Brian McCalden reports from Mid Ulster on a long-established, farm-to-fork, family-owned grocery and home farm business overcoming the problems posed by Covid-19 to expand its operations.
Springisland NISA supermarket in Coalisland has increased in size by 60%.
Proprietor Peter Rice, who also runs his nearby family farm, says the business has been serving the local community with pride for over 20 years.
“Our unique farm-to-fork supply chain means the shop’s butchery is stocked with produce from our cattle,” he says. “This is ensuring farm quality assured Irish beef, and of course means zero potential for disruption to our supply chain, which isn’t always the case with some retailers, post-Brexit.”
The store, which now stands at 16,000 square feet, has enabled the retailer to build on its range of freshly prepared foods, based on this local supplier concept.
The initiative was not without problems though, as it took quite a long time to get planning permission.
“That meant that we had to start work as soon as we got it passed, and that of course coincided with the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and all its quite dramatic implications for traders and customers alike,” he says. “Who could ever have predicted that shop staff and customers alike would be legally obliged to wear face coverings or indeed to have seen us receive recognition for our specific Covid-19 safety measures.
“Of course, our hygiene standards as butchers and food retailers were already high, so it was just a matter of overcoming the momentous changes for shopping habits with our, thankfully, faithful customer base.”
“Throughout this pandemic, the store prioritised safety and implemented many measures to protect both staff and customers.
“At one stage, due to a spike in the number of Covid cases particularly in the local area, we felt that we must implement new measures and reinforce all previous measures to keep everyone safe.
“At peak times, we have a member of staff on door duty again to sanitise hands, baskets and trolleys.
“All staff are temperature-checked when arriving on shift and will be spot-checked throughout the day and no members of staff showing any symptoms will be at work.
“All staff will be changing masks regularly, washing hands regularly and sanitising or changing gloves between customers.
“We sanitise the store constantly by providing sanitising wipes at high contact areas such as our ATM, card machines, coffee area. Retailing life adjusted to Covid-19 and the Springisland success story continues.”
The successful NISA store therefore made its way forward, addressing the ‘new normal’ situation of such enhanced hygiene for staff and customers alike while at the same time adding the additional shopping space.
“We already had a good business before the extension but adding on the extra space allows us to develop what we were already doing and expand,” says Peter.
“Our baking is something for which we have been renowned for many years, especially our scones.
“We also do lots more cooking and bakery products, prepared fruit and vegetables for shoppers to take home and cook, baby meals, cakes and desserts.”
As well as the home farm-supplied butchery counter, an ice-cream parlour was also added which continues to boost trade especially in the current summer trading period.
“We are of course thankful for a very loyal customer base but as our loyal shoppers get older, we needed to ensure we continue to attract the younger market and get them coming in and shopping with us.
“The ice cream parlour is one way we’re targeting them, getting the families into store for the ice cream treats and then they move into the store and pick up their shopping.”
Other new additions to the range include more gluten-, dairy- and sugar-free items.
The store advances in the past 12 months, with the extension and renovation including the addition of the new bakery counter and ice cream parlour, are not the only sources of pride.
“We donated over £10,000 to local charities through our making a difference fund and personally supported many initiatives and families and raised almost £3,500 for the Digg Deep for Kids campaign with our PS5 raffle and raised over £1,600 for the Boom Foundation, by way of being a part of the local Co Tyrone community,” he says.
An Autism awareness evening was also launched, and is held every Wednesday.
“The store also helped to raise £500,000 through the National Lottery to support local causes funded by it,” says Peter. “We also invested in a second delivery van to expand our home delivery service, which proved to be essential during the pandemic and, while doing all this, created more employment in the local community. We now have a full- and part-time workforce of over 100 people.
“I have to say a massive thank you to all our staff and customers for their support throughout the past year which also saw new brands coming on stream: Costa, Dunkin Donuts, Healthy Kitchen, Jack’s Kitchen and Skinny Sauces to name a few.
“Of course, the basis of the business has always been community-led and while we offer so many grocery products, we will always pride ourselves on the quality of our own beef and lamb.
“Over the past year, we even organised a trip up to our farm in Armagh as an experience called the Springisland Farming Day by way of introducing our expanding range.
“This was to appeal to younger customers in particular with items such as Beef and Black Bean, Shredded Peking Chicken, Sweet and Sour Chicken Balls, Skinny Chicken Curry and even Szechuan Chicken; all freshly homemade by our amazing butchery staff.”
As with many semi-rural shops, Sunday dinners to takeaway have been ramping up during the pandemic. “Turkey and Ham, Roast Beef, Turkey Fillet, Honey and Mustard Glazed Gammon, Chicken Fillet with Gravy and our own Bushmills Chicken are available, including mash, homemade roasties and stuffing and a selection of vegetables,” he says.
Despite the pandemic, the family-owned business is therefore flourishing, and Peter is looking forward to a busy summer trading period ahead and the return of ‘normality’.
“While we have all gotten used to the facemask and hand cleansing procedures and the enhanced store cleaning process, it would be great to live and trade without such regulations,” he says.
“I sincerely hope that real ‘normality’ can be restored soon. Having successfully gotten round the introduction of Brexit, surely we can soon overcome the Covid-19 emergency and get back to real face-to-face retailing as the summer of 2021 progresses, mask-free.”