Ahead of the curve on food-to-go: Milestone Rathfriland

Ahead of the curve on food-to-go: Milestone Rathfriland

While many convenience stores are just dipping their toes in the food-to-go market, Milestone Rathfriland is well ahead of the curve.

Food to go and ready meals have been a mainstay of the business ever since the filling station launched in Co Down 33 years ago and they’re still leading the way, with more than 1,000 own-brand products.

“The most recent move for Milestone was to launch their own restaurant upstairs in the complex, named Loft 56 after the historic milestone which dates back to the days of Cromwell, that still sits on the site.  It was 56 Irish miles to Dublin,” says general manager Noel Hadden.

The restaurant has been proving a major draw in the area, especially at weekends, despite the hiccup caused by the pandemic, Noel says.

“The licensed restaurant opened in October 2019, but it was only going a few months when the pandemic hit, so it has been off and on since we were allowed to open again,” he says.

“Open from 12 noon daily, it serves not just the local community but people coming from further afield, attracting strong support especially on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings.”

Milestone Rathfriland started life as a small filling station with a kiosk, bought 33 years ago by Tom, who was an engineer by trade.

”I had absolutely no intention of keeping it for too long – I was just going to get it up and running and move on,” he admits.

“33 years on and I still haven’t moved on – I just got immersed into it. I really do enjoy it and it’s all-consuming, but it’s rewarding at the same time. If I don’t keep pushing, it gets boring, so that’s why we keep trying to innovate and in turn elevate the business.

The store has gone from about 500 sq ft to more than 16,000 sq ft and from a handful of staff, it now employs in excess of 200 staff.

Over that time Milestone Rathfriland has been extended and renovated on numerous occasions and it can now claim the honour of being the largest employer in town.

“The biggest change over the years has been the development of the whole food to go and ready meal side of the business and bakery side of the business,” says Noel.

“That’s been our unique selling point and there has been a great deal of development in those areas. We’ve seen growing demand for good quality food at the right price. Food has to be consistently good and it has to be available at the right price.

“There is more and more demand from customers who want restaurant quality food ready-made for them so they can take it home. People have been time scarce and are always on the go, always working hard, and that need and demand has been growing over the years.

“We have been ahead of the curve on this and the business has been going from strength to strength over the years with continual investment and development in these areas.”

One major draw is the bakery, with a wide range of products, including morning goods, granary breads and wheaten breads as well as pastries, buns and cakes.  People can also order cakes for all occasions from the bakery or online which can be decorated to their specific needs by the skilled decorators.

“One major challenge over the past year was the introduction of Natasha’s Law and the necessity of labelling all products with the full list of ingredients,” says Noel.

“This analysis is carried out instore by our team of expert food nutritionists, chefs and production engineers.  Having this onsite allows us to introduce and change our product range at a faster pace than many of the larger multinational stores.”

The shop’s own brands traded well in the second half of 2021, Noel says.

“We were able to increase the footage of store space for our own brands and growth in that was very good.

“One of the things I saw again this year was that there was a huge opportunity in the gifting and hampering trade from corporate companies and businesses who weren’t doing any party nights for their own staff, so we were well prepared for that this year.”

Rising costs will dominate in early 2022, Noel says.

“We think going into 2022, we are all going to face increasing costs, from energy costs and commodity costs on raw materials for bakery, deli and restaurant, to increases in standard cost price of goods across the board.

“We have been seeing that from before Christmas and it’s steadily on the increase. We are still not out of the woods yet with Brexit and the Protocol and it remains to be seen how that ends up.

“We’d like to think the whole Covid restrictions will get easier as we go on. Hopefully it will be a little more relaxed later in the year and we will continue to work through it,” Noel says.