This Christmas, Field’s SuperValu in Skibbereen will sell more than 1,400 turkeys and 5,850 litres of milk and will bake 6,000 sliced pans and countless mince pies. They’ll also deliver hundreds of grocery shopping orders and hampers to customers around west Cork and the islands off its rugged Atlantic coast – and that’s just in the few frantic days running up to Christmas Day. There’s also hundreds of hampers and care packages to send out from customers to friends and relatives around the world.
“We are so busy in December that we have to park a refrigerated truck out the back of the shop to store milk and other chilled goods,” says its owner Ruth Field who grew up working in the business. “Our bakery runs 24-hour shifts during Christmas week. We couldn’t do any of it without our people. Every single staff member steps up in every part of the business.”
Field’s has been at the heart of the community in Skibbereen, west Cork, for almost as long as anyone can remember and the family take great pride in that heritage. “My father’s uncle, Jack Field, bought the shop in 1935. My dad, John Field, bought the business from his aunt in the early 1970s. I am the third generation of the family in the business and my children Johnny and Meg are now working in the shop as well. It’s changed a lot over the years, but we still have some of the original tiles and the yellow vitrolite glass on the shopfront.”
“We are so busy in December that we have to park a refrigerated truck out the back of the shop to store milk and other chilled goods”
Those changes have included no fewer than 15 extensions and revamps since the 1970s. “Having started out as quite a small shop the store is now 26,000 square feet in size,” she explains. “We are located on the main street in the centre of town, so it’s been unbelievably challenging to expand backwards and sideways over the years.”
The patient acquisition of adjacent sites as they became available formed part of the growth as well as more radical moves.
“We were baking our own bread long before the other supermarkets were,” says Field. “Back in the 1970s we had a bakery at the back of the shop. Initially our main line was sliced white pans then we moved into confectionery, cakes and so on. As time moved on, we needed more space for the shop, so we bought a premises in Townsend Street and moved the bakery into it.”
The bakery outgrew those premises and had since moved to a new location outside the town. The shop still includes an in-store bakery for sourdough and other speciality breads.
There is a very strong emphasis on supporting local food producers. “We are very lucky to be located here,” says Field. “There is a fabulous wealth of local producers, many of whom came in the 1970s and 1980s to set up new craft food businesses and we have been very happy to support them. They include great cheese and fish products from the area, including Gubbeen Farmhouse Cheese, which is produced on a family farm near Schull.”
Glenilen Farm is a local success story of which she is particularly proud. “Alan and Valerie Kingston of Glenilen Farm came into the shop and asked my dad if he would be interested in selling their yoghurts. She set up a stand in the shop and their business grew from there. It’s really important to give small businesses a chance. They now sell to shops across Ireland and the UK.”
At Christmas, customers can look forward to dining on locally grown food. “A lot of the produce we sell at Christmas is grown in the region. We have some fabulous local producers. We look after them and they look after us and our customers. It’s great that the spend stays within the community.”
“Our bakery runs 24-hour shifts during Christmas week. Every single staff member steps up in every part of the business”
The staff play a huge role in Field’s SuperValu success, she says. “It takes a team of people. A lot of people have been with us since dad started in the shop. Some of them are trying to retire and we keep trying to hold onto them. We have over 200 employees and several generations of families working here, including my own. We also have a number of husband-and-wife teams, including myself and my husband Adam. One of our managers, Christy Dempsey, has been with us for 50 years and his son is also on the team. Everyone knows everyone. Customers know the staff and our staff know them. It’s a place people can come to for a cup of coffee and a chat with staff members or neighbours. Like Skibbereen itself, it’s a very warm and friendly place.”
Hampers are another important part of the Christmas offer. “We’ve always done them but our care packages were very important during Covid. People sent them to friends and family abroad when they couldn’t travel to see them. The packages were a way of connecting with people. We had mums come in and put a hat or scarf they had made themselves to add to the order. Some included handmade presents for their grandchildren. Most people put in bread, butter, sausage rolls, smoked salmon, things that remind people of home. Tayto crisps and Cadbury’s chocolate were also on many lists. They might also put in something particularly Irish like Monster Munch. Other regular requests include Ballymaloe Relish and Lismore biscuits.”
Preparation for the festive season starts in January. “We make notes of what happened, what went well, and take stock of that,” she explains. “The actual buying starts in May when Musgrave holds a Christmas trade show. Ambient stock deliveries start in September. By the first week in October, we are really prepared. We start making mince pies after Halloween. December is extremely busy, of course.”
That preparation pays off, but it still comes back to the people. “The only reason it works is because of our fantastic team. They are all experts in their own areas. They know everything that they need to do, and they get it done. There is such positive energy here during December, the atmosphere is great. Come 5pm on Christmas Eve everyone breathes a sigh of relief that all went well. The relief is palpable.”
And then it’s time to relax. “Our own family Christmas Eve is very special as it’s my youngest daughter Anna’s birthday. She’ll be 11 this year. So, we start celebrating early as a family. My mother always kindly cooks Christmas dinner in her house. I don’t know if I’d have it in me to do it. I love going to mum’s house and relaxing on Christmas Day. We stay closed on the 26th. The team needs to relax and spend time with their families. A work life balance is very important.”
Employing local young people is very important to her. “They get great experience working here. It gives them confidence in dealing with people and it’s a great introduction to the world of work. They are as much a part of the team here as our full-time staff. There is a great sense of community here. That’s part of what makes Field’s SuperValu special.”
For a full selection of quality Irish Christmas fare visit your local SuperValu or shop online at supervalu.ie