Feeding the network – Thomas Ennis on his stunning Spar stores

Thomas Ennis has built an astonishing network of Spar stores, and tells Ireland’s Forecourt & Convenience Retailer how he’s embraced his mistakes to create success

“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”

Dublin playwright George Bernard Shaw’s approach to the art of mistake making still rings true 67 years after his death.

And should he have lived to see the retail innovations introduced by fellow Dubliner, Thomas Ennis, it’s not inconceivable they could have warranted a mention in his works.

Thomas, now 43, has spent a lifetime in retailing for his comparatively young age, with 28 years in the business.

Photo by Kevin Mcfeely

His career began with the iconic Superquinn, and it’s that experience Thomas believes gave him the tools to build his own network.

“It was lucky that I worked for a lot of good people in retailing,” he said. “At Superquinn, I worked for Pat Kelly, Cormac Tobin and Feargal Quinn. I worked with really good people.”

After Superquinn, Thomas spent time in Eurospar with figures like John Fury, developing his knowledge and experience yet further and eventually culminating in Thomas opening his first store in 2005 – Spar Merrion Row.

The Dublin City Centre store, with its spectacular brass sign, would prove to be ahead of its time, introducing innovations that, over ten years later, only now are becoming commonplace.

“We were one of the first to introduce a sit-down area in the store,” he said. “We were being very innovative throughout the store, and Spar was a big part of that.”

According to Thomas, Spar is known as being ahead of its time, and it was his close relationship with the brand that has helped his business continue to push boundaries.

“They don’t hold people back, and they’re constantly innovating,” he said.

The coffee dock area

And one of the areas where that innovation is focused is food.

“In Dublin, the customers we had were time-pressed and educated in food,” Thomas explained. “We were trying very hard to stay ahead of them. When they came in to the store, they could see the significant level of innovation taking place. There was nothing else like it.”

Qualified chefs were introduced to produce food at an unprecedented quality for a convenience store, while Thomas’ shop was the first of its ilk to introduce an Insomnia Coffee offering and sit-down area.

Thomas’ second store was a Spar in Celbridge, and it would be here the young retailer would learn some of his most valuable lessons.

“It was where I’ve made the best, and the worst, business decisions I have ever made,” he candidly told Ireland’s Forecourt & Convenience Retailer.

“It was the worst decision because I had gone against the advice of many people, and whose opinions would turn out to eventually be right. My best decision was to come out of it.”

The in-store seating area

The opening of Celbridge would prove to be an important mistake for Thomas. The store succumbed to a combination of bad timing and a recessional beating, but Thomas would not be deterred.

His next venture would be a major success, Spar in Upper Baggot Street. So successful in fact, that he would go on to open a second store in Lower Baggot Street that would push the network to another level.

That store would be Spar Gourmet and, opening in 2012, it was the first of its kind. It has been a cauldron of creativity ever since, introducing new concepts, such as its recent Build Your Own (BYO) Burger, allowing customers to create burgers exactly as they like them using premium ingredients.

“Dublin is heavily into its food,” Thomas said. “People want to be inspired by what you’re offering. We worked closely with Spar to create the design and layout. Spar gourmet has a very high level of food participation and we have a very strong coffee offer and an instore bakery. It also has a central kitchen, which prepares and produces all our own food using only the best ingredients. We don’t rely on third parties.”

The store contains an attractive and bright deli counter

Other openings would follow, in Mount Street Lower, and a number of forecourts. These would see the Ennis Group team up with Maxol in Mespil Road and Longmile.

“We have worked very closely with Maxol, who in my opinion, are very innovative forecourt retailers, with fantastic vision of where they’re headed,” he said.

Thomas’ resultant network now consists of seven Spars, two forecourts, and three delis, including the classy Füdi café concept. But even within this diverse network, store formats vary widely depending on the needs of the area, while Thomas is constantly keen to try new things, innovate, and take risks.

The risk taking has paid off, with 60% fresh food participation in the Spar Gourmet store, while margins are in the region of 30% – a region in which many other retailers would like to reside.

“The margins are high, but when you do food properly, there are a lot of associated costs too,” Thomas pointed out. “It’s not something you can cut corners with. The wages are a bit higher, running costs and equipment costs are higher. When you go for food, you have to expect these things.”

Thomas’ love for all things food extends to his enthusiasm for good coffee. This has manifested in his employment of nine fully trained baristas across his estate.

“Along with our Insomnia Coffee offer, we have a team of nine baristas preparing quality coffees across much of the network,” he said.

“In my view, good barista-made coffee is essential and well worth the extra effort. It complements our food offering and creates a complete offer. It shows we’re serious about delivering quality food.

“Customers these days are better educated about food, better travelled, and have higher expectations than ever before. They want to come in and be impressed, and a strong barista offer helps us achieve that.”

Close-up of the deli

Thomas explained that the food offering among his competitors was increasing in sophistication, but competition is something he welcomes.

“We’re surrounded by burrito bars among others,” he said. “But in my opinion, it’s a good thing. It helps develop the destination and creates a buzz around you. Ultimately that boosts the location and brings more customers to the area. Competition is good, and it pushes you forward.

“For example, I operate a Chopped in Maxol Longmile Road, and it’s a fantastic and popular offering. It’s performing really well.

“People are more conscious of the food they’re consuming; they want to know who made it, where it’s from, what’s in it – I think that’s brilliant. And when we’re able to answer those questions, it gives the customer confidence in our food.”

Another important aspect for Thomas is service. As a “hands-on” operator, helping his staff deliver quality customer service is a high priority.

Thomas said: “It’s our number one priority that our customers are spoiled when they come in. There’s so much competition you have to let them know you appreciate their business, and part of that is ensuring you have high standards; the store must be clean, well maintained, tidy, and well laid out.”

But while hands-on, Thomas relies heavily on his leadership team.

“We promote all our managers from within the store and offer a lot of internal training. I’ve built a very strong leadership team and developed a good structure to help me run the business: Sandra McCormick is the general manager, and she’s been with me from day one.

“Anne Carter looks after the fresh food side of the business, while Joanna Staron is our operations manager. It’s taken a while to assemble this excellent team, and it’s one of the best out there.”

Baked goods on offer

Looking to the future, Thomas said the group is constantly looking to expand, but will lean on the experience he’s accumulated over his comprehensive career before taking the plunge.

“We’re looking to open at least a couple of store in the next few years, as long as they fit with our plan and have the potential to develop our emphasis on food.”

It’s another area where Thomas and the Dublin playwright agree.

“There is no love sincerer than the love of food.” – George Bernard Shaw.