Donnelly’s of Rathkenny
Brian McCalden reports on a newly opened Co Antrim Forecourt Grocery and busy food-to-go facility in the heart of rural Rathkenny
Newly opened Co Antrim Forecourt Grocery and Busy Food-to-go facility in Rathkenny
A former car sales facility in a rural setting is proving successful, despite an almost complete absence of the kind of local housing usually deemed vital for convenience grocery retailing and forecourt sales.
Located in the premises of Turtles of Rathkenny, a Peugeot dealership that closed in 2012, it is now ‘open all hours’ as Donnelly’s and attracting a very strong trade from the 4,000 or so vehicles a day that pass the modern shop. Connor Donnelly, director and ‘hands-on’ manager, originally tried to rent a local forecourt and grocery business that was closing down, but wasn’t successful, so when the unusual car showroom facility came on the market, he jumped at the opportunity.
“We identified a gap in the market for an all-in-one service station and found ideal premises in a central location,” he says. “The feedback so far has been extremely positive. It is a one-stop shop that offers a wide range of services. The old premises were a bit of an eyesore and I think people were glad something has finally been done to transform it. “I am a joiner by trade. Having worked on many fit-outs for similar premises, I had a fair idea of just the kind of challenge turning the showroom into a busy grocery store would present. “I knew the exterior was pretty much up to standard, being of modern design and build and, in February 2016, I took possession of the site and set about turning it into a shop.
“Frustratingly, it took almost a full year to obtain planning permission, but on January 17 this year, work began. “We replaced the electrics in the existing building and demolished an old house and office space which allowed us to create a forecourt. “We installed new fuel tanks, retiled the old car showroom and installed a hot food and deli counter along with a stainless-steel kitchen and we opened the doors in May.”
Connor signed the store up with Nisa, who currently supply two chilled and one ambient delivery weekly, and he says he is very happy with the arrangement, especially given the freedom to support a large number of local suppliers. “We do benefit from the many offers from Nisa, such as very competitive pricing – Hovis bread for £1 and 2 litre Pepsi Max for £1.25 billed as ‘Wow! are just examples – but I do tend to support many local producers too. “Scott’s supply a large number of prepacked vegetables, while Barr’s meat pies and many of their other meat products are very popular locally and we trade very well with Michael Johnston’s ‘Bro coffee dock, as a mainstay of the essentially passing trade base.”
PASSING TRADE IS KEY
Deputy Manager Brendan McKeown, who was formerly in charge of home shopping at a large Tesco, takes up the story. “We base the business overall on the considerable traffic that passes
the store,” he says. “Located on the Cushendall Road, we are really the ‘Gateway to the Glens’ with considerable tourist trade over the summer as well as the daily, business and commercial shoppers we get year-round. “That’s not to say there isn’t local trade too, as we have a healthy basket shop of between £6 and £7 and a limited but encouraging volume of trolley shopping. “The onsite ATM is also vital in attracting passing trade and overall, this is enhanced by our Facebook page, where we display weekly offers.
“It often gets thousands of views for single postings, so there are few in the area that are not well aware of Donnelly’s. “While rurally isolated, there is competition, with a SPAR in nearby STORE FOCUS
Martinstown as well as a Mace store and forecourt in Cargan.“We are also just a few miles from the busy town of Broughshane too, which is well served by competitors, so we must be competitive as well as convenient. “Being part of Nisa helps us achieve that, given their buying power, but we have negotiated some great deals with local suppliers too, most of whom are nearby or at least in Co Antrim.”
Busy times are from 7.30am to 9.30am daily, with the staples of newspapers, tobacco products and the forecourt considerably enhanced by the food-to-go offering. “There are 20 sit-in places too, all with nice rural views from the former showroom windows so there’s a mix of take-away and sit-in, but by far the most surprising success has been in the provision of Sundays roasts, with more than 80 dinners served every Sunday,” says Brendan. “We open from 6am daily during the week too and there is a fantastic level of trade in the hot food service, with breakfasts a speciality that goes down very well.
“There is an extensive salads bar too, and perhaps unusually, a large selection of gluten-free products adjacent, so there’s something for everybody. “Hot food is served through to 3pm daily, but as it looks to be expanding, we will look at extending those hours by opening in the evenings too, all as part of our convenience-based offering. “There are almost 60 car parking spaces, two of the latest designs of double side pumps branded as Maxol for the forecourt with the recent addition of heating oil on tap too.”
Originally intending to be fully independent on fuel, the proprietor decided to sign up with Maxol in the end.
“It works well for us and is as competitive as it is possible to be, given the limited margins on fuel, so
I was pleased to go with the Maxol brand,” says Connor. “It has been a steep learning curve, but was helped considerably by the prior experience Brendan enjoyed at Tesco.
“While this is a completely different market than the supermarkets, I know we are more than competitive on prices generally and very much so on the food-to-go,” which he said continues to grow.
Looking to the future and of course Christmas looms large with hopes that Christmas dinners will supplement the already successful Sunday roasts. “This will be our first festive season, but given the past six months’ successes, I am looking forward to plenty of festive cheer, although that of course means even longer hours for me and Brendan too.”
“Christmas dinners will be just one seasonal innovation but after that, we look to our first anniversary in the New Year,” says Connor. “That will be one particularly special milestone.”
Beyond that, development of the site overall is the longer term option: “I want to enhance the shop by making Donnelly’s Of Rathkenny a ‘destination’ and hope to achieve this by adding other businesses,” he says.“These would be the likes of an off sales – hopefully – and facilities such as a hairdresser or other must-try services, all adding to the attraction of what at first look might appear a ‘hard sell’, given the location deep in the Co Antrim countryside. “Our enthusiasm and hard work has paid off both for the business and for the local economy. There are 17 full- and part-time staff at the moment and of course, by stocking a large number of locally-produced products, we are also supporting other jobs.
“Looking ahead, our staffing could rise – even if only seasonally – and given the continuing economic constraints and job losses in manufacturing locally, that has to be good news.”