Rejoicing in its address of 5 Waterfall Road, Gleno, The Dairy Farm Shop, Butcher’s and Bistro has a head start marketing its rustic appeal, suggesting natural, wholesome produce. But it hasn’t all been a ‘fairy tale’ for Sandra McDowell and family, reports Brian McCalden
Covid-19’s constantly changing regulations, bereavement and planning setbacks all combined to make expansion of the family’s original farm-based butcher’s, farm produce and hardware business challenging.
“Both the first and second anniversary of our new bistro, butcher’s and farm store passed by unheralded, as we had been forced to close, reopen and close again, due to the pandemic,” says Sandra McDowell, owner and manager of The Dairy in Gleno.
Undeterred, the bistro and shop are now powering ahead: “We now have a footfall that regularly exceeds 1,500 customers a week in the restaurant, all of which – appropriately – feeds into boosting the original trade in the extended farm shop,” she says.
“Being a short walk from the National Trust’s Gleno Waterfall and the picturesque and historic village itself all helps enormously.”
While ‘word of mouth’ and their own social media have all combined to drive the shop trade, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council’s Shaped by Sea and Stone campaign also played its part.
“Thankfully, the council’s campaign, marketing the waterfall as a tourist attraction, was produced to combine The Dairy as a ’must see’ for visitors to enjoy in tandem with the National Trust’s beautiful waterfall,” she says.
Not that Sandra has much time to enjoy the scenery herself, as she rises after 6am and doesn’t get ‘home’ much before 11pm, most days.
Dairyside Stores, the family’s original hardware shop, and Dairyside Feeds, their animal meal supply business, continue apace. Both businesses open six days a week and the bistro, seven.
“So, although we live and work on our adjacent farm, raising beef and lamb, there is little time for anything other than hard work,” says Sandra.
“We are proud to say that almost all of the produce we stock in the farm shop and the restaurant is from quality, local suppliers right here in Northern Ireland, including our own beef and lamb.
“The shop is also a showroom for a broad and varied range of artisanal products at any one time, ranging from chutneys, to chocolates, breads, sauces and sweet treats.
“Vegan and vegetarian produce feature strongly in both the shop and bistro, so everyone can get something to enjoy.”
While the whole building is newly built, with over 60 carparking spaces plus an overflow, loads of outside dining space and a separate food production facility, the entire project is rustic in nature.
Historically, a co-operative creamery was founded on site in 1914 to fairly market produce from the local farming community. Then, the Gleno creamery and dairy was established in 1933.
“The Dairy has been a prominent part of the community in Gleno throughout the years, having served as a number of different functions in its time; therefore, we are now pleased to operate as a farm store, butchers and bistro to maintain this heritage,” she says.
“The Dairy has retained the spirit of the 1930s business and you will find tangible evidence of the past in the furnishings inside. Original beams have been reused as benches and many artefacts from the business are integral to the design and an impressive internal design feature gives a new life to windows from the old building.
“Even the corrugated iron roofing has been literally pressed into use as interior doors. There is also a unique seat made from the conveyor belt at the dairy and the old weighing scales are on display.”
The original hardware business, which is still retained today, was started by Alex and Agnes McDowell in the mid-1940s, the late Robert’s parents, and expanded into a van delivery service. Originally for hardware deliveries, the van soon became a mobile shop, with a range of grocery produce added.
“That really kicked off the business,” says Sandra. “Robert and I inherited that entrepreneur spirit, which is now run by me and our children, who are also proving their expertise.”
Son Mark looks after the company’s online presence, managing the website, Facebook and Instagram.
“We currently have in excess of 10,000 followers on Facebook and more than 5,000 on Instagram,” she says. “As we don’t advertise much in the traditional sense, these have proved to be vital marketing tools.”
Mark also looks after all their photography and the business accounts as well as the ever-expanding payroll.
“There are now over 25 staff, which means we are a substantial employer in an otherwise isolated village,” says Sandra.
Daughter Alana, a graphic designer, looks after all the menu designs, graphics and associated posters and artworks.
Alana says: “We have a great team onboard that have expertly curated and crafted our menu, from concept to delivery.
“The provision of local products, providing employment for local people, meticulous attention to cleanliness, and trying to give the best service possible, are all in keeping with how the original dairy had its own unique products.
“Our chefs pride themselves in being able to cater for everyone. Our menu has a wide range of breakfast and lunch dishes suitable for meat eaters, vegetarians, vegans and celiacs.
“The bespoke products include our very own The Dairy coffee brand, supplied by Wild Heart Coffee Roasters and made specially for us here in Gleno, and as the village was in more recent times, the original home of Maud’s Ice Cream, we market both products in store and in the restaurant.
“We are also an exclusive stockist of Gleno Valley honey, a locally produced honey made personally by the grandson of the manager of the original creamery.
“Of course, the National Trust own the magnificent waterfall which annually attracts visitors from near and far and in the better times ahead, this will be especially so as the Gleno Valley is ancestral home to US presidents and others of Scotch-Irish descent.”
Sandra says: “Our own livestock go to Lakeview Meats in Crumlin for slaughter and then are butchered in our own extensive food production facility, right on site.
“We make our sausages and burgers by hand daily. We also have an extensive selection of stuffed fillets, marinated chicken pieces, pies and bakes etc all handmade in-store.”
The shop attracts increasing custom from the busy bistro as well as the usual retail trade and the range is fast increasing.
Peppup sauces, Ewing’s fish, Forest Feast snacks, Suki teas, Deli Muru jams and chutneys, Taste Joy peanut butter, Irish Black Butter, Carolyn Stewart’s pickles, Delish fudge and honeycomb, Melting Pot fudge, Neary Nogs chocolate, Born & Bred products, Ann’s Pantry and even Go Native dog treats and Frozzy’s frozen dog yogurt all jostle for space on the rustic shelves of the farm shop.
The bistro was also granted licensed status in September of last year and proudly pours craft beers from local breweries Mourne Mountains and Heaney, as well an alternating guest beer, in additional to an extensive range of carefully selected wines and cocktails.
Looking ahead, Sandra remains positive: “Last year, Christmas hampers featured strongly, with all the varied contents cooked fresh and produced by ourselves,” she says.
“With Covid restrictions all but removed, that delivered fresh concept and our other varied work mean the future is bright,” Sandra says, adding, that despite the relatively remote location, footfall is obviously increasing with the hospitality business and retailing side boosting one another.