Talk of the Town
Residents of Ballynure in Northern Ireland still talk about how local butcher John Jackson scooped the top prize in last year’s Butcher’s Shop of the Year Awards. With this year’s awards looming, Alyson Magee paid him a visit
Upon entering Jackson’s Butchers in Ballynure, Northern Ireland, one of the first things to catch the eye is a proud display from last year’s Butcher’s Shop of the Year Awards. Certificates from both the regional and overall titles are mounted on the wall, alongside large photos from the November 2007 award ceremony at Claridge’s, London.
“It’s a recognition that our customers like to see,” says proprietor John Jackson of the win. “It’s all about word of mouth and people are happy to have something to talk about. There will be 40 people queuing on a Saturday and they’ll tell each other about it. We have been flat out busy.”
Jackson’s is a seventh-generation business, established in 1850, with John following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, working in the shop since he was a boy. In 1998, the move was made from a smaller shop in the village. It also had a plentiful butchery counter and array of pies, bakery goods and deli items, but Jackson’s plans had outgrown the site.
Having explored the potential for knocking through into a neighbouring shop, the option was deemed too disruptive. And a look around at other butchers’ shops convinced John a no-compromise new build was the answer.
Incorporating cooking, baking and office facilities, the current shop boasts a big car park more akin to a supermarket, not to mention a gleaming butchery counter, which must surely be among the longest in the UK, bakery shelves, deli refrigerators and vegetable displays.
Cross Refrigeration of Armagh supplied the shop’s Criosbanc cabinets, while more recent purchases include a Tenderstar automatic meat tenderiser to replace an old manual one. “Over the last 10 years, we’ve been tweaking things, moving things around and always upgrading,” says John. “We’ve consistently spent money on the shop and it’s time to take it easy for a year.”
Jackson’s is ahead of the curve in terms of local sourcing, having grazed cattle and sheep on its own farm in Ballynure for many years. Year-old store cattle are bought in and finished off on the family farm. “We go for U3, the best grade,” says John, preferring 300kg deadweight, which cuts out a better size.
“There’s lots of beef out there and it’s difficult to get that top grade; we just want to keep it for our customers instead of competing with the wholesale trade,” he adds. Lambs are bought from a local market in Ballymena, “where you can pick out the best pens on offer that day”, says John. “Texel lambs are best for good lean lamb chops with a finer bone.” The beef and lamb are processed at a Ballymena abattoir, while chickens for the shop are raised at Cullybackey; an even shorter jaunt.
Weekly processing to stock the shop runs to 10 head of cattle, 25 lambs and 200 chickens. Jackson’s does stock some free-range chickens but they “wouldn’t be the price to suit everybody”. Pork is sourced from within the Province, while “wee bits and pieces of game” are stocked in season.
Sausages are a big seller, with a few thousand pounds (weight) of steak and one thousand of pork shifted weekly, all made with natural casings.
Around 1,000 of Jackson’s pies also sell weekly and are legendary in the locality, often attracting hungry customers passing through the village on the way back from a day’s shopping in Belfast.
“Everything’s traditional; we don’t do anything outrageous,” says John. “We try to be good at what we do. It’s all about reputation and word of mouth and people drive 12 miles to shop here so we have to have a good variety.”
Value-added products such as lasagne, sausage rolls and quiche are made on-site, as are the bakery goods from bread to scones, buns and cakes. Vegetables are delivered fresh every morning from the market in Belfast. Other stock includes local jams and chutneys, as well as exotic products, including bourbon-based marinades and Thai sauces.
With such an abundance of goods, average customer spend is an impressive £30. “You’re getting a bigger sale, so you can try to be more moderately priced,” says John. “Most of the other shops would be charging more but because we sell a large volume of beef, we can offer a better price.”
Busy year-round, Christmas is when Jackson’s really excels, retailing around 1,500 whole and portioned turkeys. “There can be over 100 people in the queue and people will be talking about how big the queue was each year for some time,” says John.
Jackson’s brings in charity singers to keep everyone entertained and a festive atmosphere prevails. “People come in just for the comedy and the buzz,” says John, relaying a tale of one man who queued for hours to buy a bag of potatoes and had really just come in for the ‘craic’.
In addition to John and his semi-retired father Ivan, the shop has 12 full-time butchers, six bakers and students at the weekends.
Reflecting on the secret of his success, John says: “It’s all about customer service.” Shop staff take inspiration from US-style greeters who charm customers from the offset. “Getting to know people and putting on something special for them – that brings customers back,” he says. “If you go to a restaurant, even if the meal wasn’t that special, good service can bring you back. You do get to know everybody and learn what they want.”
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