Belfast Telegraph

Co Armagh entrepreneur's journey from butcher boy to barbershop boss

By Rachel Martin

Butchers and barbers might not seem to have much in common, but one Co Armagh entrepreneur has managed to make his name in both.

Portadown 'hipster butcher' Dwaine Smyth (32) launched the Meat Cleaver in 2011 alongside his brother Garry (34).

And three years ago he ventured into the world of 1920s style barbershops. The chain has grown rapidly and has already won the backing of Boyzone star Shane Lynch.

"It doesn't matter whether you're cutting hair or meat - the fundamental of business is still the same," Dwaine Smyth said.

"It's all about offering something different and giving people great service," Dwaine added.

"It sounds like a cliche, but customers are the ones who pay the wages so you've got to make sure they all leave happy and want to come back."

The Elk & Clipper is modelled on a prohibition-era gentleman's club offering beer, whiskey, shaves and live music as customers get their hair cut.

Dwaine co-founded Elk & Clipper with friend Michael Dowall three years ago and the chain already has four Northern Ireland branches in Portadown, Banbridge, Lurgan and Armagh.

Last year Boyzone singer Shane Lynch backed the pair to open four barbershops on the east coast of the USA. The £1.1m barbershop project will see them take the brand to Boston, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island before trying to roll out more franchises across the country. The brand has also launched its own range of hair products and beard oils.

But the Meat Cleaver is unlikely to ever spread internationally.

"It's harder to expand in the same way," Dwaine said. "You've got to do a lot of the work yourself and there's a lot of background work to run it."

The brothers launched the business combining Garry's experience working in butchery along with Dwaine's marketing know how. Their mother re-mortgaged part of her home to help the boys start the business and the pair launched the company in 2011 with just £25,000 of capital.

But just last week, Dwaine and his brother opened their new £60,000 store in Portadown. The refit included a Himalayan salt chamber and major design overhaul.

"It's a traditional industry - when we started there must have been at least 25 people who told us we were making a mistake and were entering into a dying industry," added Dwaine.

"But it's like every industry - you've older ones who have served their time and are starting to retire but that doesn't mean it's not going to work. We begged, borrowed and stole to start with.

"We went around closing butchers and asked them if we could borrow or buy their equipment - that was the only way we could get started - everything was second-hand.

"We realised we looked the same as any other butcher's shop but we wanted to differentiate ourselves so the way we could do that was through our marketing. We have a lot of fun in the shop and we just let that come across in how we handle marketing - it's just us being ourselves.

"There's a massive interest in traceability at the moment - we find a lot of customers will ask us where the meat comes from and sometimes what breed it is - which I love, because it shows just how interested people are in local food.

"We have tried to source everything as locally as possible - my brother's father-in-law, who has a small farm in Loughgall, provides the red meat, Richhill farmer Maurice Robinson provides us with our lamb and William Spratt in Portadown produces our pork.

"I like to see myself as a mini-disruptor. I've a million and one ideas I'll write down but only a few will come into fruition. I like to think about traditional industries and how I can change things in them and make it different.

"It didn't matter what I was going to do, I knew I was going to be self-employed. I always wanted to cut my own cloth."

Belfast Telegraph

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