Trade Secret: Inside Holywood greengrocer The Secret Market

Trade Secret: Inside Holywood greengrocer The Secret Market

From serving up fresh fruit and veg to celebrities and supplying banquet scenes in movies, Matt Montgomery celebrates the first anniversary of The Secret Market in Holywood.

Matt Montgomery (32) admits there was a time when he was saying ‘Never again’ when it came to retail – but this May he cracked open the Prosecco to celebrate his first year at The Secret Market in Holywood.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride getting there, with a few false starts along the way, he admits – but now he’s selling fresh produce to the likes of celebrity Yotam Ottolenghi and supplying Hollywood blockbusters with fruit and veg for their banquet scenes.

Born in Belfast, Matt moved to California at the age of one, then to Chicago at 10 and back to Belfast at 16, where he worked in nightclubs for a couple of years after leaving school.

There was no background of retail in his family, but Matt caught the greengrocer bug after covering shifts for a friend who worked in a shop in Holywood.

Catching the bug

“The guy that owned the shop said if you want any more work, let me know, and within a few weeks I was basically there full time and I stopped working in nightlife. I then had the opportunity to buy the shop a year and a half later which I took,” he says.

“So I had my first shop at Hills of Holywood on 5th May 2012 and I closed it in about 2016.

It was in Holywood but unfortunately at that time in 2016 there were roadworks and a regeneration project and it took about a year and a half to finish those. I unfortunately only lasted about eight months through it because footfall was depleted and people weren’t actually able to walk down the street because there were no footpaths.”

Matt admits he didn’t give up on the greengrocer dream too readily.

“I had one other shop which was actually The Secret Market as well but it was in the back of a deli and that was where the name came from. Oliver’s Deli on the Belmont Road was just opening and I just went to Peter who owns the shop with the idea.

“That unfortunately only lasted about six months – I went into that selling very obscure fruit, so a lot of dragonfruit and purple cauliflowers and just really exotic stuff. But it wasn’t what the market was looking for on the Belmont Road!”

Lockdown opportunity

After a stint selling cars, Matt went travelling in 2019, arriving home just as the world was starting to unravel with the Covid pandemic.

With the arrival of lockdown, he spotted an opportunity to supply takeaway businesses that were in need of fresh produce supplies.

“With a lot of companies furloughing their staff, any restaurants that wanted to stay open for takeaway couldn’t easily get produce. I did know how to get produce so I just bought a van and started doing deliveries to a couple of restaurants that were doing takeaway,” he says.

“Then we created a website and we were doing home delivery. So we had different fruit packages, vegetable packages, mixed packages and basically from the end of March until probably the end of that summer we were doing up to maybe 40 home deliveries a day – which was good for my sanity because I couldn’t have sat in the house that whole time.

“We just had a small social media platform from The Secret Market so I thought I’ll just use that and go on with it.”

Wholesale supply

While he was doing his deliveries, he was able to grow the amount of wholesale supply, he says.

“The wholesale side is something that we still do to this day and I’ve about 12 bars, golf clubs and restaurants that I supply,” he says.

Matt admits at one stage he swore he would never run another shop. But as the Covid restrictions were lifted, the home delivery side of the business started to wane and he started to reconsider.

“If you’re not doing a sizable amount, say 30 deliveries a day, it may not be cost effective for you to buy the stock.

“I thought if I’m going to continue in this line of work, what do I know how to do? I know how to open a shop so we’ll give it a try.

“One of the main drivers for that was that they had announced there would be no business rates for the calendar year 2021. So if there was ever a chance I was going to be trying to do this again, this was the time to pick, as having a year with no rates is a massive benefit.”

New premises

For his new shop, Matt chose a former hairdressers in Holywood’s High Street, next to Homebrew cafe.

“In the last three months the shop has really come into its own and we have very regular and very loyal customers. I could not be more thankful with how it is. Saturday was our first birthday, so at this stage I really could not ask for more and I really have been thankful at the response.”

Matt says that while they do stock some unusual fruits that you wouldn’t find elsewhere, they focus on the bread and butter items, staying local and within season where possible.

“So we have everything from carrots and potatoes and parsnips to standard root veg to things like samphire which is sea herbs,” he says. “We have some lovely fennel, ready to eat avocados and all the local salad which has just started. I’ve a really good organic farmer, a guy called Dave who runs a company called Picked Organic and he brings us in beautiful organic radishes, Tokyo turnips, lots of different stuff – it’s nice to create a relationship with these farmers and know that they can just bring in whatever they have because their product is so good and it just sells so well.

“We have a little box of stuff in the back that’s on the way out and we’ll offer it to customers – we hate waste essentially. In the shop itself we’re probably just over 80% non-plastic, we use paper bags in here but for some items it’s impossible to sell them not packaged.

Everything loose

“Everything that can be offered loose is offered loose – we either bunch it up or all the boxes are laid out and the customer can buy it loose. It’s very much appreciated by some of my older clientele who maybe live by themselves and don’t want to go into Tesco and buy a bag of carrots that has 20 carrots in it – that’s no good for them.

“The fact that they can come in and get two onions, one carrot and four potatoes for example is very much appreciated for them.”

One of the good things about the business is customers will often share their recipe recommendations for the produce, he says.

“The lovely thing about this shop is that we have a great community feel about us, with such regular customers that you gain a relationship with them.

“I do probably learn more from my customers than from anybody else – I’m very fortunate that we have Michelin star chefs coming in here!

“It’s such a mix of people who walk through this door, which is what I actually love about my job – you really don’t know who’s going to walk in in Holywood. I have good customers and they have good connections and they send them this way.”

Celebrity customers

Matt has even had a brush with a number of big names, both on the celebrity chef scene and the Hollywood scene, as he explains.

“We’ve had Yotam Ottolenghi in here – he has a house in Donaghadee so last year I had the pleasure of dealing with him quite a few times when he was down in the shop.

“I’ve had Game of Thrones actors in here, and two really big American directors producing the Dungeons and Dragons movie – John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein. Those guys did the Spiderman movie – they’re huge, huge names!

“Through that I’ve been able to get a lot of work supplying… obviously Belfast is just on fire with movie production and filming at the Titanic Studios and I’ve been able to get into a couple of production houses who then use me for any sort of fruit and veg scene.

“So I’m really keenly awaiting Dungeons and Dragons being released because we got to supply a lot of big carrots with the bunches of leaves on them, cabbages, just for all these banquet scenes.”

Anniversary party

Earlier this month saw The Secret Market celebrate its first anniversary with a bit of a party for customers.

“We had all-you-can-drink Prosecco all day, we had strawberries. We started from about 8am in the morning so it was a very long day for myself, having to work through that as well,” Matt laughs.

“I think the first 12 months in any business is probably the hardest and it was a pretty difficult period for any business, so it was really nice to get through that.

“I absolutely couldn’t have done it without the support of my parents. My father’s been a great help in here – he retired at the start of the pandemic and it’s been so nice to spend time with him in here. My mother would do anything I asked her to and my little brother helps out on a Saturday and is great with customers.

“For the next year my sights are just on keeping the head down. I said I was going to put in 100 hours a week until the first year is over but I don’t think there’s any chance of that slowing down! At the minute it’s just myself in here with my father helping me out in the mornings

“I have no plans to change the unit, or expand the size. I love my shop because it’s quite small and quaint and it’s exactly what I need it to be.

“I would like to expand the wholesale side of my business which I made a point of not doing in the first 12 months of the shop because I didn’t want to take on more than I was able to.

“But going forward it’s probably something that I will look to expand, once I get a bigger van. I was in a really bad car crash in September and then another van went on fire about two months ago when I was driving on the motorway so I want to get a more reliable and bigger van and start taking on a little more business when we’re happy we can deal with it.

“But I want to reiterate how thankful I am to all my customers – I really couldn’t be here without them and I hope they all appreciate the quality of the goods that they’re getting!”

To read the full feature, visit Neighbourhood Retailer HERE.