A focus on sustainability across its wide range of local artisan food and drink and a chilled vibe in the Lisburn Road store are proving a hit with Millennials, says Managing Director Ashley French.
If any silver lining is to be found amid the chaos of the Covid-19 pandemic, it may well be the creativity inspired among small business owners.
French Village Food Store, on the popular shopping destination of Belfast’s Lisburn Road, was conceived in direct response to the hospitality lockdown during the first local wave of the pandemic.
The business is of course best known as an acclaimed baker, operating a buoyant catering division from its Montgomery Road production site, as well as busy coffee shops on Botanic Avenue and the Lisburn Road.
Having started out in 1981 from a bakery in Stranmillis, Managing Director Ashley French took over the reins from his father in 2005 and had built it into a business employing close to 300 people.
In 2008, £850,000 was invested in the business and 10 new jobs created as French Village ramped up its foodservice element to cater for larger corporate events.
With hospitality in freefall in March, however, Ashley had to take a hard look at the business.
“The Food Store was a business decision to diversify our French Village Brassiere during the current global pandemic,” he says. “It’s the outcome of the lockdown, which halted our catering business and especially from the growth in home cooking.
“We noticed this important trend from the success of the call and collect and delivery services we introduced when our restaurants in the city were shuttered.”
French Village Food Store was officially launched in the former French Village Brassiere on the Lisburn Road in June.
The stylish interior embraces a traditional general store ambience, featuring exposed wood, brick and industrial shelving elements against a neutral colour scheme with slate accents, chic tiling and natural foliage continuing into an outdoor patio seating area.
“We have a very modern décor with a chilled vibe to suit a lot of the clientele that come into our store,” says Ashley. “We are based in the heart of BT9 on the Lisburn Road, and a high proportion of our shoppers are in their late 20s and 30s.
“We are in a unique position as we offer a range of artisan grocery products for sale with the luxury of having a deli counter offering fresh salads, pressed sandwiches, filled bagels, sweet treats, teas and coffees to sit in or takeaway. We can seat 30 guests at present inside and a further 26 outside on our terrace. This gives us an edge on our competitors.”
Open from 8am-6pm from Monday to Saturday and 10am-3pm on Sundays, the Food Store is staffed by a weekly team of five front-of-house workers and two chefs with three front of house and one chef typically on site each day.
“Instagram and Facebook are currently great platforms for marketing,” says Ashley. “We push as much as we can onto our page to show people what we are all about at the store, as well as what we offer in store.”
Beyond the lockdown, a further motivating factor in reimagining the Lisburn Road restaurant was Ashley identifying a gap in the market for an artisan food store focused on sustainable produce.
“We have noticed our younger consumers, in particular, are increasingly buying artisan produce from local suppliers because of the quality, low carbon footprint and traceability,” he says. “The food is fresh, nutritious, wholesome and safe.
“Our commitment to sustainability has been a core value throughout the years in an effort to improve and decrease the environmental impact which we leave on our planet.
“Our packaging is always ethically sourced, biodegradable and compostable. In a bid to minimise our waste, we have always promoted the use of reusable cups.
“All our products are made using locally sourced ingredients. We are also committed to offering healthy alternatives to our customers, which is why we offer a range of gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan products within our range here in store.
“We are proud to say that our coffee is 100% Fairtrade certified and sourced from Fairtrade producers. Fairtrade works with sustainable coffee farmers to improve their livelihoods and the health and wellbeing of their communities.
“These farms are regularly audited to meet a rigorous standard with regards to their environmental impact and to ensure that they are benefiting economically from their efforts. This aids in protecting the earth’s biodiversity and ensures that farmers are benefiting both financially and culturally from their coffee harvest.
“We love and appreciate nature and are avid supporters of biodiversity.”
French Village Food Store’s wide range of artisan produce includes its own ever-expanding range of bakery goods, complemented on the deli counter by fresh sandwiches, bagels and salads.
“We stock fresh fruit and vegetables, dairy products, fresh fish, meats, cakes, desserts and pizza kits,” says Ashley. “We promote local produce and support seasonality as and where possible.
“We source our products from a range of suppliers and directly from producers where possible using websites like Food NI to try and support local companies to help showcase Northern Ireland’s artisan community.
“I’ve been watching the development of this important sector for a couple of years. There’s a vast variety of high-quality food being produced locally now; products which I believe deserved even greater support and recognition.
“We have introduced a retail offering of our own French Village artisan bakery items, sweet and savoury, which has been hugely successful with none other than our Famous Baker Street Sourdough flying off our shelves.
“In addition, they can purchase convenient meals prepared by our team of chefs on-site to enjoy at home. And there are hot snacks and pastries they can eat at a small number of tables in the store or on the patio outside. It’s very busy all the time now.”
Freshly cooked food-to-go options, updated regularly, include such dishes as Soup of the Day with Wheaten Bread; Smoked Haddock & Salmon Chowder; Goan Chicken Curry; and Roast Butternut Squash, Chestnut Mushroom & Kale on Chargrilled Flatbread
Pizza has proved to be “an outstanding success and is still available for delivery and now can be purchased in the food hall,” he says.
Ashley intends to continue the delivery service launched during the lockdown to ensure the long-term future of the business.
“The food hall is so successful that I can’t see it returning to its previous role as a restaurant,” he says. “I fear it will be many years before the restaurant scene here fully recovers because of the lockdown and social distancing requirements.
“There’s a big fear that further outbreaks of coronavirus and lockdowns could again impact the sector. There will always be a role for food retailing.”
Ever the innovator, Ashley will continue to evolve the business as he spots opportunities and responds to the market.
“We are currently working on a small brunch/lunch menu operating a few hours a day on set days to help expand our offerings,” he says. “We are also creating the menu around using the products we sell instore to showcase our local artisan producers.
“In addition to this, we have developed our website which will include a selection of artisan products available for home delivery at Frenchvillage.com.”