The story of Harrison’s of Greyabbey is one of remarkable success. A mere 14 months after the restaurant opened, it is already on the verge of a one million pounds turnover.
“We thought we needed just one chef and now we have four full time chefs, two part time chefs, plus a baker and I am interviewing for a second baker, because we have lots of groups booked in between now and the end of June,” explains the head of the family business, David Harrison.
The business now has a payroll of an astonishing 44 full and part time staff, having launched in March of last year with just one and a half employees. “We never envisaged having so many staff,” continues David.
As can often happen with a popular business innovation, the fast expansion took place because the Harrisons listened to their customers. Harrison’s of Greyabbey is located on one of the most beautiful spots on the Ards Peninsula and was already a garden centre and nursery, but its customers wanted more.
“We live on a family farm of 90 acres, which started 20 years ago selling vegetables to local shoppers,” explains David. But a change of nurserymen about 12 years ago led also to a change of direction into the hanging basket and plant retailing trade. “Everybody [who came to the nursery] kept saying we had a great view over the Strangford Lough and we should have a coffee shop here – so we built a 120 seater restaurant,” reports David.
That restaurant does breakfasts from 9 in the morning, including full Ulster Fries, and cooked lunches from 12 to 4. “It is good basic farmhouse cooking,” says David. “It is local produce, locally sourced. Our beef comes from the Ards Peninsula – we could even tell you which field the beef comes from! All our pork is local Northern Ireland pork.”
David is very appreciative of both the Ulster Bank and Henderson’s food suppliers in enabling the business to get started. “The Ulster Bank has invested big time,” he says, with the family also committing large amounts of capital. “All the money we had is invested in this.” Despite that, the restaurant could not have opened without the support of Henderson’s in providing credit, when other suppliers refused. Further assistance of about £50,000 is expected in the near future as a rural development grant.
The family has not invested heavily in marketing, but instead strongly benefited from appearing on the television programme The Farm Fixer with Nick Hewer. The family’s appearance was marked by controversy, with them refusing to accept the main recommendations of the host, who proposed a name change and Sunday opening. As committed Christians who want to emphasise the family character of the business, the Harrisons rejected the advice. But the difference of opinion not only made for good television, but also led to a lot of coverage in newspapers and on the radio.
“We may now do some advertising on the radio to keep ourselves in people’s eyes,” adds David. But the restaurant is clearly doing the right things to keep its customers satisfied – 30% of people eating there have travelled more than an hour to do so. Many diners come from as far away as Ballymena as well as Belfast to eat and to enjoy the view.
With the family’s objective of a £1m annual turnover already within reach, the business will now focus on consolidation, though also with some changes to the menu. It is also intended that the farm shop will develop and offer more home cooked bakery items.
David believes that the success of the family business is a strong indication of how Northern Ireland can make the most of its already very successful agri-food sector. He offers advice to MLAs – many of whom often eat in the restaurant. “We have been well supported by them,” he says.
“Northern Ireland is good for good local food and I think we should promote that,” argues David. “It creates jobs. The Government needs to get its act together to promote the food industry here and create lots of jobs. We want to be a major food centre here. We all like our food here.”
It is clear from the Harrisons’ dramatic expansion success that a lot of people are especially keen on their food.