Two Sisters – a deli with a difference in East Belfast – everything ‘made in NI’
Deli with a difference – Artisan food and crafts – all from Northern Ireland
If ‘shop local’ is the mantra of the moment, then a little hidden treasure in East Belfast really is walking the talk. It’s been quite the journey for enterprising owner Victoria Nicol – in fact, it’s certainly been a long and winding road that took her to the door of 173 Ardenlee Avenue in East Belfast.
Victoria Nicol opened the doors of Two Sisters in January 2020. We all know what happened next – Covid. Just over a year later, Victoria has completed an extension – allowing for extra space and more product lines.
Her enthusiasm is infectious. She clearly has the necessary drive, ambition and imagination to make Two Sisters into not just a beautiful artisanal store, but a brand name just bursting with potential!
The Two Sisters in question are Victoria’s daughters, ten year old Freya and seven year old Erin. Clearly, her whole life revolves around her children, so what better way to blend the two than to make the business all about them.
Victoria explained to NR how it all came to be.
“I worked for ten years in professional services in London – Ernst & Young and then Deloitte – then along came Freya, and Erin three years later. I was a management consultant, working on large scale programmes which took me away from home for large parts of my time. It wasn’t sustainable when Freya came along to keep working at that pace” explained Victoria.
“I was living in Wimbledon in South West London, where there were a lot of career women like myself trying to juggle everything. The cost of childcare in London meant it wasn’t worthwhile for many – so I set up a small business called ‘Mums On the Go’ – promoting local independent businesses that offered child-friendly facilities – to help raise the profile of these businesses whilst helping mums know where to go to shop and socialise with like-minded people in a baby-friendly space.”
As Victoria explained to NR, that business took off and she found herself organising a host of local events including a Summer Fair in Wimbledon town centre with a range of food and craft stalls.
“I’d always been a bit of a foodie and having held the Summer Fair I spotted an opportunity to establish a regular outdoor food market in the town centre. However, having researched the London market scene I discovered that a lot of the established markets weren’t really selling local produce or offering opportunities to local traders. I wanted to be genuinely promoting small, local food producers – to make it a truly local food and crafts market. I pitched my idea to the leader of Merton Council, Stephen Alambritis and asked for their support in terms of providing free parking permits for my traders and took out a loan to buy 30 market stalls.
Within a year, I had 600 traders on the books – all able to prove that they were local. As well as holding a regular market in Wimbledon I started doing pop-up markets around London in places like Canary Wharf and Regents Wharf for the next three years.
“Alongside the markets, I began getting a lot of freelance marketing work and set up a small agency, Red Brick Creative – a nod to the bricks with which so much of my hometown of Belfast is built. I was able to offer employment opportunities to other local mothers – graphic designers, PR executives, copywriters and photographers – with the benefit of allowing them to balance work around their childcare commitments.
“Through my work in the local community I was asked to join the Board of Directors of Merton Chamber of Commerce, and in 2016 was elected as the youngest and first female Chairperson in its history. It was such good experience for me – working with entrepreneurs and supporting other business people in the community.
However, as both my businesses grew and my commitments to the Chamber increased, I realised I couldn’t juggle it all. Erin was born in 2013, I had 30 market stalls, a marketing agency, a high profile role in the community – and on my birthday in December 2014 I received the devastating news that a routine smear had found cancer cells.
About a year and a half after Freya was born I had been diagnosed with post-natal depression – up until then I had put it down to the strain of juggling new motherhood with my new found career. It is a subject I am very open about as it affects so many women. I knew that if I was going to overcome my health challenges I needed to be in the strongest mental and physical state possible so I entered the Belfast Marathon which was taking place in May 2015. I had never run further than to catch a bus but looking back it was the goal and distraction I needed to get through the coming months. I made it to the finish line albeit physically broken but with a massive sense of achievement nonetheless.
The challenges weren’t quite over. At the end of 2015 my husband and I made the difficult decision to seek a divorce. The prospect of being a self-employed, single mother in London with no family nearby was a daunting one. My mum suggested moving back to Northern Ireland – which had changed massively in the 18 years I’d been away. But it was the best decision for my daughters and so, I sold both businesses and moved home.”
Growing artisan community
“I got a job as a director at a PR agency in Belfast. One of their clients was Tourism NI – so I was promoting the build up to The Open Championship and doing a lot of work travelling around Northern Ireland. Although it was slightly behind the London curve – I realised there was a growing artisan food community. Then I received an opportunity to join a new local company, Veriteer who specialised in customer experience consultancy. One of its clients was a large supermarket chain. I learned a lot about how supermarkets manage the customer experience – but somewhere inside, I wasn’t ready to let go of the love I’d developed for artisan products and local producers.”
As the saying goes, ‘out of the mouths of babes comes great wisdom’. One day, Freya said to Victoria ‘Mum you were happier when you worked for yourself.’
“I knew she was right. A taxi unit at the end of our road became available – I took on the lease and opened on the 11th January 2020.
Made in Northern Ireland
“The USP* was that everything sold in the shop would be made in Northern Ireland. I wanted it to be the first authentically local deli – but I didn’t know if that would work. I got a loan from Invest NI through their Go For It programme. As a single mum, I had to make this work.”
What happened next? A pandemic, that’s what.
“Within eight weeks of trading Covid happened. We were allowed to stay open as an essential retailer, and my girls were able to go to key worker school.
“At the start I was literally sending out my stock list as a word document attached to emails and managing the ordering process manually. Then one of my ex-colleagues at Veriteer offered to create an online shop for me and overnight we were getting in excess of forty online orders a day. However, it was just me in the business. I hadn’t yet had the chance to develop an online offering with the necessary logistics under-pinning this. So I was doing it all – running the shop and then spending my evenings delivering – from Cregagh to Cushendall and everywhere in between. At the same time, I was getting all sorts of random requests – hampers, corporate gifts, small wedding catering. It was a massive learning curve – but the business really took off.”
Dead Good Opportunity
Then a chance to expand next door came along. “The unit next door became available. It had been used as storage for coffins by a local undertaker but now they were giving up the lease.”
So Victoria ‘undertook’ the lease. This was October 2020, and with Covid still raging, there wasn’t much she could do with it last year – but she really needed more space for the growing business.
“I knew I had to cover the costs of the new unit so we started selling locally grown Christmas trees from Finnegan’s Farm. I thought we might sell about a dozen but we sold over sixty. Then we realised people wanted them delivered – my partner at the time brought his van in the evenings to help me make the deliveries.
“It had been a hellish year and the run up to Christmas was extremely pressured with a surge in demand from people shopping locally for their presents and food.”
All hands on deck
“I was making so many Christmas hampers as corporate gifts – at one stage I was making up 200 hampers for one corporate customer with my mum, Freya and Erin all helping. After Christmas I knew I had to get some proper work started on the extension plans – but what did people want? I had a gut feeling but my friend Brian, an experienced business consultant, did some market research for me to back it up.
“Our customers are loyal and engaged – they are really part of the business. Listening to what they wanted from our shop would be key to our future success.”
When her partner died tragically in February 2021, Victoria was devastated but her eldest daughter said ‘Mum you’ve got to get this extension done – it’s what he would have wanted.’
So, she persevered through death, divorce and ill health.
“I don’t know how I did it with everything else I had on at the time but I did – I’ve got through a lot of challenges, so I’m also very supportive of anyone setting up in business.
“I also love to have my daughters involved. If I want an honest opinion I ask the two sisters. For example, I try out samples with them and ask for their views. They are pro-actively involved in the business – it’s their inheritance after all. Maybe they’ll want to do something else, but they know that I’m doing all of this for them – even my seven year old knows how to work the till!”
The extension was all finished up on Wednesday 12th May – with a few bits and bobs still needing tidied up.
New deli counter
“It gives us so much more space and feedback from customers and suppliers has been great. We have added a lovely deli counter and local suppliers Tom & Ollie have been fantastic. We can stock more local products – and of course, our Two Sisters coffee brand has really taken off.
“The coffee is roasted locally and we have already started selling it in to other deli shops. We are especially proud to be sourcing coffee beans grown by a network of female growers in Columbia who have transformed a derelict coffee estate and are producing incredibly high quality coffee. The coffee industry is very much male dominated and it makes me extremely proud to be able to support other females like myself across the world.
“I take a lot of pride in selecting products with a story. I work closely with local suppliers – that is the ethos. I will go out of my way to select a local supplier or small company just starting out.
Olive Tree Bakes
“For example, Olive Tree Bakes in Bangor opened in lockdown last March. The baker sent us some samples and their commitment to quality and customer service is outstanding. What gives me great joy is being able to work together with businesses like them to grow their product offering.”
Two Sisters Brand
The Two Sisters brand range is also something Victoria is planning to expand – alongside the Two Sisters coffee, Victoria now has her own range of candles – which are hand poured just a few streets away.
Growing the Two Sisters brand bit-by-bit is Victoria’s strategy – establishing the brand as high quality, locally made, home-grown products. NR wishes Victoria and the Two Sisters all the best with the new extension and building the brand into another real and meaningful Northern Ireland success story.
*Unique selling proposition in marketing terminology