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Uptown girl

Rosemarie Bennis of Sonas* Healthfoods in Newcastle West, Co. Limerick, dared to dream of a move to a better part of town.

I have been in business since 2001, the sole health food store in a small town of approximately 6,000 people and a well-populated hinterland. I was lucky to set up my shop at a time when the economy was on the up.

After the first tough four years of just staying open and learning the ropes of business, I began to turn a profit and was able to grow the stock range, take on staff and develop the business further.

Fast forward 10 years and the downturn began to affect our town, as it did throughout Ireland. I still had a good core business, it was just that it had plateaued and I found it harder and harder to maintain my position. I knew that if something didn’t change I would struggle to stay in business.

My shop location had never been ideal. On an outlying street at the less salubrious end of town, my business was so niche at the time I opened that it still managed to draw a good flow of custom. However now that the health and wellness industry had really taken off I knew I needed to be more visible and a good central location was key.

Premises right in the centre that I had been eyeing for a long time finally came up for rent – which was just as well as there was no way my failing business could raise a mortgage to buy the property. In the summer of 2015 I signed the lease for five years and set about the transformation to a spanking new shop.

I had moved once before but this time was very different. For one, the spend was so much higher as I was transforming a gutted building. In addition I had decided that I needed a point of difference and wanted to open a food bar and serve coffees and hot drinks. This was something I had no idea of how to do so I began to visit cafés, delis and other health food stores to glean inspiration.

I consulted with a café designer which proved invaluable as it told me what I needed, and also with a visual merchandiser and retail consultant. Previously I would never have paid for advice and help because I never had the budget, and also I had never seen myself at that level of retail. But I had to up my game and reach out for the tools of the trade that could help me. It was all money well spent and it allowed me to figure out the shape of the new store to come.

I knew the shop element was going to be my core business and needed due time and attention. But nothing had prepared me for the sheer ‘busyness’ of serving a cup of coffee and tub of salad. It turns out that food service is really labour intensive. To be the employer and director, training in new staff in a totally new area while maintaining the core shop business as well was not easy.

The margins for error are slim to none, though my new foray was greeted with such enthusiasm and appreciation it gave us a massive lift and buoyed us all in the early, hectic days of transition.

Three years on and I can say that the shop move has been wonderful. We have grown our business exponentially and have attracted many new customers along with keeping our old core base. We feel we contribute more to the town as we are now bang in the centre and offer a beautiful space to meet and eat, do shopping or get some advice on a health issue.

The panic of the initial transition has been replaced with confidence and capacity to handle change. I employ great new people and while I still have my bad days where I am just stuck, more often than not I learn from the shop everyday and love what I do.

I was lucky to find an excellent cook who continues to make delicious, nutritious salads, soups and curries. We work in partnership and continue to evolve our food offering. Consistency is vital, variety is important. You need to love it and to be interested in food as it is not the same as advising on and selling an ambient product from the shelf.

*Sonas is Irish for happiness/lightness of spirit

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