THE BIG INTERVIEW: Noel Smith, Founder And Managing Director, Fresh The Good Food Market
Gerry and Noel Smith, Fresh The Good Food Market, Heuston Station
Quality grocery and delicatessen supermarket group, Fresh The Good Food Market, opened its eighth outlet in Dublin on 15 November. Maev Martin talks to Fresh founder and managing director Noel Smith about their new Select format, and why they continue to be the first to market when it comes to grocery retail innovation.
Fresh has been internationally recognised as having redefined the very concept of the ‘convenience store,’ with multiple awards to its name.
The retailer is also widely acknowledged as an innovator in ‘food-to-go’.
On 15 November, Fresh The Good Food Market rolled out its latest innovation in the convenience space with the opening of its latest store in Dublin, taking over the former M&S Simply Food outlet in Heuston Station.
“M&S were trading in that location and Brexit and COVID made them change their thinking and that is when we were invited to the party by CIE,” says Noel.
“It was about presenting them with a version of Fresh that would fit the passenger mix and the shoppers in the station. That meant changing some elements of the fresh design concept in terms of the departments and product categories that we could make available, so we decided to call it Select as it has a more edited product range than the mix that customers would find in a regular Fresh store," he says.
The Select format is a smaller footprint, with a more curated and smaller category mix, and that fitted what CIE wanted. Fresh hot and cold counters are a traditional offering in Fresh stores, so we revisited that concept for the station, which is built around food for now and food for later, so there is no The Fresh Kitchen."
“The idea behind the Select name is to let the customer know that we are limited with our range and our offer. We have reached four weeks of trading and the new format is working really well at this point. We are receiving very positive feedback from customers and from CIE, so we feel we have a concept that we can take forward," he continues.
"The Select format works for a space that is anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 square feet, but between 2,000 and 2,500 square feet is the ideal size. The Heuston Station store is 1,500 square feet, but we made it work at that size. We are in discussions on two more Select sites in Dublin, and we hope to be in a position in early January to announce the future opening of a further location in Dublin.”
Expanding Their Estate
Select at Heuston Station is Fresh’s eighth store, and Noel is planning to rollout further Fresh stores in 2022, including their ninth store in Dublin’s docklands. Dublin Landings is a relatively new quarter in the north docklands, located next door to the new Central Bank building.
“We completed a deal for a store in Dublin Landings two years ago, but COVID put the brakes on and we couldn’t complete it,” he says.
“However, it is now finished and fit-out has commenced. We envisage this store opening at the end of Feburary or in early March 2022. It is a 7,000 square foot store and we are the anchor tenant in the Dublin Landings development. The branding and fit-out will be similar to our other stores, although a lot of thought is going into the possibility of introducing a premium pizza concept. This is in the early stages of development because we want it to be an excellent offer if we decide to go ahead with it.”
Noel says that “there is a possibility” that they might open a store outside Dublin next year as they have previously looked at opening stores in Cork, Galway or Limerick.
“A collaboration with other retailers is a possibility in those cities and it has been discussed in the past but has never taken off. However, it is something that we are watching and if an opportunity presents itself we would go forward with it,” he says.
“We aren’t currently talking to other retailers about developing a store outside Dublin because COVID has changed how we think about the business. With the pandemic, it has been all about survival and about tweaking our offer to suit a very changed market. Right now it is a case of living with COVID and I think we will have to do that for a very long time," he notes.
“We are engaged in discussions with the Fresh team about how we can make our business robust in the future as the traffic flow and customer flow has changed.”
Fresh’s Chef In Residence
One of the many innovations that Fresh The Good Food Market has introduced to respond to the changing retail landscape is its recently announced collaboration with Michelin trained chef and recent winner of RTE’s Food Truck of the Year, Kwanghi Chan.
Kwanghi was invited to take up ‘residency’ at its Capital Dock store in Dublin 2 with his popular street food truck offer ‘Bites by Kwanghi’ and bring it into its first retail environment.
“Some of our stores have a lot of apartments near them and that was a benefit to us when footfall fell off during the pandemic, and during the first lockdown further investment was put into our Stepaside outlet and our store at Northern Cross in Clarehall and we have benefitted from that,” says Noel.
“However, our Camden Street and Capital Dock stores had the biggest fall off in footfall during the first lockdown and there hasn’t been much improvement with them since. That is why we developed the residency idea for Capital Dock. We wanted to create another reason for our customers to visit that store because it really took a hit as a result of workers who used to work in nearby offices continuing to work from home.”
“In September, we set about looking for a chef with a strong personality and concept to come into the store on a pop-up basis to give people another reason to visit the store and to give the chef a platform for his food conept. We looked at a number of new food concepts and at microbreweries and we whittled it down to a shortlist. We then sought design proposals on the branding and the food offer and we settled on Kwanghi Chan," he says.
“We met Kwanghi in Capital Dock for a final interview and his ideas for the space really chimed with what we wanted to do with the in-store dining area. We gave Kwanghi a blank canvas and full use of our kitchen and he created the brand ‘Bites by Kwanghi’ at Fresh Capital Dock.”
The entire in-store dining space in the The Capital Dock store is given over to the Bites concept, which is branded and has its own entrance. There is seating for up to 100 customers, which includes the covered exterior dining area.
The Bites menu features authentic Asian-style street food with a wide variety of options available, from dumplings, ramen bowls, tacos, bao buns, wings and sides.
Wine is also being served, but not from a standard wine list.
Here, Fresh and Kwanghi have partnered to enable customers to browse and select their own wine from the store’s wine department.
This offers the customers ultimate choice from a huge range of boutique wines, which are subject to a corkage fee.
“Kwanghi has applied his own creative touches to the space, introducing new planting, music, street food packaging, and a collaboration with artists Jill & Gill for the space’s new art installation,” says Noel.
“The new concept was soft launched three weeks ago, with a small private event for Capital Dock residents, which was well attended, so it was a nice evening for people in the area to try out the new food. We are very excited to work with Kwanghi Chan as he brings personality and quality food to our offer and we see it as a long-term development. If it continues to work for both parties, it is something we would roll out to other stores in the Fresh estate.”
First Mover Advantage
Among the other innovations that Fresh has introduced, which further differentiate its brand and business model from traditional convenience retailing, is the recent launch of an online cake builder. “Customers will be able to log on to Fresh online and build their own personalised cake,” he says.
“They can build one of four different cakes. They work through a process where they build the cake and the graphics will show the cake being built. They can have a handwritten message on it and the cake goes straight to our bakery team in Northern Cross, who will make the cake and Fresh will then deliver it with our own drivers. It is yet another niche and an interesting new offer for customers that showcases the best of what our ‘Baked’ team can do.”
Apart from their online cake builder, Fresh is also the first grocery retailer to join gosuper.ie, a new online shopping platform.
“They invited us to join the platform and we decided to partner with them to offer our customers a new way to shop with Fresh online,” says Noel.
“If a consumer logs onto gosuper.ie, it will help them to shop local. Our Grand Canal Store is live on this site and we are working towards providing same day delivery. As a group, we are very innovative and we like to have first mover advantage. When we identify new and good ideas, we move very quickly to make them happen.”
During the summer, Fresh brought the Gino’s Gelato concession into its Grand Canal store.
“We took a franchise from them and put it into our 12,000 square foot store at Grand Canal Dock,” he says.
“We can easily introduce new concepts at this location without disturbing the flow of the store and we liked what they were doing. Gino’s Gelato is yet another Irish company that appealed to us and we felt they were a good fit for our business. The franchise is in its infancy, but it is going well. If it sticks, and depending on the demographics of individual stores, it is something we would look to develop further at other locations in our estate.”
Reverse Vending With Sensibin
Like so many other aspects of their business, Fresh were early adopters of sustainable technologies.
“All our stores have been powered by renewable energy for many years and we have started a trial process of taking plastic bags out of our business,” says Noel.
“We began this process in our Stepaside store, and we want to establish it across the entire group. We are working with suppliers around fruit and vegetables and looking at ways to reduce the plastic.”
Fresh have also been recycling the waste generated in their stores for a number of years and they are very excited about a new reverse vending initiative with Irish start-up Sensibin, which has been underway at the Grand Canal store since August.
“The Sensibin is located just 30 feet from the door of our Grand Canal store,” he says.
“This Irish technology start-up has developed a kiosk with a touchscreen on the front that uses AI, so it can tell if you are holding an aluminium can or a plastic bottle. It will then open the relevant flap and you are rewarded for recycling in-store. You have an opportunity to win a prize with Fresh. This could be a discount off a ready meal, 50 cent off a drink, or a free doughnut with a coffee, and the customer redeems the prize at the till," he adds.
“Sensibin are backed by Enterprise Ireland and we are very happy to be working with them. I think if the government got behind the Sensibin operation it is something that could be rolled out to other retailers. However, we were the first retailer in Ireland to work with them and it is yet another example of how we move quickly to partner with businesses that share our vision.”
Over the past few months, retailers and suppliers have been operating in a perfect storm of rising costs and price inflation, which looks set to continue and get worse in 2022.
“We have been debating how to proceed for a few months now and we have had discussions with our suppliers and a number of them have advised us that price increases are definitely on the way,” he says.
“And we have already seen it happening. The fear is that those increases will be quite significant in January. The transport costs for suppliers is proving problematic for them, and that is having an impact on us, resulting in some retail prices having to be raised.
“If you combine the pressure with payroll with the price increases, it looks like the industry is in for a bumpy road ahead. We can’t compete with the discounters because we don’t have their buying power, but we still have to offer our customers value in key areas.”
Fresh The Good Food Market employs over 300 staff from 22 countries across its eight stores in the Greater Dublin Area. “We are recruiting at the moment for our fresh food departments at management and junior management level and we are also looking for general sales assistants,” says Noel.
“We have anywhere between 18 and 20 vacancies across the group and it is proving quite difficult to get staff, as there are shortages in the labour market. We were delighted to be in a position to employ several staff in the Select store at Heuston Station who had previously worked there for M&S, bringing them back into the workforce. The opening of the Select store at Heuston Station created 15 jobs and 10 or 12 of those were people who had worked for M&S.”
COVID And The Consumer
I ask Noel what he believes will be the lasting impact of the pandemic on how consumers shop over the coming months and years.
“Initially, when the virus hit, we saw a huge fall off in self service salad bars and that was a concern for the first six to eight months,” he says. “Then, when we introduced additional safety measures, we started to see the confidence come back and that business returned, and with the vaccine rollout we have seen even greater consumer confidence come back into the market. People are not as nervous as they were in the early stages of this virus – they want to be out and about and get on with their lives.
“The way people work in offices has changed. It is no longer five days a week. There is lots of innovation in the Irish market in how businesses are serving the new hybrid working environment. We will continue to adapt our business model to meet the needs of customers, wherever they may be."