Fresh horizons for Des Kee at Laghey
It’s been a busy couple of years for Des Kee at Robert Kee & Sons Ltd forecourt in Laghey, Co Donegal.
Not only has the business navigated a deeply turbulent period as it steered a course through the pandemic and provided an essential service for key workers, but it’s also undergone a long-planned major refurbishment which saw the old store knocked down and replaced with brand new facilities.
The well known forecourt sits on the main road link between Donegal and the more southern counties and was built on its present site on the H15 30 years ago when the country town was bypassed. The filling station has been upgraded numerous times since then, but this refurbishment was on a much bigger scale, as company director Des reveals.
“I’m the fourth generation of a family business that was started by my great grandfather in the village as a general merchant. It’s progressed down the years, adding on different parts like the neighbouring garden centre and our power equipment business as well as the Eurospar in the village,” he says.
“But the latest development has been the levelling of the shop that was on the forecourt. The existing shop was taken away and rebuilt.
“While the pumps on the forecourt weren’t touched, the whole site has been refurbished and renewed. We’ve done work on the tanks and put in new HGV pumps and parking facilities and lots of car parking as well.
“We’ve been trading all the time through the work – we started upgrading 18 months ago and started work on the building itself in October last year. We were hoping to be open by April, but because of Covid we didn’t get opening until July.”
Within the new Spar store, he says, there was ample space to expand the offering for customers, including more food to go, indoor seating for around 40 people and an enhanced coffee offering – not to mention the all-important toilets.
“We’re a very transitory site and the toilets are very important on our site,” Des says.
“We get a lot of people travelling through on buses and coaches and wanting to stop. We would be on one of the main roads into Donegal from southern Ireland so we get a lot of passing trade.”
Des estimates that the store has now doubled in size following the big revamp.
“There’s a strong emphasis now on food – the buzzword is dashboard dining,” he says.
“That has been building all the time – people are looking for a quality food offering. I’m not running down the humble sausage roll, but people are looking for a more elaborate range of sandwiches and hot foods.
“But we were at our capacity in the facilities we had – probably past it – and we needed to do something. When we looked at it, we knew a little extension wasn’t going to bring it up to what was needed.
“All these decisions were made before Covid – and since then the whole market has changed slightly, in the sense that indoor dining is not back where it was, but all the other things that we put an emphasis on are. We are a lot busier since we opened.”
Bigger and better
Des says the new shop offers “more of the same” but bigger and better: “It’s a convenience offering in the sense of cigarettes, confectionery, minerals.
“We have an enhanced self-service Seattle’s Best coffee offering with more aspects and more machines – we have four kinds of non-dairy milk alternatives such as soy and oat along with dairy-based milk and those have proven to be very popular. Different types of teas as well and different syrups that we never would have had before. We didn’t have the space to do these things in the past.
“We also do the Spar pizza concept PAZZA, which is very high quality – you can have a lovely pizza within two minutes. It’s very popular with people going to and from the beach and it was a great hit with the kids during the summer.”
The hot food counter also has a wide range of traditional hot foods, including curries, chips, jambons and full breakfasts.
Because the forecourt is on such a key route for road freight, we have offered plenty of services for HGV drivers, including Ad Blue in the pumps and high flow pumps.
“A lot of lorry men would use our place for taking their breaks and parking up for 10-15 minutes or so,” he says.
The Circle K forecourt is also gearing up for anticipated changes in demand over the next 20 years in the types of fuel and energies required to power the vehicles of the future.
It has installed around 150 car parking spaces and two ESB chargers, with two fast chargers on the way.
“Between them all, we’ve invested about 1.3 million euro on the forecourt – we’ve spent a lot of money that is never seen because it’s under the ground,” Des says.
“You think where did I spend all that money and you are standing on top of where you spent it – but that’s the nature of forecourts! It’s expensive but it’s underground.”
Des says the arrival of the pandemic was traumatic for everyone in terms of the personal worries about families and the safety of staff and customers.
While the forecourt was able to stay open during lockdown, demand plummeted.
“The main thing, I suppose, was when the severe travel restrictions came in and you could only travel 5km from the house. That had a serious impact on our forecourt – business dropped overnight by 60% and we had to make tough decisions,” Des says.
“We made some decisions that were not based always on commercial realities. If we had closed our forecourt, while there may have been no business to justify keeping it open at certain times, the HGV drivers that were doing deliveries were depending on us – if you couldn’t get fuel or stop for food or a break we kept all services going. We never closed our public toilets during the pandemic and we’ve had a lot of positive feedback from people who had to be on the road to go to work because they were essential – emergency services, HGV lorries and key workers. We kept a level of service that we could have stopped.
“We owe huge thanks to our staff – we have a lot of loyal and long serving staff members who were exceptional through Covid and the redevelopment.”
Caption: Lauren and Des Kee
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