INDIE FÜDE, COMBER
A PIONEERING INDEPENDENT DELICATESSEN AND GROCERY STORE IN COMBER, INDIE FÜDE, IS TAKING THE CONCEPT OF ‘TASTING’ TO A NEW LEVEL, AS BRIAN McCALDEN REPORTS
Johnny McDowell & Laura Bradley.
With the success of a series of events based around its increasingly diverse range of products, Indie Füde’s proprietors, Johnny McDowell and Laura Bradley, are certainly running a different kind of grocery store.
The hands-on proprietors are now making the tourist market a target too, with the development of their day-long local food tours, taking in the very best of local produce. “Once a month we will run a taste-driven, producer-led, day-long foodie tour,” says Laura.
Starting and finishing in the quirky, rustic surroundings of the back-of-shop function room, the tour is a specially curated symphony of Strangford Lough’s finest food and drink.
“It starts in store, with a bread-baking session, then takes to the road to Echlinville Distillery, home of Echlinville Gin and Dunville Whiskey for a distillery tour and tutored tasting,” she says. “We are still finalising the rest of the route, and I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but you can expect a range of excellent produce and stunning surroundings.
“We return to Comber for a sumptuous spread including the best of local cheese, which is something we showcase daily in the deli, and plenty of guidance on the traceability, provenance and quality supplied by our local producers coupled with advice on how best to use these great products at home.”
That’s only part of the story of course, as the shop itself is open seven days a week, including a surprisingly busy noon to 4pm trade on Sundays.
Johnny says grocery retailing remains the core of the business, while the many diverse taste events are becoming increasingly important.
“We are once again a finalist in The Guild of Fine Foods Shop of the Year Awards, and are looking forward to the presentations in Harrogate,” he says. “The shop was nominated both in 2018, 2019 and most recently in 2020, which is a great honour.”
Johnny, an accountant by trade, started the business just five years ago, with initially just an online presence.
“I was working for the World Bank in the Pacific Region, helping developing nations and enjoyed a particular, ongoing affinity for Thailand, before illness forced a return home to Comber,” he says. “The experience of the local cuisine, which is dominated by the field-to-plate concept, where foodstuffs are sold direct by growers and producers in open-air stalls, or mamas’ markets was the catalyst.
“Uniquely, the focus for what became Indie Füde was on locally produced products, with the same kind of levels of freshness and quality as in Thailand paramount, but instead using produce from the island of Ireland.”
He said these specially selected ingredients led to enough interest in his online shop that, when the chance of a temporary pop-up shop came up, he couldn’t turn it down.
“Laura joined soon after the original shop experience and became a partner just after Christmas 2017, and we moved into proper premises on our current site in central Comber,” says Johnny.
The surroundings are rustic as well as being authentic, without too much in the way of glass-fronted chillers and other appliances such as in other grocery stores; being lined instead with row upon row of shelves packed with artisan products, ranging across everything a food lover could imagine.
Bespoke paintings and other artworks by local artists line some of the walls too, as part of both the overall atmosphere of the shop and a display as they are for sale too.
A key element of the shop is the expansive cheese counter, showcasing up to 40 Irish cheeses at one time. There is also an ever-growing demand for novel celebration cheesecakes, used increasingly for local weddings in place of the traditional wedding cake.
“Corporate gifts, artisan food hampers and a continuing online presence, about 20% of trade, have been developed and we now employ four part-time staff, covering parts of the retail operations, including our presence at local markets and necessities such as invoicing and finance,” he says.
However, with around two dozen events a year, such as a recent Supper Club hosted by chef Will Brown and this month’s Indie Thailand Supper Club, there’s a lot going on beyond the core retailing operation.
“Inspired by the Thailand freshness experience, local products are now getting a platform as never before and we are being recognised by food journalists and marketing companies, anxious to add a unique selling point to their corporate events.
“A couple of months ago we hosted Bushmills Distillery for a series of bespoke food events, right here in our own shop function room,” says Johnny.
However, the development of events, such as the day-long local food tour has really grabbed the imagination, and is being supported by the local tourism industry, as food tourism is such a fast-developing niche in the market.
“Not bad going for a company that was only registered in February 2014,” he says.
2020 – A NEW DECADE
For the future, the core business of specialist food retailing is central to Johnny and Laura’s immediate plans, but both their curation of hampers, corporate gifts and partnerships with top-quality local alcohol producers (with a gourmet hamper retailing at £300), and the food tasting events, are a stronger and stronger aspect of Indie Füde.
As Laura says, in the preamble to their gifts’ catalogue, edible gifts are a sure-fire hit. Especially so as they show significant support for the 100-plus suppliers now on the books.
“Around 1,000 products are now available, so there’s plenty of choice, which hopefully won’t be limited with the implementation of Brexit,” she says. “We can only hope it won’t impact too much, especially as a lot of our focus remains firmly on Northern Irish suppliers, keeping it as local as possible. However, with so many incredible producers in the Republic of Ireland, it’s important that we can continue to work with them.”
Laura says marketing remains an important aspect, with social media and of course word of mouth to the fore.
“Being a finalist in The Guild of Fine Foods Shop of the Year has helped a lot too, as has the support of many local companies and Food NI and both Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland. So, we can look forward to a decade of progression as an independent, innovative food retailer, deli and event space.
“Our indigenous offering is very special indeed and, so far, very much appreciated by our growing customer base.”
A sentiment echoed by Johnny, whose innovative idea became Indie Füde just five short years ago. “Long may it last,” he says.