Helen’s Fruit and Vegetables, Carmoney
Helen’s ‘Fresh’ sets great store by being part of Carnmoney’s Heritage, Proprietor Jackie Cassells tells UG
Carnmoney is a very historic place: for example, the local Presbyterian Church is one of the oldest in Ireland, dating from 1657. The site was even previously home to a dissenters’ meeting house.
Directly opposite, is Helen’s fruit and veg shop. It may not have as long a heritage to call upon, being just decades old, but stands as a vital part of what to this day is still recognised as Carnmoney Village.
Long since absorbed into the greater Antrim & Newtownabbey Borough – and virtually part of Belfast’s northern ‘urban sprawl’ – Carnmoney Village could easily have lost all of its identity.
Not so, with this iconic shop being at the ‘heart’ of the village. It is seen by many as more than just a retail outlet, acknowledged instead as a unique facet of local life.
Today, Helen’s (previously known as Helen and Alan’s) not only provides an essential daily service to the local community, with pensioners and other needy customers enjoying free evening delivery to their door, but also providing employment to numerous local food manufacturers.
Seven years after taking over the shop, which had already expanded in several stages from an original much smaller facility, the proprietor John Cassells (universally known as ‘Jackie’) can lay claim to a major role in preserving the village’s identity.
It is one of a small number of local retailers doggedly facing down encroaches from not only the UK multiples, but also by the the expansion of numerous symbol group stores nearby.
“Customers can of course get fresh produce such as oranges, apples and potatoes cheaper in Tesco, but they shop here for quality,” says Jackie.
That quality extends to a range of sandwiches, pastries, a variety of soft drinks (including a chiller selection) and juices as well as the basics of milk – even almond milk – confectionery, newspapers, specialised foods, such as duck eggs and of course, acres of fresh vegetables and fruit.
Jackie ‘knows his onions’ too, as fruit and veg virtually runs in his veins given his family background.
Brought up locally, in Glengormley, Jackie worked in the trade from an early age. “In the 1960s, my late father Robert ran Cassells, a family-owned fruit and vegetable wholesaler, with his own van on the road, supported by my late mum, Frances,” he says.
“While still at school, I worked weekends and holidays as his assistant and learnt the trade from bottom to top, moving on after leaving school to working full time in the family business.
“Dad – who sadly passed away in 2018 – supplied retailers across most of east Antrim with quality fruit and veg – all purchased the same morning from the markets in Belfast – supplied right to their own premises, daily.
“It was a steep learning curve for me as a youngster barely turned 16, but it certainly stood me in good stead as the business progressed.”
Later on, Jackie and his younger brother, Kenneth, effectively took control of the wholesale business to allow their dad some element of retirement.
“He had previously discovered a fantastic farm property in rural Gleno, near Larne and bought it,” says Jackie. “He moved the family away from the greater Belfast conurbation and Newtownabbey’s fast expanding suburban sprawl. He happily raised pigs, sheep, cattle and horses, among other livestock, alongside us of course.
“The farm was more of a pastime than a career though as, by the 1970s, the wholesale business was prospering.”
During his years working in the wholesale trade, Jackie discovered an opportunity, that Helen and Alan’s, a long-established fruit shop set atop Carnmoney Hill, might be for sale.
“The Bell family’s shop had already been trading for over 40 years, originally as a grocery store and nearby newsagent and then expanding into a separate fruit shop, before metamorphosing into just a large speciality fruit and vegetable shop, run by the original Helen and Alan Bell’s son, Mark,” he says. “I took over the retail business on November 25, 2012. Very long hours and hard work have since cemented the already established trade.”
With his store opening hours from 8am to 6pm, seven days a week, only closing Christmas Day, Easter and The Twelfth, it is already a long day. Add to that a 4am start to reach the wholesalers by 5am – to select the best possible produce – and that’s just some idea of what it takes to run a truly independent specialist retail business.
But that’s only a small part of the story as suppliers, sometimes very close to the shop, are reaping the benefits too.
“A supplier just a half mile away, in Ballyduff, Country Cakes, provides all our fancy bread products under their own label and Jayne Protein Delites adds delightful low calorie small muffins to the shelves.
“Potatoes come straight from local farms and specialist Northern Ireland suppliers in a range of varieties, such as Blues, Pinks, Maris Pyper and Navan.
“My own son, Lee supplies the shop with coleslaw, cooking sauces and other associated products from his family-run business, Iris’s Fine Foods that specialises in creating and delivering high quality, fresh foods to a wide range of businesses.”
Jackie also cites his wide range of flowers and plants for sale in season that adds hugely to the colourful shop front.
“It’s therefore not just me and the very small number of staff who benefit – many others in the supplier side do too,” he says. “But that’s all part of the community orientation for the business. We may not be cheaper, but the freshness and quality is second to none, and the emphasis is on local produce and helping to develop numerous small producers in east Antrim too.
“Not bad for a young lad from Glengormley’s Queen’s Park Estate.”
Carnmoney is steeped in history. Just as one other example, the nearby town of Coole (now Rathcoole) suffering severely in the wars of The Bruces, being burnt and destroyed completely by a Norman baron, John De Logan, and other enemies of the then King in 1333.
It saw much conflict in the innerving centuries, including the landing of William of Orange’s army in 1690, just nearby.
Today, Carnmoney Village is more peaceful but is still a place apart, with its own identity flowing from the ‘across the counter’ chat in Helen’s fruit shop, the local pub, the Hill Tavern, whose potbelly stove has warmed many a winter’s tale and those of the rest of the surviving retailers.
Although the nearby Carnmoney Post Office is now long gone, and the local car sales business closed down, faced by the onslaught of multiples and symbol groups, the remaining retailers persevere.
There’s still the modern, much expanded church and church halls, a clothes recycler, pharmacy, an optician and a carpet shop, no less than two hairdressers as well as a barber and even a baby care shop.
All enhanced of course – now and for many decades to come – by this truly fresh produce outlet, Helen’s.
It provides much more than the multiples can with their large, usually crowded car park, acres of shopping trolleys and a banal checkout experience, devoid of Jackie’s famous craic, which he is determined to provide for many years to come.