

In the café, food is made from scratch, with items used that they have at home in their kitchens, aiming to use good quality produce and offer a friendly service.

“What we have realised is that the café is hugely important to getting people to come in and see what we’re about,” said Julie. “People come into a café quicker than they go into a shop, so it’s been a good way of letting people try things out.

“It has given people time to see what we are about and what matters to us and that has been a really powerful way to shop with us.”

One of the core elements of Sonas is the social and community aspect, with spaces provided for people to chat to new people or catch up with old friends, and for the team at Sonas it is critical for all their customers to feel valued.

“It has become more and more noticeable that people want some time with other people, even though they are also kind of nervous about that,” said Julie.

“We have one larger table in the café that is an unofficial ‘chatty table’ and gives people the chance to be part of a situation where they can get to know people and find out more about how people tick round here and meet people.

“We know people come to us because they know we are patient and kind. We do not offer a fast service, we offer personal service and customer-focused service and that takes time.

“One of the things we know is that people have got very used to shopping online, it is very convenient but it’s also very solitary. We are trying to make shopping more like a social event again while also giving people the opportunity to meet food producers.”

With plans to offer a late-night shopping evening, as well as events such as games nights, Sonas is keen to create a lively vibe in Lisburn city. A few events are already held in the facility and the shop area can also be hired out for private events. A number of groups use the venue, including a craft club and Lisburn Outlook, a social group for blind and partially-sighted people and their friends.

Julie, who has been part of the Chamber of Commerce for many years, is keen to welcome traders into the space, with plans to host an event for traders on Tuesday mornings.

“We want to do well by Lisburn and we want it to start believing in itself again. We are really excited with all these events,” said Julie.

Working as a co-operative business has a bearing on how they do business, and while there was a long gestation period before they opened, the three directors are keen to expand that and are currently exploring this with a few others.

“It’s about purpose and creating profit for purpose,” said Julie. We are in this to do a good job, to create sustainable employment and create something unique and different for Lisburn.

“Do I think this type of shopping is for everyone? No, but I do think it operates as a reminder to show people there are different ways of shopping, different ways to use food and it’s about the employment we create.

“Come and spend a fiver a week with us and you will make a huge difference to us and to the local producers also. I am always hopeful for change, but whatever our future is, we have created local sustainable employment and offered a shop that gives access to people who did not have that access before.

“It’s a really good opportunity to do something. We can stand at the sidelines and moan about it or we can do something about it, so that’s what we’ve decided to do. I think it’s really important and we will achieve something positive from it.”