We are family: Apperleys launch 3 butchers’ shops since the start of lockdown
The Apperley siblings have launched three new butchers’ shops since the start of lockdown – and they aren’t ready to slow down just yet, as NR discovers.
A couple of months after the start of the first lockdown, the Apperleys launched their first butcher’s shop in Antrim, followed by another in Ballymoney in July 2020.
They then launched a third in Ballykeel, Ballymena in July 2021 – and now they’re eyeing a fourth in Limavady.
It may seem like rapid progression, but the family are well accustomed to launching new stores, having formerly worked to develop the McAtamneys Butchers chain of butchers and delis.
John Apperley took charge of McAtamneys in 2000, expanding the business from three shops to 13 while introducing a wide range of ready meals to the butcher’s trade, including well-known brands such as Bear’s Grill.
The food and retail business is in the blood, as he explains. Their great grandfather had Elliot’s butcher’s shop in Kilrea back in the early 1900s, while the Diamond Cafe in Kilrea belonged to their grand-parents Jack and Annie Apperley who passed it down to their father Barry who worked there for many years. Meanwhile Barry and his wife Georgina also ran the Bridgeway Cafe in Kilrea in the 1990s.
John started his career as a butcher with McAtamneys in 1988, joined by his brothers Paul (aka Bear) and Colin a few years later, while their sister Anne joined them in 2012 when they developed a range of ready meals.
“I took up the butchery at 14. I worked at McAtamneys in Kilrea during school and then when I left school that’s where I started. I was in McAtamneys for about 30 years,” John says.
“I started as an apprentice and worked my way up and in 1998 I took over a butcher’s shop in Garvagh myself, in partnership with McAtamneys. So that was the start of it and I just grew the business from there.”
Over the years John opened 10 shops with McAtamneys, as he explains.
“When I started the butchery, it was pretty basic – red meat, lamb and pork, but it has changed over the years. Then people started looking for ready meals, so in 2012 I set up a wee factory doing ready meals, which is still a big part of the business. Convenience shopping seems to be the way things are now.
“I expanded the business over the years and opened 10 high street stores, won a contract to supply Musgrave Stores and took the sales from £2m to £23m in my time there.”
In recent years, John parted ways with McAtamneys and decided to strike out on his own, launching Apperleys as a business in 2020.
“Driving through Ballymoney, I noticed a large retail premises for sale in the town centre. I enquired and checked it out – it was a massive old building full of character, but in need of modernisation and repair works,” he says.
“I thought this would be a good project for me as I love taking broken things and making them new, taking on struggling shops and making them work – that’s what I love doing and that’s what I’ve done all my life.
“I bought the building and opened up a deli and sandwich bar which was an immediate success, under my own name Apperleys.
“The project is currently ongoing with phase 2 of the shop underway. This will be a massive butchers/ deli, bakery, food hall – due to be opened by the autumn.
“I also supply a selection of local shops and supermarkets with our range of pre pack meats and ready meals. Our ready meals are made from scratch in our Ballymoney store. We use only the finest ingredients and have taken the quality to a new level.
“I also supply some local hotels and restaurants. We bone our own beef in a recently acquired DAERA approved meat factory located just outside Coleraine.
“I hand pick the beef to ensure only the best gets to the customers. I am very fussy on the beef coming into the factory. The new factory is a great addition to the business, giving us the capacity to bone up to 100 quarters of beef.
“We are also able to dry age the beef – you can see and purchase some of our dry aged beef in our shops as all shops have dry aged cabinets in store and the new shops in Ballymoney and Limavady will have these as well.
Whilst getting on with Ballymoney, an opportunity came up to take on an existing butcher’s shop in Antrim.
“I agreed and have just finished an extension to the shop. This shop has been a great success with customers travelling far and wide to this shop, and ample parking at the front is a big plus for this store,” John says.
This store was the first Apperley’s butchers actually to open, launching in May 2020, not long after the start of the first lockdown.
“It was an unknown at the time – it was really hard to know what was ahead, but you had to deal with it as it came. With lockdown and so on, you had to adapt and go with it,” John says.
“It was challenging enough. But people still had to eat and the food thing kept going through the pandemic. It wasn’t the worst hit business and I was allowed to keep open which was good.
“The shop in Antrim was a small butcher’s shop which was already trading – previously Crosskeys Meats. I just took it over and carried out a small refurbishment. There was nothing done for about a year and then I took over the unit next door and knocked the two into one new larger store – it’s a bigger butcher’s shop with a range of our own ready meals, fresh meat, pre-packaged meats, fresh vegetables, our homemade bakery products and a range of goods from local suppliers.”
Queues of customers
Trade was really good in the early stages, despite lockdown, and there were regular queues forming outside, especially at weekends at a time when restaurants were closed.
“We did a lot of home deliveries. That was busy during the pandemic but I know that that has nearly – not to say stopped but it has fizzled out, with people back out shopping again,” John says.
“We just kept it simple with telephone orders. [An app] is something we’ll maybe look at again but as I say, having a shop, I prefer people to come into the shop. People were glad to get out and about again after the restrictions were lifted.”
The next big landmark was the launch of a further shop in Ballykeel in Ballymena.
Out of town
“In 2021 I was approached to take on an existing butcher’s shop in Ballykeel, Ballymena. This is an unusual one for me as it’s out of town, but I liked it as parking is now vital for customers,” John says.
“It’s just up from Tesco so the location is good and with lots of free parking this has also been a huge success.”
While work is still ongoing in the Ballymoney premises, the family are now employing around 50 people across the three sites.
“We’re always chopping and changing what we’re offering, but as I say, convenience foods, ready meals, healthy meals – sales are very strong in those areas at the minute,” John says. “We have our set menus – Irish stews, cottage pies, lasagne, soups and stews are always popular. Then we also add in different meals, different suggestions from time to time – we just change it according to the seasons.
“At the minute we’re bringing in a lot of barbecue lines and summer lines. And then that will change come the winter – we’ll put on some winter dishes again, a lot of bakes and stuff like that. Salads are very popular at the minute – coleslaws and that kind of thing.”
The family are working on completing the butchery food hall at the Ballymoney store at the moment, due to open later this year – and then it’s onto the fourth store.
“We’ve plans to open in Limavady as well. We’ve premises there on the main street, so that will be a butchers and deli as well,” John says.
“That will leave us with four shops and probably about 60 staff.”
He admits the business is finding some items are harder to source at the minute and prices are rising, due to the recent supply chain and inflation issues hitting the sector.
“It’s been a big concern probably over the last three or four months. Supply is difficult to get and prices are increasing – it’s deadly and there’s maybe not much end in sight yet,” John says.
“People are getting things tight and don’t have much spare cash. We’re trying to keep the prices as competitive as possible but it’s difficult now at the minute. Unfortunately you have to raise prices just to stay afloat – energy costs and fuel are the biggest problems at the minute and are having a big impact.
“We try to source locally as much as possible, so we use Omagh Meats, part of Foyle Food Group and Hewitt meats for our beef. The pork is sourced locally from Galgorm Meats. It’s all about quality and service, a good quality product and a good service.
“Customer service is very important nowadays – a lot of that personal touch has gone in retail. So we are training our staff up to look after the customers – I think that’s very important.
“We’ve wee recipe cards there and the staff would be well trained to answer any cooking queries the customers have.
“People are probably starting to do a bit more cooking at home now with the price increases but they’re watching what they’re spending too. They’ve started to ask for cheaper things again, even just cheaper things like mince, sausages and burgers, trying to make a pound spread a bit further.”
Looking to future
John says that going forward , they don’t intend to trade as many as 13 stores again.
“I do still enjoy what I do. I do intend to have six good stores in a wider spread than I did before,” he says.
“This year will see completion of our Ballymoney store and also a return to Limavady. As for 2023, who knows? I have some plans to go again but let’s see what happens.
“Every cloud has a silver lining and that’s very true for Apperleys. It’s been an enjoyable journey so far with lots more to come,” John says.