James Cunningham feels as passionately about the local community as he does his own butchery business, which operates a food hall, steakhouse and butchery concessions in County Down.

When the food hall in Kilkeel was declared a winner in the Farm Shop & Deli Show Retailer Awards this year, he saw it as a boon not just for his own business but also those around him.

“It has given a great boost to us and other businesses in the town,” Cunningham says. “It takes all businesses working together to promote where they live. One business cannot be successful unless the whole town and surrounding area is doing well.”

The family has been part of the fabric of Kilkeel since 1919, when Cunningham’s great-grandfather opened a butcher’s shop.

Current MD Cunningham had not initially planned to join the family business, but saw its potential while working there as he finished a master’s degree in finance.

The company is run by him and his wife Donna, alongside his brother, Christopher. Cunningham’s mother Bernadette, who is a teacher, helps out behind the scenes, and his sisters Nicole and Rachael lend a hand when needed, especially in the busy festive season.


Source: Cunningham’s

The business was started in 1919 by the great-grandfather of current MD James Cunningham

The family has driven a tenfold growth in the business in the past 12 years, with the number of employees rising from three to 70. In addition to the wholesale trade, the retail operation comprises two shops in County Down: the flagship Cunningham Butchers, Food Hall & Steak House in Kilkeel and a butcher’s shop in the Quays Shopping Centre, Newry – as well as three butchery concessions in Eurospar stores in the neighbouring town of Newcastle and Kilkeel.

A major step in the growth of the business came in 2010, when Cunningham’s began supplying pre-pack meats and deli produce to two Henderson Spar stores in Kilkeel.

“This was a challenging and daunting time as we were bringing the business into an area of retail that we had little to no experience in,” says Cunningham.

The business developed a system for checking current stock levels in the shops every morning and tailoring production accordingly. This enabled it to increase the range of products it sold the supermarkets and its own shop, Cunningham adds. “Customers reacted well to this and, as word spread, footfall in our main shop began to increase. We were able to then look at increasing the number of supermarkets we supplied.”

By 2012 it was supplying a further 11 retail outlets, seven Henderson’s and four independent shops.

Although sales were growing fast in the outlets, the main Kilkeel shop still accounted for the bulk of sales, and in 2014 Cunningham bought the adjacent site. This enabled the business to expand and create the food hall that today includes a butchery, deli, hot food counter, bakery and a 50-cover steakhouse.

“Our new store layout was possibly the biggest time drain we will ever go through but also one of the most important things,” he says. “We had to make sure the customer’s journey around the shop was natural and enjoyable. 

“We also had to ensure our staff had the best and most efficient working environment. For example, the floors in our kitchen slope slightly away from the walls to drains so cleaning is fast and effective.”

The business installed an EPoS system in the food hall that enabled it to determine the top-performing products and look at what items were being bought alongside each other.

“We have now tailored a number of lines into multibuy options so customers can mix and match those that complement each other, which has been a big factor in almost doubling average customer spend,” Cunningham says, adding the EPoS system also allowed the business to offer customer loyalty cards.

In March 2019, Cunningham’s opened a second standalone store, in the Quays Shopping Centre, Newry, and in July 2021 opened the butchery concession in partnership with Henderson’s Retail in its new Eurospar in Newcastle. “Henderson’s are very aware that their customers want familiarity and that they trust local brands. That’s where we come in: we have a great story to tell.”

Throughout the expansion, local sourcing has remained at the core, with Cunningham’s using beef and lamb from its own farm and local farmers. Fruit & veg is delivered daily from Newcastle, as well as a local producer in Kilkeel, and all potatoes are from local farms.


Source: Cunningham’s

Butchery is a core element of Cunningham’s retail offer

“This year we leased some of our own land to a local farmer who is selling the potatoes direct to our shop from our own fields,” says Cunningham.

The business also sources fish from the harbour in Kilkeel, just five minutes’ walk from the food hall. “We in turn supply nearly all our fishing fleet with their meat and vegetables when they go out to sea, so it’s all about the community working together.”

“Supporting the local community has so many benefits,” Cunningham insists. “It allows us to get the freshest and highest-quality ingredients, but also keeps capital flowing in the towns. With town centres struggling across the UK, it is our focus to help our local towns prosper.”

The local produce is used in the 1,000 product lines produced by Cunningham’s fresh every week. “All our products are determined by our customers,” he says. “If they want something we don’t have, we will use our master butchers and chefs to find a solution so the next time that customer comes in, we will have what they are looking for.”

Cunningham is clearly passionate about his business’s butchery heritage. “We are able to offer the quality and service supermarkets can’t compete with,” he says. “All our beef sold over the counter is still taken in on the bone, the same way we have done it for 100 years.”

The introduction of a Himalayan salt chamber behind the butchery counter has enabled customers to see the dry ageing process as it happens.

“We can explain the process and through doing so are educating them in a way none of the big supermarkets can. It also adds a bit of glamour. Customers buy with their eyes and we, as butchers, should be so proud of our trade and what we produce.”

The business opens seven days a week, with four night shifts each week, and most of the 70 full and part-time staff live less than 20 minutes from the shop.

“By employing local people, you are bringing the whole community to your shop,” says Cunningham. “So, many customers are on first-name terms with staff.”

Staff development plays an important role, starting with induction training. Staff receive a health and safety booklet and go through a PowerPoint presentation detailing “everything from saying hello to the customer to how to clean the mincer”. All employees go through level three health and hygiene training and are given the opportunity to go higher.

The company likes to promote in-house and has a programme that enables staff to work through the ranks. Cunningham’s also operates an apprentice scheme through a local college, with five apprentices going on to get full-time employment in the past five years.

“We do regular talks in our local primary and secondary schools showcasing the work put into our trade, and hope to offer students a pathway to butchery, which we feel is one of the most fulfilling and skilled trades,” Cunningham explains. 

Looking to his own future, he is keen to continue growing the family business and plans to open more shops. “Despite the long hours, few days off, sleepless nights, hard work and commitment that come along with it, we love it,” he says.

“We have a brand and a passion for food and will continue to bring it to neighbouring towns in our area, where there are currently no butcher shop offerings.”