Drive through the right part of rural County Down and one award-winning convenience store will be able to serve you a delicious chef-made roast dinner. Helen Lock speaks to the man behind this unique business.
Since expanding in 2014, Milestone Rathfriland supermarket and service station has made developing an extensive range of homemade hot food produced on-site its number one priority. So much so that customers come for miles around to take advantage of its quality food-to-go range as well as pick up regular groceries.
Catering to a local population of just 2,500, store manager Noel Hadden says it has always been important for the business to pull in customers from a 10-15 mile radius. So, when the site underwent a major refit and extension, doubling in size from 7,000sq ft to 15,000sq ft, a focus was placed upon expanding the bakery, deli counter and kitchen.
Established 26 years ago, the store – now part of the Nisa Extra fascia – retains a strong a community feel, which has won it both local affection and a host of awards, including Nisa’s UK Larger Store of the Year accolade last month.
Yet it is the food to go side of the business that has become central to Milestone Rathfriland’s offer. “We make 700 products on-site in total,” says Noel. “We started concentrating on this because the products we made ourselves were seeing double-digit sales growth.”
While the store had always had a bakery and a hot food counter, it had previously represented a smaller part of the business when compared to sales of fuel and the store’s convenience range. But seeing its growing success led to a rethink of the business – in time for the latest investment.
So the new business now boasts an epic 50 metres of counter space including buffet-style food, hot meals and salads. A specialist butchery counter serves fresh meat and there is an ice cream parlour in the centre of the store, selling store-made ice cream.
“It’s the easy food-to-go meals which have a home-made quality rather than pre-packed ready-meals that are really popular”
The effect has been to turn the business into a local attraction customers are happy to travel to.
“Shoppers are coming to us from towns where there might be a Tesco or an Asda and so they choose to come here,” says Noel, adding: “They love the food, that’s why. It is restaurant quality food-to-go meals rather than pre-packed ready-meals.”
“The bakery is now 6% of our business and the deli is 25%,” he says. “On a Sunday we’ll sell nearly 500 roast dinners – no one cooks around here anymore, it seems.”
Other bestsellers include ready-made curries and pasta dishes and meat from a carvery. And Noel says producing food on-site has other benefits too, boosting premium wine sales (one popular wine is priced £15.99).
Yet, despite the success of roasts and curries and the benefits they bring to alcohol sales, Milestone Rathfriland aims to help customers live well too.
“We are quite keen on health and fitness, the deli does a healthy-eating range that meets Slimming World’s Syn-free standards. We are also running a healthy-eating week this month to promote our gluten-free, free-from and protein ranges.” Noel hopes the healthy eating week will bring customers in and will draw their attention to those options. The store will also be hosting a demonstration on how to make good smoothies from fruit and vegetables as part of the event which they’ve promoted on social media.
Later in the year the business will again highlight a commitment to healthy living: “In August a 10k run starts and ends at the store. It creates a gathering around the store – it’s a really good day,” he says.
Concentrating on what makes the store different has helped this already-successful business transform itself into a local landmark that can easily peel away trade from retail behemoths such as Tesco.
“Having a made-from-scratch bakery and using good local suppliers – USPs like this – is really important. It helps you compete with the major supermarkets.”
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