Future Proof: James Nolan, Nolan’s butchers of Kilcullen

Award-winning butcher shop is successfully moving with the times

Being a butcher is the only thing James Nolan has ever wanted to do. He started "sweeping floors and bagging coins" in his father's butcher shop when he was 13.

The shop, Nolan's of Kilcullen, in Co Kildare, has been around since his great-grandfather started it in 1886. Nolan formally took over in 2002, after working there for many years. He runs the business with his wife, Emma.

When Nolan was younger, he wanted to turn the business into a franchise and have a Nolan’s butcher shop in every town. Getting sick changed his perspective. He was put on dialysis at age 19 for progressive renal failure. His sister donated a kidney for his transplant the following year.

After that, he decided to focus on “building the best butcher shop I could possibly have”.


He also started the Punchestown Kidney Research Fund, which raised €275,000 for kidney-related projects through its charity race this year.

In 2006, Nolan essentially tore down the shop and built it up again.

“I basically rebuilt the business in a physical sense and added a little bit of structure . . . It was a hell of a job,” he said.

The new facility has its own EU-approved abattoir, boning hall, processing hall, curing facility and retail shop.

There is a farm 200 metres from the store, where Nolan keeps his own livestock. He also buys beef cattle from a network of local farmers.

“There are so few butchers left who have a farm and have a relationship with local farmers, so that circle is still there. And it’s all under one 28,000 sq ft roof.”

Shortly after Nolan opened his dream shop, however, the recession hit.

“When the bubble burst and people became very cost conscious, we had to adapt to the times. I got the team together and we sat down and said, ‘Everyone’s got to come up with simple ideas to reduce our costs and increase income’, ” he said.

The business made many small changes to cut costs and stay profitable during the recession. One had to do with the heavy bones he was “spending a fortune” on having incinerated as waste material.

“Instead, we started chopping, cooking, cooling, bagging and selling them for dogs. We reversed what was a cost into an income. There are so many little examples like that, and that has been staff-driven.”

Another “simple little idea” was making ready meals using the shop’s meat and vegetables. “The ready meals are big sellers and are fulfilling a need.”

He also started marketing the business differently. Nolan’s sends out a text message about a special promotion every few weeks to customers who have signed up for it.

“It has a massive effect in the shop at the weekend. We’ve done simple little things like that. You’ve got to move with the times. The trade is an old-fashioned craft. We’ve retained old-fashioned skills like how to slaughter, hang and bone beef. But marketing is essential. You have to be able to market your message,” he said.

The new facility allows Nolan’s products to be made on site – from the award-winning pork sausage and low-salt ham to more unusual items like cranberry black pudding.

“By having our own processing facility, we can make our staple black pudding, but it also gives us the opportunity to experiment with different recipes.”

He sells a range of gluten-free and low-salt products, which Nolan says are in high demand. The shop, which has a delicatessen and fish counter, also sells fruit and vegetables, breads, cheeses and wine. Many of the products are sourced locally.

“We are successful because we work so hard at what we do. We’re constantly trying to reinvent ourselves. It’s a huge team effort. We have 25 people working here, and we’re very lucky to have fantastic local support and customers are coming to us generation after generation.”

It seems to be working. This year, Nolan’s won the award for best butcher shop in the UK and Ireland at the “Rural Oscars” – the Countryside Alliance awards in London. It is the only Irish food business to win the award.

Nolan’s won the title of best traditional pork sausage at the Irish Pork Society’s 2014 awards and the same year won an European Fins Goustiers award for its low-salt ham.

“Even though we’ve won the biggest award any butcher could win in the UK or Ireland, I can’t sit on my laurels. I’m constantly striving to make the business better,” he said.

“We have the fifth generation – Andrew James. He’s only 23 months old and is a frequent visitor of the shop. He nearly knows the names of all the staff at this stage. It’s too early to say whether he’ll be interested in taking over the business. I would love it if he was, but there will be no pressure.”