Thursday 5 December 2019

This Working Life: 'Customers confide in me, I'm like their hairdresser'

At the sharp end: Butcher Barry Kerrigan finds chatting to customers is a direct line to knowing their needs better.
At the sharp end: Butcher Barry Kerrigan finds chatting to customers is a direct line to knowing their needs better.

Mary McCarthy

Butchering in the blood

My father Brendan set up the business in the newly built Donaghmede shopping centre in Dublin 45 years ago. I joined at the age of 15 after I did my Junior Cert in 1993. I was interested in food and cooking, and keen to start earning.

The initial plan was to get experience and then train as a chef. But quite quickly, leaving was out of the question. I stayed and did my four-year apprentice under my brother Shane, and now when I look back at the road not taken, I'm relieved; chefs work incredibly hard and the pay and work-life balance are terrible.

 

Well-defined roles

Our sister works in our headquarters in Baldoyle and I work very closely with Shane.

On occasion we fight, there are days I could murder him, but mainly we work well together.

The trick is that we have our different areas. He is finance and regulation, and I am more on the creative side with product development and technology. So we give each other space and if either of us is really passionate about something, we let them at it.

With all new business ideas, only some stick - but when they do they have changed our direction. Since 2007, we have stocked ready-to-cook meals, prepared in-house in Baldoyle, and since 2015 we offer a delivery service that serves all 32 counties, and even the UK. You have to be brave enough to make changes if your instinct, and the customer, is telling you something different is needed. Otherwise you will be left behind.

 

What's the special?

If Irish people have a flaw it's that they are always searching for the bargain. In our Malahide shop, which we opened in 2012, we get a lot of expats who are beside themselves with excitement with the quality of our Irish meat. The French in particular are ready to pay for a cut that takes more than 90 minutes to cook, which is rare these days.

We don't stock veg, customers can buy that for a third of the price in the supermarket, but we do value-added options like potato gratin or croquettes. Customers don't realise they want them until they spot the potatoes on the shelf and think about the time they can save peeling.

 

Future at steak

Veganism was once a minority but has gone mainstream and it's a challenge. We are not going to promote it - that would be turkeys voting for Christmas - but we take the approach that it's a trend which will grow and there is room for everyone.

In the last few years, I have had a lot of customers in buying their meat for the week and asking had I anything for the vegan at home. So we now stock some meat-free products and we are about to launch five or six products made from pea protein and broad beans. The millennial vegans are our customers of tomorrow and we don't want to alienate anybody.

Irish people still love their meat, despite the media attention veganism gets, and I don't think they are going to give it up - though they may start to eat less of it. We have never banged the drum for meat seven days a week - a varied diet includes lots of good quality veg and fish.

 

Old-fashioned service

How people shop has changed but customers today still want the chats. I joke it drives me demented but I love getting to know them, and giving tips, and it's also a direct line to hear what they want.

They confide in me. I'm like their hairdresser; I know who is not talking to their husband, who is buying a new car, whose child will only eat sausages.

After the lonely self-service checkouts in the big supermarkets, they are bursting to chat when they arrive at our shop.

 

Downing tools

We mainly eat at home and my wife is now an excellent cook - which was not always the case.

The first time she made dinner for me, she used low-fat British meat to make chilli con carne and I said 'I can't eat that'. Why would you import meat when you have lovely Irish meat?

Once a month on a Sunday we like to go out to eat with our two daughters and for my head space, I go to the gym, cycle, play golf and relax with the family.

I work really hard; but it's easier when you are working for yourself as you take the long-term view that it's your family's security you are working towards. I think if you're working for somebody else, it must be more difficult to put in the hours as you don't have that sense of ownership.

 

Future-proofing

My father does not work in the business any more, though he likes to tell us what to do. He does not even own a smartphone and just can't get his head around the changes we have made. He's amazed the delivery service took off like it did and wondered who would want a couple of months of dinners delivered to their house.

But it was a different Ireland when he set up in 1973. Housewives were buying sides of beef, or legs of lamb, to freeze in order to save money. Today, people are buying in bulk to freeze to save time.

Some things do stay the same - at Christmas and Easter, the butcher is run off his feet. But we need to keep sales up all year so we will follow the market.

My dad built the foundations but we are constantly renovating.

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