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French Village turns restaurant into new food hall in Belfast

Ashley French, managing director of French Village Bakery in Belfast.

One of Belfast’s leading restaurants has been transformed into an artisan food hall with a freshly cooked food-to-go range by bakery and catering entrepreneur Ashley French.

The recently opened French Village Food Hall on Belfast’s Lisburn Road aims to build on the growing trend towards home cooking which has continued from the coronavirus lockdown.

French, managing director of French Village Bakery and Catering operation, has pivoted the popular restaurant into a spacious novel food hall stocking locally produced food and drink from artisan processors and farms and a wide variety of fresh food and baked goods from his company.

“The decision to create the new food hall is the outcome of the lockdown which halted our catering business and especially from the growth in home cooking over the past four months,” said French. “We noticed this important trend from the success of the call and collect and delivery services we introduced when our restaurants in the city were shuttered.

“I’ve been watching the development of this important sector for a couple of years. There’s a vast variety of high-quality food being produced locally now; products which I believe deserved even greater support and recognition. Younger consumers are increasingly buying local artisan produce because of its quality, low carbon food print and traceability. It’s fresh, nutritious, wholesome and safe.”

He chose to convert the Lisburn Road premises from a restaurant into the food hall because of the age profile in shoppers there. “We’ve seen a high proportion of shoppers in the food hall from late 20s and 30s,” he said. “In addition to the food products including fresh vegetables and fruit along with the artisan foods, they can purchase convenient meals prepared by our team of chefs on-site to enjoy at home. And there are hot snacks and pastries they can eat at a small number of tables in the store or on the patio outside. It’s very busy all the time now.”

French intends to continue the delivery service launched during the lockdown to ensure the long-term future of the business

“The food hall is so successful that I can’t see it returning to its previous role as a restaurant,” he said. “I fear it will be many years before the restaurant scene here fully recovers because of the lockdown and social distancing requirements. There’s a big fear that further outbreaks of coronavirus and lockdowns could again impact the sector. There will always be a role for food retailing.”

He’s also been encouraged by the enthusiastic response from local artisans to the food hall’s emphasis on and presentation of food and drink produced here. “I’ve met some really inspiring local companies with marvellously tasty products,” he said. “I look forward to working with them in marketing and selling their outstanding products.”

Pizza has proved to be “an outstanding success and is still available for delivery and now can be purchased in the food hall,” he said.

French took over the family bakery, now based at Montgomery Road in east Belfast, from his father in 2005. It employs almost 300 people.

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