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Heroes of the High Street: Kieron Sloan of Sawers on the challenge of drawing the younger generation and keeping up with the times


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Kieran Sloan at Sawers in Belfast

Kieran Sloan at Sawers in Belfast

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Packed shelves at Sawyers

Packed shelves at Sawyers

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Packed shelves at Sawyers

Packed shelves at Sawyers

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Packed shelves at Sawyers

Packed shelves at Sawyers

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Sawers in Belfast

Sawers in Belfast

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Packed shelves at Sawyers, and (left) Kieran Sloan behind the counter

Packed shelves at Sawyers, and (left) Kieran Sloan behind the counter

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Nostalgia: An old recipe book from Sawers

Nostalgia: An old recipe book from Sawers

Kieran Sloan at Sawers in Belfast

Kieran Sloan (51) is managing director of famous deli Sawers in Belfast's College Street. He is married to Tracey, who also used to work in the popular shop, and they have four children. Kieran started working as a fish boy at Sawers when he was 16 and took over the company 18 years ago.

Q Tell me about Sawers and how and when it began.

A Sawers began in Glasgow in 1873. It was started by two brothers, George and Thomas Sawers, and they opened up about 20 stores in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Birmingham, Dublin and Belfast. They sold over 400 tonnes a month of game, seafood and poultry all over the UK and supplied a lot of hotels. But they also had plucking rooms, an oyster bar, they were the first company to buy a Ford Transit van in Ireland. They also had an aeroplane at one stage as well, it was a big operation for a small family.

Everybody knows the High Street store, but the Castle Street store there was probably the most iconic because the corner of Sawers was like a landmark for everyone to meet outside. I remember my own mummy meeting her sister there when she went on a Saturday morning - everybody met outside Sawers. It's got a real, real history and I've got old cookery books here that are maybe 80 or 90 years old and have some fantastic recipes.

Q Is there a family member who dominates the early history of the business?

A Probably John Sawers himself, he sold it off in 1982 to Ronnie Graham. There have been so many stories about him, like at Christmastime, how he would individually drive all the staff home on Christmas Eve night. People were in preparing turkeys and geese, and he stayed and he brought everybody individually home.

When Sawers was all sold off individually, Ronnie Graham took over the one here in College Street and then I worked for him as his manager. I started as a fish boy and I was trained up by Tommy Black, who was from the old school. He worked in High Street and he was head of the fish, and he was actually one of the bicycle boys. They had about 14 bicycle boys who went running about town, delivering them all over the place, and he started off as one of them at the age of 12 or 13. Tommy trained me up as a fishmonger, which I really enjoyed. That's when fish was a huge thing, there were queues every Friday out the door and it was an enormous part of the Sawers business.

Sawers sold fish from the Milligans of Ardglass, the Mawhinneys of Portavogie, and they were all family-run businesses as well. Sawers were always supporting local producers and local fisheries and that was very important to them as well.

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Packed shelves at Sawyers

Packed shelves at Sawyers

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Packed shelves at Sawyers

Q Have you many long-serving members of staff?

A At the minute we've a few members of staff that have been there since I took it over 18 years ago. When I worked for Ronnie Graham, the majority of the staff were from the old Sawers shop. They were made up of ladies who had done all the different counters and tills.

Q Where do your customers come from?

A During the week most of our customers come from Belfast. At the weekend it's a broader field. They come from all over Northern Ireland and even down south. During the summer we have loads and loads of tourists, they're coming from all over Europe and North America. Hopefully that'll happen this year too. I don't know what's going to happen. Summertime is a big, big time for tourists to come in.

Q How do you guarantee good performance from staff?

A I like people with a personality. If you have good communication skills, we can work with you. You can learn all about the food. We have a good rapport in here.

Q What has changed over the years about the stock you sell?

A When I took this over 10 years ago, one of my biggest challenges was that the younger generation at the time didn't know what Sawers was. So my challenge was to try to win over a younger generation. We sort of changed the name in a sense. We still had Sawers, but we added Deli to it, and then people started to realise.

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Sawers in Belfast

Sawers in Belfast

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Sawers in Belfast

A lot of people used to walk by and think it was a fruit shop, which used to really, really annoy me. I think the times changed, there was more travelling, more cookery shows. And then the younger generation started to do all these things and they wanted the ingredients, so we started to stock the more obscure and all the weird things. At one stage we were doing crocodile and kangaroo and camel and chocolate ants and chocolate scorpions, which attracted a whole new audience. I think just out cooking on the street, out trying to bring the food to the people, ­I remember years ago cooking chorizo sausages in the middle of the street and people didn't know what they were. Now they're part of everyday food.

We've become more and more exclusive in a sense. I tend to stay away from the mediocre stuff and try to be a bit more obscure.

If you're a cook or a chef, we'll try and keep the ingredients that you require.

Q Do you think the founder of Sawers would be proud of its long survival?

AI think they would, and how we've adapted to change. If we had stayed selling fish, selling veg, slicing our own bacon, I don't think we would have survived. We had to move the fish counter and put in a cafe there with deli cheeses. We're giving what the customers want, so we're adapting to everything that's going on.

Q How have you had to change to keep up with the times?

AThe first thing is you have to listen to customers. What we used to get all the time was: 'Why have you not got a cafe here? Why can I not sit down have a cup of coffee and eat this?' So we had to eventually give in and say: 'Right, okay, let's change this place around and do that'. At the moment I'm walking about the shop every night saying: 'Right, we need to move more shelves, we need to get more tables and chairs in, and the summer's coming, we're ready to rock'.

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Packed shelves at Sawyers

Packed shelves at Sawyers

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Packed shelves at Sawyers

Summer-time here, people sit outside and have charcuterie boards and cheese boards, a glass of wine, and that's the culture we're living in at the minute.

Q Have you generations of shoppers, too?

A Yes, we still have our old generation and they still come in.

Q How has your stock evolved over the last 50 years or so?

A Oh, big time, it's evolved. Now we have a hot food deli, we have a Turkish Delight counter. When I started, we had maybe 50 cheeses, now it's more like 200. Even with the artisan range and people making their own stuff here in Northern Ireland, we've got an exclusive Sawers range, and I would do some of the recipes. And then we have a husband and wife who make all our chutneys and jam for us, we've somebody who makes all our crackers for us, we've somebody who does our tea and coffee for us.

They're all exclusive just to us, and they're all named after the old streets where Sawers was - the Castle Street blend, the High Street blend, the College Street blend, the Chatham Street blend, the Dublin blend, and then we've also got the Belfast blend to me. We're pushing our brand more now, and we're in Belfast City Airport and a few other stores now. It's great to see our stuff somewhere else.

Q What is the future for Sawers?

A We want to expand our Deli To Go. We do the freshest and most fantastic obscure sandwiches. We're able to do that because most of the stuff is local, but also we've got a big deli counter where we can chop and change our sandwiches, and we can make whatever sandwich you want there for you. We are looking at opening smaller units of Deli To Go.

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Packed shelves at Sawyers

Packed shelves at Sawyers

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Packed shelves at Sawyers

Q Why has Sawers survived as long as it has?

A Because we work really hard at what we're doing here and we're always looking out. Every week I come in here and say: 'What can I change today, what can we do'. We don't stock one or two lines of Tiptree jam, we do the whole 70 lines. The old saying is: 'If you can't get it in Sawers you can't get it anywhere.' And that's what I want to keep.

Another thing, too, is the personal touch and customer contact. We have a great rapport with all our customers, and everybody gets to know you. You can sit outside and people are shouting over: 'All right, Kieran'. I think people in Belfast are loyal as well and would hate to see anything happen to a place like Sawers. Through all the struggles of Belfast changing, we're still here, thank God.

Q Have you invested in the store recently?

A We've invested in some new fridges, new lighting. People say to me: 'You should do this, you should do that'. But I didn't want to take away the feel of a deli, I don't want it to be too clinical.

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Packed shelves at Sawyers, and (left) Kieran Sloan behind the counter

Packed shelves at Sawyers, and (left) Kieran Sloan behind the counter

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Packed shelves at Sawyers, and (left) Kieran Sloan behind the counter

We've expanded into the deli counter and over Christmas we opened up a Turkish Delight counter. It could all become very clinically white and grey but I want the old sales and all the different things hanging up. I want people to come in here for an experience.

Q Are you hoping that the return of the Executive will mean improvements in the economy?

A Well I hope it does, because we've seen a decline with internet sales. People buy their clothes online, then they're doing their shop in the retail parks, because it's free parking, and they need to do something about this down the town. I've seen the high street deteriorate over the years, even through footfall in the town. Almost all the shops here get busy from 11.30am to 3pm during the week, and then it just goes quiet again.

I hope the Executive does something to regenerate and try to get people from the retail parks back in the town again. I do believe it's to do with a lot of car parking issues. We hear from a lot of customers that they're paying big money for car parks. They can't come in and do shops in the town.

Quickfire questions

Tea or coffee? Coffee.

Online store or bricks and mortar store? Bricks and mortar.

Netflix or BBC? Netflix.

Christmas or Easter? Christmas.

Retail hero/heroine: Richard Branson.

Favourite type of shop: I just love delis, food shops.

Favourite film: Purple Rain.

Favourite book: Simply Nigella: Feel Good Food by Nigella Lawson.

Favourite band: Prince & the Revolution.

Best piece of advice: Stay grounded and don't forget where you come from.

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