Co Down entrepreneur's ice cream 'boutiques' going down a treat on the high street
This week, we talk to the owner of two flourishing dessert cafes who revealed his plans for expansion as a new player arrives on the homemade spirits scene
Co Down couple Michael Nugent and Caitriona Doherty are whipping up sweet success with their second "ice cream boutique".
And they plan to scoop up even more business with a chain of dessert cafes, north and south.
The pair have just opened a new branch of Nugelato in Newry town centre. Queues of families and teenagers are now a familiar site outside the cafe on aptly-named Sugar Island.
"It's been a phenomenal first few weeks in Newry, the customer response really bowled us over," said Michael (32). "We started out with four staff and immediately had to start hiring more people.
"We've now got 25 staff, full and part-time, and we're still struggling to cope at peak times. On busy days, the shop is serving up to 1,000 customers.
"The Newry business community has been very welcoming. There's a brilliant Chamber of Commerce and the businesses really support each other. The city has a very vibrant atmosphere and I think it has huge potential."
The new shop comes less than a year after the opening of Michael's first Nugelato outlet on Newcastle promenade last summer, next door to his juice bar, Sucos, which opened five years ago.
"This has been our strongest year to date in Sucos and we're thinking of opening a branch in Newry, too," said Michael.
Between the three outlets, Michael is employing 52 people and spends his days driving back and forth over the Mournes to keep an eye on his growing empire.
"We've had a very successful summer, it's been massively busy in both Newcastle and Newry," he said.
"It's a very strong business and I believe we can grow significantly, with potential for more outlets. We hope to open five more shops over the next three years.
"We're looking at opening one in Belfast, as well as moving south into the Republic, perhaps into Dublin. The Newry shop attracts a lot of cross border business, with many customers coming up from Louth and Monaghan.
"Initially, I was concerned about the Brexit result and how it would impact on cross border business in the longer term. But I believe that it won't affect our ability to trade in the south. And the drop in the value of sterling has certainly helped to attract custom from across the border."
Michael, whose family have been making ice cream for 85 years, is even considering an outlet on the North Coast - deep in enemy territory dominated by the Morelli family's well-known brand.
"I think Nugelato could do well almost anywhere," said Michael. "We put a lot of thought, planning and effort into the design of the shops, and customers really like them.
"Ice cream is a hugely popular treat and there's a lot of competition in the market, but if you give people great quality and an experience that's different from other places, they will keep coming back."
Nugelato's ice cream is manufactured at the Nugent family's Strand cafe on Newcastle seafront, which is run by Michael's parents, Mary and Michael senior.
"I couldn't have done this without my parents, they've got so much great business experience in the ice cream trade and I've learned a lot from them," said Michael.
"They really encouraged me to expand and it's paid off. Dad is always in the shops in Newcastle and Newry, helping out and keeping me right. He gets a great buzz out of it."
The other important person in Michael's life is fiancee Caitriona (29), who works as a barrister in Dublin, dashing away from court to drive north for a busy shift serving ice cream in Newry or Newcastle.
"Our wedding is booked for New Year's Eve this year in Donegal and there's hardly been a moment to plan it," said Michael.
"All we ever think or talk about is ice cream, so we're looking forward to the wedding to get a break from it."