Steak-in-the-country butchers adapted to stay ahead
WHEN JW Smyth started selling sweet and sour pork in the late 90s, the family-owned butcher's was merely dabbling in something a little exotic, giving its traditional offering a bit of added oomph.
Flash forward just over a decade and the sweet and sour experiment has become the cornerstone of Smyth's fightback against the toughest recession the 52-year-old business has ever seen.
Smyth's has just spent €75,000 revamping its Portmarnock store in north Co Dublin, giving more space to a "value-added" range that spans everything from sauced meats to whole veg and meat dinners.
A €500,000 revamp of Smyth's older Raheny premises is set to get under way in the coming weeks, expanding both the preparation and sales areas for prepared meats and meals.
"The value-added stuff has really saved us in this recession," says John Fahey, who runs Smyth's, along with his uncle Willie Smyth and cousin Brendan Smyth. "From a starting point of zero, it'd already be between 25 and 30pc of sales."
As well as allowing Smyth's to play for the 'can't-cook-won't-cook' market that has traditionally flocked to supermarkets, the value-added range also allows the butchers to court the growing number of non-meat eaters.
"Brendan was making up a few vegetarian meals earlier," says Fahey, "replacing the meat with a bit of cheese".
It's a far cry from when Willie Smyth joined his father's business back in 1962, but the 69-year-old is all for moving with the times. "There's one (vegetarian) in every family now," he says. "We try to assist where we can.
"If we have to do more vegetarian dinners, then we'll do them."
The value-added range has also allowed Smyth's to do its bit to assist north Dublin's lovebirds, launching a ramped-up version of its regular meals to celebrate Valentine's Day.
The €20 package included "two big steaks", onions, pepper sauce, garlic potatoes, a "good bottle of wine" and dessert.
"Within three days we'd sold 160 of them in Portmarnock and 60 or 70 in Raheny," says Fahey.
"The supermarkets were offering cheaper full meals but ours was proper food, with everything freshly prepared on the premises. We got great feedback."
Experiences like that help Smyth's to justify spending close to €600,000 on refurbishments at a time when cash is in perilously short supply.
"It (the investment) is a risk but if we want to be the best at what we do and keep the gap between ourselves and the supermarkets, it's a risk we have to take," says Fahey resolutely.
"Our trade was beginning to suffer after the summer last year. We had a look at it and we decided to make the very best use of every square inch we had. That's why we're doing this."
To get even more use from his Portmarnock site, he also has Sutton Golf Club's chef whipping up a barbeque every Saturday morning. "We're only a few weeks into it but it's going very well," he says.
"Last week, we did sausages and doubled our sales of them.
"The smell of the barbeque brings people in and customers in the shop anyway have a taste."
Fahey plans to run the barbeques in Portmarnock until the end of June, while Willie Smyth hopes to repeat the Saturday-morning tastings at the Raheny store, once it gets its facelift later in the summer.
The recession-beating strategy this time around is markedly different from Smyth's reaction to the last downturn.
Back in the 1980s, as supermarkets exploded all over the economically ravaged country, Smyth's hit back with new stores in Donaghmede and also in Blanchardstown Shopping Centre.
"When things contracted, we had to let the two leased premises in Blanchardstown and Donaghmede go," recalls Smyth.
"When the Celtic Tiger came, we knew to try to increase the two we had, rather than taking on more.
"This time, we haven't been hit as badly at all. We're a service and people still need to eat."
He also stresses that while some industries were doubling every year in the boomtime, his butchers' grew revenue at the more muted rate of 20pc a year between 2003 and 2008.
The main recessionary impact Smyth's is seeing now is on the pricing side.
Where fillets of steak at €45 a kilo were flying out the door in the boom years, the same cut at €29.99 a kilo was a harder sell last year.
"We're still really busy but budgets play a much bigger part in things now," says Smyth.
"People have it in their head they're going to pay, say, a tenner, for a meal and they stick within that -- whereas before, they wouldn't care."
The trend means that while Smyth's turnover was down about 8pc to €2.5m last year, footfall was as high as ever and Smyth's 20 staff were needed as much as ever.
"We've been very aggressive in cutting our utility costs, getting deals from all our suppliers and getting the renovations done cheaper, but we haven't been able to do much to our staff costs," says Fahey.
So far, the two men judge their recession fightback to be working. After suffering a 14pc fall in turnover towards the second half of 2009, the Portmarnock store is now returning to growth and Raheny is expected to follow suit once its revamp is complete.
"We can definitely see some green shoots now," says Fahey, "though if we could hold turnover steady at last year's €2.5m, we'd be happy."