Coleman’s Garden Centre, Farm Shop & Café, Templepatrick
A £5m investment has transformed the garden centre into a visitor attraction in its own right, Managing Director Richard Fry and Manager David Thompson tells UG
From a visiting harpist to a 1950s tractor display and its hugely popular restaurant, Coleman’s farm shop and garden centre in Templepatrick is already a visitor attraction in its own right.
Now, on top of a recently-unveiled £5m expansion, Coleman’s is about to enter the international tourist trade.
Managing Director Richard Fry is in talks with coach operators about changing their refreshment stop from existing forecourt outlets to Coleman’s multi-faceted site.
“Many of the coaches virtually pass the premises on route north to the likes of the Giant’s Causeway, with 70 coaches a day heading there in peak periods, so there is a huge opportunity to continue to grow our business,” he says. “Many such farm shops and garden centres locally have been years behind what’s happening in England.
“Now in England you have farm shops in motorway service stations. And what we have done here in Coleman’s has bypassed the last two decades and brought our garden centre right up to date.”
Richard says the recent £5m investment in the site had taken 15 years: “It’s taken until now to get this built due to reasons such as planning, and it’s all been done through private funding.”
The owner of the original Coleman nursery died in 2004 after which the site was sold, and Fry, who had been working there for 13 years at that point, took the opportunity to make his long-planned expansion a reality.
Local investors sharing the vision have taken the original garden centre to the current stage of being a destination shopping experience, and he and a team of more than 100 staff are taking it to the next stage.
“It’s been a remarkable few years and it is sometimes hard to grasp that just two years ago, we only employed a dozen or so staff,” he says.
And while the centre had a loyal customer base, it is now targeting the tourism market as a secondary source of customers.
“We have set up a dedicated area to service the coach clients, so they are able to get to use our much-expanded facilities, hopefully to shop too and enjoy some of the 400 scones baked every day in the restaurant,” he says. “Their time is very limited so we need to be sure we can deal with them efficiently, and hope to have the whole facility underway by mid-May.”
Despite being established as a popular garden centre, the addition of a new farm shop to what has already been a successful, long-running retailing operation has proved to be a major draw.
Catering for an expanding grocery market, this now includes a seven-metre meat counter, a dry-ager for beef and the shop has begun stocking produce from even more local companies.
Butcher Jim Irvine left his established shop in nearby Doagh to set up his new outlet, which is surrounded by many local food products on permanent display.
These include William Sprott, Finnebrogue, McKee’s, Draynes and Ditty’s of Magherafelt, while Barr’s of Ballymena is also represented.
On top of that, local artisans are regularly invited to set up their stalls at the shop, to offer a complete range of products.
CRUISE SHIP VISITORS
“Tourism has expanded greatly in the last five years, and we see it very much from the cruise ships coming to Belfast. Also, the Game of Thrones series has been epic in bringing visitors to Northern Ireland in general,” he says. “Therefore, by offering a rustic, rural shopping experience, with occasional background live music, such as our harpist, the only way is up for Coleman’s.
“With the research we’ve done, we know coach tours coming from Ireland are also driving past us every day on their way to the North Coast.
“Now we want to be servicing them, and we have a 200 to 250-seater restaurant and ample car parking with almost 200 spaces to do so.”
He says the garden centre business has evolved in recent years due to competition from the internet and supermarkets.
“Previously, people just wanted a cup of coffee and a bun, but now they’re looking for meals, freshly cooked on the premises, so that’s the line we have gone down,” he says. “To survive, garden centres have upped their game.”
years of RESEARCH
Richard has been researching the market for years. He has been a member of the Soil Association, the Farm Retail Association and the Horticultural Trades Association, and is a frequent visitor to major centres in England.
“Barton Grange, south of Lancaster is a huge help,” he says. “Not only have the owners welcomed me to visit their fabulous business on many occasions, but they also now actively assist by allowing my staff resident training and awareness visits to the hugely successful centre.”
Food products are also expanding fast, with the likes of vegan diets and those of vegetarians, as well as interest in organic farm products changing the face of the market.
“Blueberries are an enormous draw, and thanks more to cooking programmes than ones about gardening, the likes of rhubarb and other unlikely products are flying off the shelves,” he says.
While the core business remains garden products, with around 60% of overall trade being from the garden centre, the other 40% in the farm shop is evenly split between the butchery counter and that of the other grocery and specialised products.
“The more products the better,” he says. “So, it’s a win-win for suppliers and for Coleman’s as we increase our range and continue to promote buying and marketing local, sometimes niche products.”
The development has already considerably enhanced the Templepatrick business’ importance in the local economy.
Manager David Thompson said that it has indeed doubled its workforce from 50 last year to over 100.
“That’s a long way from the former dozen or so, just a few years back and is on top of adding 32,000 square foot to the premises,” he says. “The addition has also brought us new retail space including concessions like Menary’s, Pavers, Mountain Warehouse, The Works and Klass and more space for selling plants, our original core business, as well as the innovative new farm shop.”
This is actually the second phase of Coleman’s Garden Centre. “Phase two of our development has created a real sense of anticipation over the past number of months as we have watched our plans take shape,” says David.
“By adding an extensive variety of exclusive retailers and brands to the garden products and services we already have on offer and the addition of our new farm shop and butchery, we hope to attract a wider audience from the local area and beyond.
“Now visitors can take advantage of our 250-seat cafe with a unique eating experience of the highest standard right on their doorstep.”
There is an emphasis on celebrating local food at the new farm shop and butchery.
“Therefore, we will be consolidating our already close partnerships with local producers who are doing something unique and brilliant and we are sure that this will become an important part of the community in Templepatrick for many years to come,” he says.
The new phase of a dedicated farm shop and butchery to complement the existing garden centre and cafe already trades alongside a popular Edinburgh Woollen Mill concession, so there’s even more reason for visitors to drop in.
“We are one of the best-known names in gardening in Northern Ireland,” says David. “Coleman’s has built its reputation in offering high-quality nursery stock and sundries to Northern Ireland’s gardeners, stocking a range of trees, shrubs, bedding plants, compost, bark, pots, chemicals, seeds, bulbs, tools and garden furniture.
“That offering is set to continue, and grow, appropriately enough,” he says, adding that the original premises was first established in 1965.
“There’s a lot of continuity too, especially so as Richard, the current managing director, has worked for Coleman’s garden centre for almost 30 years.