Entrepreneurial restaurateur Richard McCracken created a unique Corner Shop and pizza van as part of a gritty determination to keep his business turning over and to preserve the jobs of his staff in successive hospitality lockdowns due to the stubbornly lethal coronavirus pandemic.
An experienced chef, Richard had invested heavily in Cyprus Avenue, the high-end restaurant at the busy corner of the Upper Newtownards and North roads in east Belfast’s developing food hub at Ballyhackamore and was enjoying huge success with diners and acclaim from respected food experts such as John and Sally McKenna following the completion of £750,000 expansion at the end of 2018 that was assisted by Danske Bank.
The McKennas were enthusiastic, writing in their review that “the cooking succeeds brilliantly because of the chef’s attention to detail”, and added “this is a chef who knows the boundaries of each dish and is true to the genre of each thing he cooks”.
Richard continues: “The first lockdown came as a severe shock for us because we had enjoyed tremendous success during 2019 and over the festive season.”
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He gained experience over 15 years with Michelin star winners such as Tom Kitchen and Andrew Fairlie in Scotland and Helene Darroze in Paris, a recent winner of three stars for her culinary excellence at The Connaught in London. Darroze gained three stars along with London-based Northern Ireland chef Clare Smyth. Danny Millar, chef/owner of the Stock Kitchen at St George’s Market in Belfast, is another mentor.
“Growing up I always wanted to have my own restaurant. Cooking was something I had fallen in love with while studying in Glasgow. Every summer I would come home and gain first-hand experience with Danny, working my way up from a kitchen porter through the ranks at Balloo House in Killinchy,” he remembers.
Richard, who opened the restaurant in 2017, says: “The popularity of the restaurant encouraged us to acquire adjoining premises and double the overall size.
“A new central wine bar and additional seating enabled us to provide spacious open plan dining as well as a semi-private dining area for functions. We just couldn’t afford to sit back in such dark times.”
He quickly developed a response which centred on a diversification into retail. “We launched our Corner Shop from the restaurant in April 2020 along with takeaway coffee, wheaten bread and baked goods from a window we created,” he says.
“The hatch also offered a route to market for many small/micro food suppliers which had been badly hit by the closure of outdoor markets. We had always focused on local ingredients for meals in the restaurant and also met a number of smaller producers during our participation at Inns Market on Belfast’s Saintfield Road, where we did really good business especially for our Irish wheaten loaves, cakes and tray bakes. Producers were quick to grasp the opportunity we were offering and have been supplying us with a range of handcrafted foods,” he adds.
The Corner Shop developed quickly since then into a deli that now offers a wide selection of artisan foods not readily available in supermarkets.
“We’ve created a shop, a local artisan food destination for the neighbourhood, offering baked goods and ready meals made by our team of chefs alongside a wide range of dried and chilled products from suppliers across Northern Ireland,” he explains.
At Christmas, local food hampers from the Corner Shop proved “a tremendous success with more than 4,000 sold in a relatively short time, some ending up as far away as Belgium”. Valentine hampers are now being packed with local food.
“What I believe we are contributing to and benefitting from is the growth in shoppers wishing to support local food producers,” Richard adds.
A separate website has just been launched for orders from the shop.
“The website reflects the strength of our commitment to the retail side of the restaurant. This is something we intend to carry on long after the lockdown has been lifted,” he continues. “Furthermore, we’ve recently added a delivery service via the website. Irish Sea Border bureaucracy will not affect us in any way because of our longstanding focus on local products,” he adds.
The investment in retail, in addition, included the purchase of a Piaggio Ape van that offers freshly made sourdough pizzas for convenience meals, another service likely to continue.
“We’ve been able to provide pizzas and groceries for one-stop delivery from the webslte,” continues Richard.
The innovations have created important revenue streams that will help the enterprising local restaurant prepare for a return to growth when the restrictions on hospitality here are eventually removed.
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