Taking the plunge: Dunman Centra’s first year in business
Despite having no background in retail, the Conway brothers got their first convenience store at Dunman Centra up and running during the pandemic – and are now celebrating their first anniversary.
While the rest of us were making banana bread, growing interesting facial hair or making over our gardens during the first Covid lockdown, the Conway brothers were building their first convenience store at Dunman outside Cookstown.
It’s now a year since Peter, Daniel and Declan Conway opened the filling station on April 20 2021 and the business is going from strength to strength.
The brothers have a background in building and renovating property as well as the family business in amusement arcades, so retail was quite a jump, as Peter explains.
Taking the plunge
“It originally took us about three years to get the shop together, in terms of we had 18 months of planning – the build was quite quick on the shop and we took the plunge to do something that was quite a bit bigger than we’d anticipated it to be,” he says.
“It’s our first foray into retail, it’s literally the first thing we’ve done on it. It’s been a learning curve over the year but we do think we’re finally getting our head round it and understanding what way things work.
“But definitely the likes of taking on Musgrave for the Centra brand has been a big help. They had their team in for the first few months, I would almost say babysitting – guiding you into what you’re doing, helping you to understand the processes of your ordering and what way to set the shop up. They give you a lot of assistance, they check in with you and it’s in both our interests that the shop does well, so they keep in close contact with you, which helps.”
The site itself had been in the family for around 15 years and had previously held a smaller filling station which was rented out. After that, it became offices for the family business, but the brothers felt it was perfectly located for a larger filling station.
“It’s on the main dual carriageway leaving Cookstown – it’s the main road that you have to go on to get to the M2 from Cookstown. It’s got its own community there in terms of a few houses about it in the Dunman area and people from the village of Lissan use the shop .
“We’ve got the Dale Farm cheese factory across the way as well so a lot of their staff use it as well. There isn’t any other petrol station on that actual road itself so it’s an ideal location.
“We thought to ourself it has to be a good location so thankfully it’s starting to prove to be the case – otherwise we’d be very worried men right now!”
By early 2020, planning permission had already been secured for the project and the brothers had already priced builders – but the arrival of the pandemic changed everything and they found themselves taking on a much more hands-on approach.
“Money would have been a bit tighter, so we were saying ‘we’re not afraid of the project, we know exactly what we have to do, so we’ll organise certain tradesmen to do certain things and we’ll do a large bulk of it ourselves’,” Peter says.
“It was a major jump in terms of what we’d done before but we weren’t scared of the idea of the project – we just thought we’d take it on anyway and build it ourselves.”
Luckily they already had experience of renovating properties, which stood them in good stead as their other businesses in the amusement arcade sector were affected by the Covid restrictions.
“We had to make a few decisions and do things ourselves to cut out levels of cost so it made the build a lot tighter than we’d have liked to have been – a few things where we would have liked to have done a bit differently and spend a bit more money on. But at the time it was either wait about for another couple of years and then get a contractor in, or do it ourselves,” Peter says.
“With the pandemic you didn’t know how long it was going to be on, but retailer shops were the last thing that was going to be closed. So for us as a family if we had some kind of income and business going it was like ‘ok well, let’s push ahead and get this thing going’ because it was something we could actually do. At that stage it was a guaranteed business that wouldn’t close down.
“We did spend a lot of time on it which probably helped us get it done quicker. The build took just short of a year, from the site start I would say it was around 11 months. But there wasn’t much socially to do outside of Covid at that time, so we would go to work!”
The building now consists of upstairs office space and a retail area below with a high emphasis on deli, which was a key part of their vision for the site.
“That’s partly why we picked Musgrave – they have a high emphasis on deli and have good teams in terms of setting your deli up right. We’ve put in a pressure fryer for pressure fried chicken which means your chicken is cooked from scratch every day with the coating we use on it,” Peter says.
“And then we’ve got our Green Kitchen which is a chopped salad type of idea and then we’ve got our full sandwich counter as well. We’ve got the grocery essentials so while there is an element of grocery in it, we know that the key things we need to make it work are ice cream, coffee and deli and everything else we build in round it.
“But people from the area are starting to use it as a grocery shop and we have fresh fruit and veg, household items, dog food, cat food, all your essentials and a seating area as well.
“Also, the partnership we entered with Nugelato and its owner Michael Nugent we feel was a great coup for the area. They are an award winning ice cream boutique who are renowned in Northern Ireland for the quality of their ice cream and have 31.2k Instagram followers, 67.8k Facebook likes and 90.4k Tik Tok followers.”
Access for lorries
The forecourt itself is a Go branded station which is designed to offer easier access for lorries.
“We have a separate lorry access so that they find it a lot easier to drive round the forecourt, rather than actually interacting with cars and traffic. So it’s lorry accessible and there’s a designated lorry pump that takes all the necessary fuel cards,” Peter says.
“It’s a Go forecourt so it’s a very well branded forecourt – they do a good job, they’re a reputable company in terms of quality of fuel so that’s a no-brainer for us, and they’re local guys as well.
“We’ve no charging at the minute because we don’t have the capacity in the grid for it, but it’s something that we will look into in future. It’s something we need to talk to NIE about to see whether they’ve got capacity.”
Peter says the new store was very well received when it launched in April last year.
“It was a hectic first week – everyone was curious to see what was going on and the curiosity has now turned into a solid customer base. Sales are growing and growing and people are getting used to the site and what it offers,” he says.
“The local community are delighted that they have a shop to come to and don’t have to go back and forth into Cookstown, so it suits them for sure.
“Realistically people come in with that curiosity to see what’s going on but that levelled off after the first couple of months and now we’re at the point where sales are growing and growing again as people get used to what we offer.
“On the site itself in terms of progression, we’d probably like to grow sales by offering a night-time offer of food in terms of bringing a bit more sales through the door. Our ice cream brings great numbers through the door later on at night.
Night time offer
“With a night-time offer we would have maximised what we can physically do on the site, so then as a family we would look for other opportunities outside of that, more shops to go onto and take it from there.
“We’re young and hungry sort of guys, we’re not worn down too much by it yet and we want to get on with our lives and do the best we can out of it!”
Peter pays tribute to all the support they have received in getting the shop up and running.
“We’re humbled by the support of our extended family that have helped us very much. We have aunties that would come in and clean at night if we need a hand or things are busy and even our uncles do bits and pieces, helping us out round the place as well,” he says.
“Even the staff themselves have been great. We’ve found we’ve kept a lot of the staff – normally whenever you hire at the start you seem to lose a lot of your staff, but we’ve kept a large part of our core team. They’ve been great in terms of making it seamless and smooth and keeping things running well, so we’re grateful for the staff that have stuck with us on the whole journey.”
To read the full feature in Neighbourhood Retailer, click HERE.