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The small local shops changing what we buy and how we eat

The pandemic prompted a nationwide resurgence of local grocers offering quality Irish produce

Step into the Fumbally in Dublin 8 these days, and as well as the bustling cafe, you’ll find fridges full of Irish cheese and organic meats, shelves lined with restaurant quality dried goods, boxes of farm-fresh Dublin-grown fruit and vegetables, sourdough bread and cakes baked on site, a range of seasonal fermented foods and drinks, and a stellar selection of natural wines.

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Co-owner Aisling Rogerson had never planned to become a local grocer, or to establish the Fumbally’s own in-house bakery. It all stemmed from a lockdown pivot that became a lifeline for the business when the cafe was forced to close in March 2020, and during the long uncertain months that followed when the service industry was reopening and closing again in dribs and drabs.

The best surprise, Rogerson says, was the community element that blossomed around the shop. “People wanted to be in that queue, it was really a social thing as much as a food thing.” When the cafe was allowed to reopen fully, “we had to sit down and decide if the shop was something we wanted to stick with,” she recalls. “It was a unanimous decision, we thought it was a really lovely thing.”

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The pandemic prompted a nationwide resurgence of local shops and grocers in suburbs and villages across the country. Switching from their usual service to stocking shelves was a solution that made sense to restaurants and cafes like the Fumbally; many had a surplus of restaurant ingredients, extra space, and skilled staff at the ready.

People who hadn’t thought about having a shop since they played with their Fisher Price Post Office as a child became accidental grocers overnight, while other more established shopkeepers began experimenting more during this time too, sourcing Irish artisan products to keep housebound customers going. While some resumed normal restaurant service once lockdown restrictions lifted, many others are still going strong as independent shops, offering a range of quality Irish and imported produce that has elevated the way we cook and eat at home.

Rogerson put a lot of work into researching and establishing relationships with suppliers for the Fumbally shop – from cheesemakers like Young Buck, Cais na Tire and Toonsbridge, to condiment makers White Mausu, Assassination Custard and their own Fumbally alumni Harry Colley and Laura Caulwell, who produce Harry’s Nut Butter and Lolo’s Pickles. Over the past two years, the range of goods has grown and grown, as more new artisan goods from small Irish producers have come on the market. “What we have now is three times better than what we had during Covid in terms of quality and array,” Rogerson says.

You hear about one product, you might follow them on Instagram and that leads you on to something else

They can never compete with the supermarkets on price, but they certainly excel on quality.

“Fresh fruit and vegetables are the core of the shop. I think what we have that is really quite unique is the variety of fresh goods from locally focused farmers and growers, you don’t find that often,” she says.

Local Dublin growers supplying the shop include McNally’s, Riverfield, Market Gnomes, Elmhurst, Garyhinch, and Llweylns. They have been using these suppliers in the cafe for years, and were well aware of the significant difference such quality could bring to a dish, and the surprise savings to be made by choosing quality over quantity when shopping for food.

Salad leaves, Rogerson and I both agree, is one. Who hasn’t purchased a bag from the supermarket only for it to turn into stinky mulch after a day or two? This writer has bought leaves from The Fumbally that have been crispy and fresh for well over a week. The way the leaves are grown and treated is drastically different from the bags of salad from supermarkets; the leaves are picked on Tuesday with them on Wednesday, Rogerson says.

Siopa Uí Lúing in Ventry, Co Kerry is one of the few places to shop for food outside the town of Dingle on the most westerly peninsula in Ireland. It is not a new shop by any means; the post office and grocery has been in the Uí Lúing family for almost 100 years, but what is new is this array of produce. Much of that is thanks to Róisín Uí Shíthigh, a teacher, and her sister Eibhlís Ní Lúing who both became more directly involved in the family business during the pandemic.

The shop had always stocked some local and organic products, but the growth of that side of the business “naturally happened through lockdown; people were at home, they wanted to purchase more of the nice wine, the nice cheese, whereas before they might have gone out at the weekend”. Local demand for quality Irish produce has endured and grown in the years since.

When they get a delivery in from local biodynamic grower Sophie Seel, it’s often all sold on the day. Farm fresh produce might not be a total novelty in a rural post office, but what you don’t expect to see are shelves that could rival Fallon & Byrne, laden with artisan produce from all around Ireland.

Social media is a great tool for research, Uí Shíthigh says. “You hear about one product, you might follow them on Instagram and that leads you on to something else. And it really helps with spreading the word about what we have available.”

Leamhain Ice Cream is one such product she found via social media. Chef Conor Sweeny, who started the business in 2020 having returned to Killorglin in Co Kerry after losing his job in London during the pandemic, handmakes the plant-based, dairy-free ice cream. He came to visit Uí Shíthigh at the shop. “I remember I was chatting to him over the beach looking at these gorgeous vegan, gluten free ice-cream sandwiches,” she recalls. “I loved that they were named after a Kerry river, and they’d been using Irish in their branding.”

It took almost a year to figure out how to get the ice cream delivered; the shop’s stunning westerly location can be a hindrance for fresh or perishable deliveries. But when the first case finally arrived this January – hardly the ideal month for ice cream – Uí Shíthigh posted about it on Instagram and they sold out within a day. “It was totally nuts, social media is definitely powerful,” she says.

While they are delighted to have a new cohort of shoppers and people travelling to Ventry specially to buy food in Siopa Uí Lúing, the locals are still essential to the business. “We have lots of loyal local customers we are very grateful for,” Uí Shíthigh says. “For us, a huge part of doing well is offering a variety of products; there’s no point in just having the artisan stuff. We are still a post office, so we need to cater to all our customers. You don’t want to lose the ones you’ve had for the last 30 years.”

Would she encourage other rural shops to expand their offering of speciality foods, as they have in Ventry? “It’s a bit of risk, so I’d say go slow and steady. With the right products, you’ll attract customers that like good food. If you told us at the start to get all these products and you will do great, it might not have worked.”

Back in Dublin, another accidental grocer is Claire Arnold. In early 2020 she quit her job in wine sales with a plan to set up a business offering food tours, but the lockdown in March put a halt to that. Along with her brother Chris, who had been working in the restaurant industry before it shuttered, she decided to set up a small pop-up shop selling Christmas hampers from an unused space on the ground floor of their father Paul Arnold’s architecture practice in Portobello.

“We opened on the 20th of November 2020, scrambling to try and do something before Christmas,” she says.

They started to get to know the neighbours. “We were asking everyone who came through the doors, ‘If we stay around, what can we do?’ Mostly people wanted fresh produce, and lunch options.” The shop stayed open past Christmas and the business grew slowly and organically, as the siblings figured out what worked and what didn’t, trusting their instincts and drawing on their many years of combined experience in the food and drink industries in Ireland, France, Canada and the US.

“When I saw so many other places opening, I knew I just had to work on keeping the shop unique,” says Arnold. Alongside many of the artisanal Irish brands that have become widely available in small grocers like this, the Lennox Street Grocer also offers a range of specially selected oils and vinegars, preserves, sauces, tinned fish and coffee from international suppliers, and gorgeous bunches of dried flowers from The Flower Drop in Co Offaly. A surprise hit with customers has been good pasta. “It’s one of those things that might seem expensive on the shelf, but you can make such a nice restaurant quality dinner at home, relatively inexpensively,” Arnold says.

Connections and community are words that came up again and again when researching this article, especially when speaking to Sophie Woodroofe from The Roundwood Stores in Co Wicklow. Head chef Woodroofe was part of the opening team for this bakery, grocery and cafe, owned by former Avoca managing director Simon Pratt and his wife Monique McQuaid. Living locally, Woodroofe knew there was a gap in the market in the area for a food shop like this, but what they did not predict was the social scene that grew around the business, and how the community welcomed their shop as a local hub and meeting place.

“It just took off. We’re very central in the village, which helps,” Woodroofe says. There’s a car park next door and a school across the road. “The moms will come here now after drop-off. It’s become a real meeting point for locals, we have the stove inside and it’s nice a cosy.” When they closed for two weeks last January to give the team a break, people were stopping Woodroofe on the street asking “When will you be back? We miss it!”

What are they selling that keeps customers so loyal? Without hesitation, Woodroofe mentions Dermot Carey’s vegetables, grown on his farm in Co Kildare. “We get a drop two or three times a week. People come in asking for particular things put aside for them. And there’s also raw milk from the Natural Milk Company, which we can’t keep on the shelf.”

When those corner stores and local cafes close down you’ve got nothing, you’ve no meeting places, you’ve no markets

Bread is central here too. They bake sourdough daily that always sells out, and a “Life Changing Bread” – a dense, gluten-free loaf. “It’s a big statement to call it life-changing bread but people go mad for it,” Woodroofe says.

With his extensive experience with Avoca, Pratt was well familiar with running a successful shop, but he soon realised how much the speciality food world had changed, especially over the past few years as the range of quality products made in Ireland has exploded. “Where a lot of it used to be about getting in the best imports, now there is so much choice from Irish producers, and they are the products the customers are looking for,” Woodroofe says.

“We want to focus on the Irish products, the rayus, the nut butters, sauces, cheeses and things like that. Smaller companies at the start of what they are doing. We’re a start-up as well, and we want to support them.”

Shopping locally in small independent retailers comes with a higher price tag, of course, a significant factor for consumers particularly in the current climate. But making even small changes to your weekly shop can make a huge difference to the local economy. According to the Irish SME Association, every €10 spent locally in Ireland generates €40 for the local community. Buying Irish can also mean better quality, traceability, and sustainability.

“Even if it’s not your weekly shop, consider it for the little bits and pieces in between,” Rogerson says. “It’s so important for the community. When those corner stores and local cafes close down you’ve got nothing, you’ve no meeting places, you’ve no markets. And then we start to lose our connections to food and where it’s coming from.”