Belfast Telegraph

Meet two women enjoying their labour of love

Lisa Smyth talks to Sandra McDowell, who’s recently opened The Dairy in Gleno, and to Caroline O’Neill, owner of Digg Childrenswear in Dungannon

Sandra McDowell, owner of The Dairy, in Gleno
Sandra McDowell, owner of The Dairy, in Gleno

The Dairy in Gleno has only been open a matter of months - but it's steeped in history.

The farm shop and tea room, located in the hills above Larne, has been constructed on the site of a dairy that first opened its doors more than a decade ago.

And in a nod to its roots, none of the original building has gone to waste.

The timber beams, bricks and even the conveyor belt and scales from the old building have all been incorporated into the brand new farm shop.

Opened by Sandra and Robert McDowell in April, it has been a true labour of love.

The original building dates back to 1914, when a co-operative creamery was founded to market fairly the produce of the local community.

In 1933, the Gleno Dairy Produce Company Ltd was established at the site and among the board of directors was James McDowell, whose family continue to be associated with business and commerce in the area over the generations to the present day.

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And so, the location was perfect for 53-year-old Sandra when she made the decision to fulfil her ambition to open up a coffee shop.

She explained: "We own Dairyside Stores, which was established more than 60 years ago by Alex and Agnes McDowell.

"It started out with them going around in a wee van to local farms and progressed from there.

"The business is at our house and you opened the kitchen door straight out into the shop.

"For years I would be cooking the dinner and people would think it was a coffee shop and they would walk straight into the kitchen.

"The idea for the farm shop really came from there - for years I had this crazy notion of building a wee coffee shop.

"I went on about it so much that my daughter eventually told me to go for it, I think she was fed up hearing about it."

Of course, building the new premises was not straightforward as they had to make a successful planning application and meet building regulation standards.

"Even still, it turned out to be a bigger project than we expected," continued Sandra.

"We originally planned for it to be a coffee and gift shop and we have the café, butcher and farm store now.

"We have tried to remain as local as possible in everything we do.

"For starters, we wanted the coffee shop to retain the spirit of the original business as much as possible.

"The tables are made from the old beams from Gleno dairy and we even made a seat out of the old conveyor belt.

"The produce we sell is local as much as possible as well."

The meat at the butcher counter is sourced from Carnbrooke Meats and they make all their own sausages and burgers every day by hand.

They also sell an extensive selection of kebabs, stuffed fillets, marinated chicken pieces and coleslaw - also handmade in-store.

"We also sell Maud's ice cream, which we're really happy about because Gleno is its original home," said Sandra.

The food served at the café is also cooked fresh every day, with the chefs working hard to develop a menu that makes use of the local produce, while they are also able to cater to customers' dietary requirements.

They also developed their own coffee to sell in the café.

Sandra continued: "It has been so popular that we have had to get bags made up to sell to customers so they can take it home."

Sandra has also worked hard to build up a strong team to help her ensure the business is a success.

This has been important as she had no prior experience of running a coffee shop.

She is also delighted that she has been able to create employment in the area.

"Everyone thinks we're mad for opening up a café," added Sandra.

"Especially because we already had our own business, but to be honest none of this feels like a job.

"There is nothing worse than walking into work in the morning and hating your job, but we've built up such a brilliant team.

"I'm so fortunate because I knew nothing about this game when we started out, but our staff really know their stuff.

"I have learnt something new every day, I am still learning every day and I love it.

"I have so many more ideas that I want to do flying around in my head.

"I had originally wanted to open a gift shop and that obviously hasn't happened but it's definitely something I want to see happen in the future."

She continued: "Social media has been very important in building up the business so far, my daughter is a graphic designer and she helped me to build up the brand, and my son does all the social media.

"We already have 5,000 followers on Facebook, which I think is a massive achievement because we haven't been open that long.

"Getting this far has taken a lot of work, but you have to be prepared to put in the work if you want to make your business a success.

"And we've had so much good feedback from our customers and that just gives me a hunger for more."

Belfast Telegraph