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Ulster Grocer

Slemish Market Garden, Ballymena

Among the many businesses pivoting to survive the pandemic, arguably the most impressive has been Slemish Market Garden’s transformation into the UK’S Best Greengrocer at the prestigious Slow Food Awards. Co-owner Frank McCooke talks to Alyson Magee

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Linda, Matthew and Frank McCooke.

Linda, Matthew and Frank McCooke.

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Linda, Matthew and Frank McCooke.

“We were going along lovely here with a tiny little shop, and it was quite adequate, and then overnight we just didn’t know what had hit us,” says Frank McCooke. “We went from just cruising along about 30 miles an hour to 150 miles an hour and stayed there.”

Frank is talking about the rapid transformation of Slemish Market Garden, the business he co-owns with his wife Linda and son Matthew, into an award-winning greengrocer as a direct result of the pandemic.

“Looking back, nobody knew what was happening,” says Frank. “We were as frightened as anybody else, but we just got the family together and said we have to go for it and give the community what it needs.

“We gave up growing the 40% of a market garden that would be stuff like trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, hanging baskets and vegetable transplants, as it was quite obvious that was not what was required.

“We never actually set out to be greengrocers, yet it turns out we’re very good at it. We found our niche, but I can tell you we’re still growers first and foremost. We grow everything we can.”

The McCooke family are well known traders in the Ballymena area, with their business interests extending from headstones to coal. A love of local produce was already there, with Frank’s father Stephen McCooke claiming his success as a celebrated Irish athlete running the 10,000 metres at the 1948 London Olympics was fuelled by homegrown beetroot.

However, it was Linda who brought a real passion for growing into the family. “We met when we were 15, and all she ever talked about was wanting to have a smallholding and grow vegetables and sell to the public,” says Frank. He half-jokingly bought Linda her first polytunnel as a wedding gift, and the seeds of Slemish Market Garden were sown.

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This field is required

The business has been trading since 2001. It took two years to clear up what was then a derelict site in the grounds of the Ecos Centre, get it into shape for growing and build the first shop. “It was a labour of love, we really got into it and built everything ourselves,” says Frank.

Matthew is a graduate of Greenmount and, while completing his Craftsman Gardener's certificate at the National Trust for Scotland's Threave Gardens, met his wife Lori, now a senior lecturer in horticulture at Greenmount.

Staff numbers are solely the three co-owners, with other family members stepping in to help when necessary. “We’ve often said here we’re like a milking stool with three legs, take one leg away the whole thing falls apart,” says Frank.

“We stop at 5 o’clock and people want us to stay open late, but they don’t understand that nothing marches out of that field on its own. We take one break between 5 and 6 o’clock, and then we go on until whatever has to be done is done.

“I can only see a bright future for this, but I just wish we were 30 years younger. We’re not adverse to falling asleep in the barn.”

Pre-pandemic, the business had already diversified with the Slemish Market Supper Club. “Supper Club is a lovely thing,” says Frank. “Chef Rob Curley lives on the other side of the hedge, and he came over one day and said, ‘I’ve got this idea about a dinner in the garden’.

“We made a table that would seat 20 people and had dinner out here one lovely summer evening and it was just beautiful. We decided after that we would do it once a month and it became a bit of a monster. It was so popular, it was always oversubscribed and really brought up the profile of the business.”

PANDEMIC PIVOT

The McCookes grow around 80% of the produce they retail, both on the acreage around the shop and at their own properties. Whereas prior to the pandemic the family was producing more than they sold, now they are struggling to keep up with demand.

“We’d just got it the way we wanted it, and everything was lovely and all falling into place and then Covid hit,” says Frank. “There are times this place is running out of control and we’re thinking, what have we done, but really there’s no other option but to get the sleeves rolled up and get stuck in.”

With social distancing and the increased volume of shoppers proving too much for the original shop, a new shop was quickly built, and the carpark extended.

“We got into it in November 2020 and that December we sold more vegetables than we had the entire year,” says Frank. “Everything had just changed and now, after this Christmas just gone past, we’re thinking we’ll need twice the size for next year but there’s only so much we can handle.”

Dealing with a much greater volume of customers has been a pleasant experience overall, marred only by a few bad apples, says Frank.

“People management, that was a thing we never thought we’d have to deal with,” he says. “We’re very lucky because I would say 90% of our customers are the salt of the earth. We’re an old-fashioned type, we like people and we like talking to people.

“But there is a small percentage of people who really wind you up, because they will not play the game, they will not queue, and they won’t wear face masks. They won’t understand there are people coming into our shop who are extremely ill, and you try to reason with them but they’re unreasonable.”

One visitor even came in and stole toilet paper from the property. “You have to laugh,” says Frank. “Luckily we’re all blessed here with a wicked sense of humour.”

On the other hand, when recent storms wreaked havoc on the site, ripping out a 20-year-old polytunnel, the McCooke family was greatly humbled and touched when a number of customers turned up the next day to help with the clear up and rebuild.

LOCAL PRODUCE

“In Northern Ireland, everything has to be done under polytunnels,” says Frank. “It’s the ferocity of the weather when it changes, you could just lose whole crops.”

Another benefit of growing under cover is the potential to push the boundaries of seasonality. “We just keep on sowing and if it grows, it grows and it doesn’t, it goes to the geese,” says Frank. “It’s not wasted.”

Farming is kept as low tech as possible with, for example, a hawk kite used to prevent blackbirds from pulling up the garlic.

Customers come from across Northern Ireland for the quality of the produce, which extends from the mainstays of potatoes and root and soup vegetables to chilis and exotic mushrooms.

While homegrown fruit and veg is the undeniable star of the show in the shop, it sits alongside a wide range of produce from local artisans such as Nua Kombucha, Natural Umber Organic Apple Cider Vinegar, Burren Balsamics, Broighter Gold, Long Meadow Farm, Baladi Foods, Erin Grove and Irish Black Butter, to name a few.

Slemish Market Garden also supplies its own eggs and honey, produces juices, chutneys and jams, smokes garlic, cheese and meats, and serves as a collection point for meat orders from Rathkenny-based Rowandale Farm and fish from Portavogie-based Mega Katch.

“Folk tell us there’s nothing like our eggs,” says Frank. “We really care about the hens, we look after them but they’re not getting anything different than anywhere else, it’s just there’s a lot of green waste.”

Having always grown biodynamically, Frank says a lot of customers who are on chemotherapy, for example, or just aiming to reduce chemicals in their diet, frequent the shop.

Customers seek out Linda’s guidance from health remedies such as ‘honeygar’, warm water with a teaspoon each of raw honey and apple cider vinegar with mother, to general cooking advice and recipes. The admiration with which Frank speaks of Linda is heart-warming.

It tends to be the older generation who are more set in their ways and require coaxing to try new things, says Frank. “Strawberries are big for us, but our biggest crop is squash,” he says. “We have acres and acres of squash and whenever it’s ready, we bring it up and place it all around the shop and yard.

“To try and tell people this isn’t a photo opportunity, this is one of the best foods there is, has been an uphill struggle, but now people are coming back and saying how great the squash was.”

While only a small amount of the shop’s stock is imported, such as the top-selling Bee Mercy line of raw honey from Spain, post-Brexit seed imports are a concern for the business. “We have enough seed to do us for the next year, and really hope our trusty MPs can work something out and stop fighting,” says Frank. “Things have to be simplified or growers like us are going to go to the wall.”

The family was bowled over by the Slow Food accolade. “If you consider how many small vegetable outlets there are over the UK, for us to get called out is phenomenal,” he says. “Whenever Paula McIntyre rang me, at the start I thought she was taking the micky.

“It’s definitely a niche market, we’ll never be able to supply the masses, but people have really got behind the whole buy local thing. Before, market gardens and farm shops and even just small high street greengrocers were more or less a relic of the past, but now this is the way forward and people are looking for that quality you get from pulling stuff straight out of the ground.”

Building on the success of the business with another shop in Mid Ulster is under consideration. “But the thing is, I don’t want to expand too quickly either,” says Frank. “It’s taken us a lifetime to get here.”

SLOW FOOD NORTHERN IRELAND

Slow Food is a global, grassroots movement with thousands of members around the world linking the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the environment. It was founded in 1989 in Italy. Slow Food Northern Ireland is headed by Paula McIntyre.

Contact: membership@slowfood.org.uk


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