Country choice is an independent delicatessen café and supply business located in Tipperary. Established in 1982, the store opened just when the Irish food industry was just starting to come into its own. Since then, the deli continues to make its mark on the Irish culinary scene, leading the way for other independent establishments across the region.
Founder Peter Ward is a mover and shaker who makes things happen on the Irish culinary scene. He tells IF&CR why sourcing from local producers is a massive priority for them, and how they have experienced sustainable success for almost four decades despite numerous obstacles.
“Before major convenient stores and forecourts brought in their own deli counters, we were one of the first to take a risk and bring in this style of fresh, ready- to- go food.”
Nestled in the town centre of Nenagh, Peter chose the location because of its connections with local food.
“Sourcing our foods from local producers is a huge priority for us, and since the 1980s we’ve been building lifelong relationships with people who we still rely on today to provide us with the best, locally sourced products. We aim to promote the work of the best of Irish artisan producers both in the region and nationally.”
Having experienced what goes on behind the scenes in the food and convenience industry for many years, Peter noticed a gap in the market that he was determined to fill.
“I transitioned from working on a farm to working for a multiple many years ago. During that time, I realised very quickly that they were so far removed from the notion of land and live animals. I felt that gap getting wider and wider, so in my early twenties I left with the ambition to see this gap become closer, and that is where the idea for Country Choice came about.
“The country market has changed dramatically over the years. I think people are now a lot more cautious about where their food is coming from, so we aim to make sure our customers know that we provide good eggs, good meats, good jam, products they can rely upon. Of course, it can often restrict us on the business side of things, but we refuse to compromise on quality.”
“One of the biggest challenges now is location. Years ago we were in the perfect place for a country store, but now with peripheral retail, that has all changed. We are on the outskirts of a town that has now only got 7000 to 8000 people, and that has been a phenomenal challenge for us.
“To tackle this issue we set up a temporary pop up shop for 3 days a week in the Limerick Milk Market, when the crisis hit. My adult daughters helped with taking some of our best food-to-go products like our meat sandwiches, and attending rock concerts and other festivals with our deli truck. Together the three of us made a very solid living out of that for ten solid years, as well as opening the market shop.”
For Country Choice, having a bigger kitchen on the premises is more important than a larger shop. All foods are made from scratch on site, and no convenience foods are used in the kitchen. All soups, breads, pies, meats, pates, are all made on a daily basis. As a result, The Wards have built a sterling reputation in the area for providing the freshest foods. However, with the rise of obscure diets and the need for food-to-go, Peter says the team have really had to adapt to the changing market and needs of the modern consumer, whilst still refusing to compromise on providing fresh, reliably sourced foods.
“The food-to-go market has really blossomed. In our pop-up-shop in Limerick, almost a third of our purchases are food-to-go while consumers shop. We still have customers who buy our organic vegetables and food to make from scratch, but we are seeing a huge shift in customers who want food in the hand to take and eat straight away.
“We’ve always catered for vegetarians, but we really have had to be prepared when it comes to making sure we can cater for the person wanting a beef sandwich, and the person behind them wanting to make sure the soup is 100 percent vegan friendly. We have great respect for the needs of our customers whatever they may be. We’re independent enough to change our menu whenever we see fit without much restriction.”
As winners of multiple awards including the 2012 Natural Food Award, Good Food Ireland’s Producer of the Year, the 2015 Best Market Stall, and 2017 Ireland’s Food & Wine Award, Peter and Mary Ward are no strangers to success. However, with potential obstacles on the horizon including Brexit and cost rises, Peter says they will seek to tackle future challenges like they have done so in the past, and continue to hold onto their store values no matter what they face.
“During the recession we had a very difficult time in deciding how to cut down on costs and ensure that people who had struggling incomes could still come and shop with us. What we chose to do was to go back to our absolute core, and refuse to cut back on the premium quality of our products. We knew it would cost us, but it’s a key value for us, and no matter what we always make sure that providing great quality is our first priority.
“The implications of Brexit are of course a concern, especially because we live in a town that supplies enormous quantities of beef going out to the UK frequently. We’re also close to a factory that produces around 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of butter every week that is shipped into the UK and European market. Our hometown will inevitably experience a hit in one way or another, whatever the outcome of Brexit may be.
“Coming out of the last year we continue to pay off debt from the recession, and we’re excited to have that out of our hair. We’re now looking at how we can modify the shop to keep it going for another few years to come, and have already engaged with a firm to see how we can get plans underway for that. We have a big busy kitchen and café, and so we want to see how we can grow our store to ensure we can overcome busy times of the year like Christmas when our marmalades and patties sell incredibly fast. We’re also excited to see the next generation rise up and start to make a mark on the food industry here. Our daughters have started their own food business here, catering especially for vegan diets, so I’m proud to see the generation below us moving on and making food their livelihood.”