National judges name Kilkeel food hub the ‘Best in Northern Ireland’

Cunningham Butchers, Food Hall, Bistro and Steak House in Kilkeel has been named the best in Northern Ireland in the prestigious annual UK Farm Shop and Deli Awards 2022.

By Sam Butler
Saturday, 28th May 2022, 3:00 pm
James Cunningham Jnr with brother Christopher outside the award winning food hub in Kilkeel
James Cunningham Jnr with brother Christopher outside the award winning food hub in Kilkeel

The retailer, which also has a shop in Newry, was successful in the competition which featured entries from specialist food stores across 12 categories in nine UK regions. Coleman’s Nursery, Farm Shop and Café at Templepatrick, Co Antrim and Millar Meats in Irvinestown in Co Fermanagh were also commended by the judges.

For 2022, the awards recognised specialist retailers which have been playing their part to create a better world through sustainable initiatives, whilst supporting their customers, communities and suppliers.

James Cunningham Jnr, who now runs the family business with brother Christopher, says: “We are thrilled to receive this recognition in such an important national competition. It is a tremendous recognition of the dedicated work by our talented team and of the extensive support of the family in developing the business and its focus on customer services.”

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James Cunningham Jnr checking shelves at the award winning food business in Kilkeel

The judges, he continues, were “looking for retailers which have shown innovation to adapt their business during the unprecedented past 12-18 months. This included steps that had been implemented to become a more sustainable business”.

The expert judging panel praised the Co Down company for “great cutting down on packaging and looking for local suppliers which will undoubtedly all help the local economy.”

Cunningham’s, a fourth-generation butchers in Kilkeel, has been in business for over 100 years, growing from a family butchers to a food hall with local artisan foods to become a modern bistro and, most recently, premium steak house.

The family run food hub in Co Down has expanded its business with the creation of a shop at The Quays shopping centre, Newry, and the addition of a fully licensed cocktail bar at its restaurant within the Kilkeel hub.

Northern Ireland’s ‘Best Farm Shop and Deli’ in UK awards

Over the past five years, the business has increased its workforce to over 50 employees, contributing significantly to employment in what is Northern Ireland’s most important fishing and seafood hub.

The award-winning business, which has also held the title of ‘Best Butcher Shop’ in both the UK and Ireland 2018/2019, has picked up a number of other prestigious accolades including ‘Northern Ireland Deli of the Year’ at the Neighbourhood Retailer awards.

Cunningham’s offers over 1,000 different product lines including gluten-free items and is one of the only Northern Irish butchers to have a Himalayan Salt Chamber for dry-ageing beef from local farms. The dynamic and ambitious enterprise has diversified into an impressive range of its own-label foods in addition to fresh meats and products from other artisans. The addition of a popular bistro/café is transforming it into a successful food destination for shoppers from across the Mournes and further afield.

The secret of its company’s success, James says, is based on building close relationships with customers and local suppliers.

“Family butchers and delis really are the gateway for consumers to the local farming community in particular. But we’ve always got to be looking too at ways to offer shoppers a great deal more than just meats. This is what we are doing successfully,” he adds.

“Butchers, for instance, offer value to shoppers in different cuts of meat and, I believe, can be more competitive in price per kilo than many of premium ranges of supermarkets. Family butchers, furthermore, source from local farms for freshness, quality and provenance. This means they also contribute substantially to the wellbeing of the wider agri-food economy and especially in terms of a much lower carbon footprint on our precious local environment.

“We’ve been lucky enough to win ‘UK Butcher Shop of the Year’ twice in recent years, demonstrating that the butchery landscape in Northern Ireland is as good as, if not better, than elsewhere in the UK.

“Family butchers are now creating bespoke products that benefit shoppers and also helping to support artisan food enterprises. And it’s up to shoppers to support this landscape, and not let it die out as it has done in so many towns across Britain and Ireland. It’s a way to preserve specialist shops which bring so much variety and character to our towns.”

James and his team, in addition, provide another customer-focused service by providing advice to shoppers, for instance, on how to cook various meats and the sauces to enhance their flavour. The team at Cunningham’s, he says, has particular expertise in curing Mourne ham