Novel farm shop move by top bar as it tackles lockdown challenges

James McAllister could scarcely have imagined that he’d ever be involved in an online farm shop at the historic family bar/restaurant in Belfast, the Morning Star, he runs with sister Peita and mother Corrine. But needs must in a business lockdown.

Jolly Pies, the Belfast specialist in gourment savoury pies, has been assisted by Invest Northern Ireland to develop a range of branded products for retail and foodservice.  Pictured (L-R) are James McAllister, Jolly Pies, and Olive Hill, Invest NI.
Jolly Pies, the Belfast specialist in gourment savoury pies, has been assisted by Invest Northern Ireland to develop a range of branded products for retail and foodservice. Pictured (L-R) are James McAllister, Jolly Pies, and Olive Hill, Invest NI.

James McAllister could scarcely have imagined that he’d ever be involved in an online farm shop at the historic family bar/restaurant in Belfast, the Morning Star, he runs with sister Peita and mother Corrine. But needs must in a business lockdown.

The novel farm shop is another novel outcome of the continuing closure of the hospitality sector here.

One of Belfast’s oldest and most loved bar/restaurants, the Morning Star, located in narrow, cobbled Pottinger’s Entry, has set up the unique farm shop to help generate cash from selling meat and vegetables from the family’s 100-acre farm at Glenavy in Co Antrim.

The shop also sells bakery goods, dairy products and eggs. The move follows the launch by the successful restaurant of a ‘heat and eat’ home delivery service of a range of prepared meals and a takeaway hatch for drinks.

The Morning Star, a Taste of Ulster member, is also unique in Belfast hospitality in having an in-house butchery operation to prepare meats for its chefs.

James, who also made innovative savoury pies under the Jolly Pies brand, explains: “Our family farm at Glenavy is a major source of meat and vegetables used in our gourmet restaurant upstairs and also in the popular buffet in the bar. In addition, I’ve used the meat and veggies for my snack business.

“The lockdown, of course, closed both restaurant and bar and also meant we had to find a way of supporting the farm as well as the operation in Belfast. So, we decided to offer our fresh farm produce on a call and collect or next day delivery in parts of Belfast. Customers can order meats, vegetables and other foods through our website for collect or contactless delivery.

“Customers can buy a wide range of meats including shorthorn steaks, burgers, French trimmed lamb and chicken breast fillets as well as boxed meats and burger bundles for BBQ for instance. Veggies listed include carrots, potatoes, onions and herbs.”

The shop, in addition, offers butter, traditional Irish breads, milk, cream, cheese and free-range eggs for collection and delivery. Customers can order a broad range of meals from the menu on a heat and eat basis.

“These initiatives are helping to generate much needed cash to pay the bills and to help safeguard the long-term future of a business, once on the site of a coaching stop and ale house for the Belfast to Dublin mail coach, which has been in our family for over 30 years,” he says.

“We are obviously very keen to see our industry given the go-ahead by the Northern Ireland Executive to reopen its doors to customers. It’s been a terrible three months for us all and for an industry which contributes so much to the local economy. We all need some guidance now from the Executive about when the lockdown will be lifted.”

The Morning Star, which dates back to 1810, is historically listed and has long been a popular venue for visitors to Belfast. In fact, there’s a history of drink being served on the site stretching back to 1730, the era when High Street was the main thoroughfare and where sailing ships moored on the Farset River.

The bar was acquired by Seamus and Corrine McAllister in the 1980s. Both were highly respected figures in the local hospitality industry. Corrine, originally from Australia, continues to run the successful business following the death of Seamus in a few years ago..

James describes the Morning Star as “very much a traditional bar that does good food, great beer, wines, whiskies and now, of course, local craft gin as well”. “But what we are really passionate about is local food produce, that’s where we’ve made our name,” he adds.

“Our food is freshly sourced and grown locally wherever possible. Our emphasis is on championing the great produce and artisan foods we have in Northern Ireland.

“Many other smaller food and drink companies here have also been adversely impacted during the lockdown. Lifting the lockdown as soon as practicable for the hospitality sector would also benefit these small businesses enormously and safeguard their enterprise and employment.”

The family, he continues, supports “sustainable farming techniques and rears ethically grass fed beef all year round for our customers”.

The best beef for the restaurant is also sourced from the top sales at Allams in Belfast.

“We ensure that we provide our customers with the best quality food produce from Great Taste Award Winners such as Young Buck Cheese from Mike’s Fancy Cheese in Newtownards, black and white pudding from Gracehill in Ballymena, free range hens eggs from Cavanagh at Newtownbutler and Drayne’s Farm milk from Lisburn.

​“We don’t stop there either, we ensure we source locally with our drinks too, we find that these are increasingly popular with the tourist trade as well as local customers.

They include Belfast’s Suki Tea, SD Bell Coffee, Armagh Cider’s Carson’s Crisp as well as Maggie’s Leap and Belfast Ale from Whitewater Brewery in Castlewellan.

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