Major Investment at Robinson’s of Ballymena pays off with a stunning new-look

Major Investment at Robinson’s of Ballymena pays off with a stunning new-look

Complete Makeover

Bigger and better than ever before, the owners and management of Robinson’s of Ballymena are delighted with their recently completed development, which sees the forecourt and convenience store morph into an independent supermarket for the local community – and beyond.

But as manger Gary Olphert explains – the real work is only just beginning as they build on success to date with a raft of new initiatives and services.

With new suppliers and a bigger range than ever before, wider Shopping Aisles , more parking with larger spaces, K&G McAtamney Butchery, Hot and Cold Deli and Off Sales ins-store plus lottery, Paypoint, Express, Checkout or Self Serve, 24 Hour Petrol & Diesel, 100s of Robinsons own branded fresh foods, a Hot Drinks Station, newspapers and magazines and 24 Hour ATM, Gary Olphert talks IF&CR through it all.

“It was chaotic for a while but it was well worth it,” said Gary, who has worked for Robinson’s of Ballymena since leaving school in 1990, working his way up to manager, having been with the family-owned and run business for over 34 years.

“Previously, there was around 6,000 square feet. That’s been extended to 11,000 square feet, so almost doubled in size.

Large commercial kitchen

“We’ve built a new 3,000 square foot large commercial kitchen and prep room. The demand for fresh food has been one of the driving factors and quite simply, it’s wonderful.

“There’s room for staff to operate, and there’s also a new basement for storage,” explained Gary.

“It looks like a brand new building. The whole forecourt has been re-styled and designed with new parking spaces and a one way system.

“We also bought some land and dwellings across the road to dedicate to staff car parking. We have 85 staff now and while they are not all on duty at the same time, there was a need to free up space for customer parking.

“We now have 100 spaces for customer parking, and 40-50 spaces for staff.

“We started planning the project long before Covid, which brought a lot of panic and uncertainty for retail. We didn’t know what lay two weeks ahead, never mind two years ahead – but it gave us an extra two years to plan.

Independent retailing

“We’re passionate about independent retailing. By increasing the size of the store we’ve increased the amount of footfall and the size of the aisles. There is a Tesco, Sainsburys and Lidl in Ballymena, but the size and appearance of our store now enables us to really serve the local community. Robinson’s own brand range is being made fresh in our own kitchen for people who can’t cook/won’t cook – for people who are time poor – yet at a cost-effective price.

“That’s the part that we expect to grow well – freshly made full meals and dinners, fresh chopped fruit and so on.

“Our in-store K&G McAtamney Butchery was the first satellite butchery by the Ballymena butchers – who have a great location on Greenvale Street in the town, we were really impressed by what they’ve done there. The sandwich bar, deli, the range of offering puts us in a very positive position – and the feedback has been fabulous.

Ground work

“We put in the ground work and it’s paid off. We had 60 staff before, now it’s 85. That could increase to 100 – although 25-30 would be part time doing 25-30 hours. Looking for reliable staff can be a challenge, and staff wages are always increasing – but the feedback from the community has been super-positive.

“We talked to our neighbours when we were doing our research. We liaised with the local historical society and the Ulster Museum, and so instead of using generic images, we sourced images from Cullybackey going back decades – within living memory – pictures of old factories and locations. That has been very successful. In fact, a wee anecdote – a few Saturday’s ago someone asked to speak to the manager, and my first thought was that there was a problem – but it turned out an elderly lady’s son had sent her up to the shop. He said there was something there she should see. It was our picture of a thatched cottage from the early 1900s, and she was able to give me a little bit of history about the house. It was a special moment, and it’s lovely to spend time with someone who can give you those sort of links to the local community. It was special.

Taking pride

“We take pride in being a community shop at the end of the day. We are here for our customers and for some of our elderly customers, that might be the highlight of their day – coming to the shop for 25 minutes or half an hour.

“It’s a Nisa Extra store and a Texaco filling station. I love that we are a truly independent store and can source products locally – we don’t have to bring everything in from England. From Cork to local lemonade suppliers, large and little local suppliers – with whom we can build relationships. We have good personal relationship with the reps. 80% of our stock is sourced locally, and about 20% from Nisa.

“We were also particularly fortunate with the team we put together for the construction. N&A Construction and ABAX Electrical suppliers were both an absolute pleasure to work with. We had a great team on board, and that has made all the difference.

“This type of project is normal for them and they really did deliver – they just knew what they were doing and they took it all in their stride. We were able to continue trading through it all.

Higgins Refrigeration did a fantastic job throughout the shop and Stephen’s Catering fitted our bespoke butchery, deli and commercial kitchen.

“We changed the forecourt to Texaco Pay@ Pump. That’s the future of selling fuels – no more drive-offs or taking fuel and forgetting to pay.

“Through all the redevelopment we didn’t have time to deal with that, so it’s been a blessing. A very small minority of people weren’t keen on that, cash is still king for some, but most people make payments on their card or phones these days. The forecourt tis open 24/7 and one lady even told us she was able to come down in her pyjamas in the middle of the night to fill up!

New refrigeration

“We haven’t put in a charge point yet for electric vehicles on the forecourt as we’re waiting to see what the impact of all the new refrigeration will be over the summer – but we are looking at that, and space has been allocated. The new deli is a huge operation, and so we need to assess what that means in terms of electricity – so we’ll wait and see.

“The one way system has certainly helped the flow of traffic out on the forecourt.”

Talkin to Gary, it’s clear to hear the enthusiasm and passion he has for his work and for what’s been active at Robinson’s Cullybackey. He has worked for the Robinson brothers and their dad Finlay since 1990 – and has come a long way since it was just six of them running it all, along with half a dozen part-timers.

“I’ve been through two previous re-developments – thing shave changed a lot in the last 34 years. Thing that didn’t exist then are core to the business now.

“Finlay and Kenneth are still very much involved in the business and are here every day, and are a delight to work with.

“We’re still getting used to it all three months in – for example, we had to close off the off-licence during the re-build, but we’re starting to see those regular customers coming back for their off-sales.

“The self-serve tills have also proved to be more popular than we thought. We had five tills in the old shop, and have increased that to nine. The three express tills, with Paypoint an lotto, plus three conveyor tills for people doing a big shop. It’s all running very smoothly, but we have noticed that more and more people are using self-serve – that’s increased from 20-25% to 31-33% in the last few weeks. People coming into the shop at lunchtime just want to get in and out as quickly as possible.

“It all helps when you’re serving around 2,000 customers per a day.”

Looking Back

The History of Robinson’s Cullybackey

Robinson’s on the Cullybackey Road has been trading on its current site since 1985 having purchased the original premises from Austin McGillian who was about 6/7 years into his relatively new business venture at the time, Ace Fixings. There had been a petrol station forecourt on the site since the 1960s

Current owners, brothers Finlay and Ken Robinson are sons of Cecil Robinson who was a well known businessman in Ballymena throughout the 60s 70s and 80s with forecourt sites on the bottom of William Street and in turn on the Doury Road. Cecil was also well known from his days in the car accessory trade (Driverite Accessories) from an era and generation where car modification was a huge aftermarket business


Relocation to the Cullybackey Road as mentioned was circa 1985.  Some will remember that it was basically a shed and small forecourt which underwent its first phase redevelopment into a BP Forecourt shop in the late 80s.

By the mid-nineties the shop was extended to become one of the first Costcutter stores in Northern Ireland and was a fast success, albeit limited to a 2000sq ft shop.

Prior to arrival of the national multiple supermarkets, Northern Ireland had thriving wholesalers and successful independent supermarkets jotted throughout.  Whereas petrol retailing was initially the business driver, over the last 25 years, forecourts have increasingly become secondary to convenience and grocery retailing.

Evolved and adapted

By the early 2000s the major supermarket chains had become established competition to local wholesalers and independent shops in the high street and across the borough. Robinsons, like many other resilient independent retailers, coupled with people’s desire to shop and support local business, thankfully evolved and adapted with success and the next phase on the Cullybackey road was planned, opening in January 2006 (at that time still under the Costcutter banner)

A complete new-build at the time, the existing forecourt and car park was provided by the acquisition of the old Ballymena Car Hire business next door (originally John Kenny Auto repairs). Over the last 18 years the shop has gone from strength from strength, leaving the Costcutter brand in 2015 to work direct with suppliers whilst underpinning supply the wholesaler Nisa

Recent endeavours

Robinson’s Cullybackey most recent endeavour started in 2022, and saw a multimillion pounds investment over 2 years, increasing the shop to almost 11000 square feet of retail space and offering customers a new modern and bespoke independent shopping experience. This was achieved by acquiring three adjoining dwellings which in turn gave the planners enough room to give us a smart & modern supermarket with plenty of space for staff and customer parking.

Emphasis on ‘fresh’

With an emphasis on fresh, they installed a state of the art 3000 square foot commercial kitchen to support new deli counters and to feed an ever growing take home range of foods under the Robinsons name. ‘Shop Local Support Local’ encapsulates the family business model and they pride themselves in their marketing as being the ‘community go to supermarket’ on the Cullybackey Road. Another logo they stand behind is “Local Shopping Made Easy” based on their business model of fast friendly & convenient shopping with everything you need under one roof.

“Our long-term objective is to provide a bigger fresher and somewhat bespoke retail offering in Ballymena, concentrating on a larger fresh foods and deli range – an overall food hall experience underpinned by what is already on offer, but in a brighter modern building with contemporary fixtures and fittings,” said Gary.

“We have increased our workforce over the last 18 months from 65 to approx. 85 staff with many of our colleagues being part of our journey for many years.

“Covid and its various trade and supply factors had a major influence in slowing our most recent renovations from getting out of the ground. But we were able to step back and reflect on how the new business could and should deal with a new era of independent shopping. Our regular customers will be familiar that we announced the expansion perhaps 3-4 years ago. There have been many challenges in this timeframe; most recently a cost-of-living crisis, but we are pleased with the end result of our redevelopment and how we might encourage new and current customers to shop local. I think it puts us in good stead for the next phase of our journey in retailing.”