Farmers Weekly Local Food Farmer of the Year 2013: Colin McKee

A big congratulations to Colin McKee- farmers weekly food farmer of the year 2013!

When Colin McKee opened the doors to McKee’s Country Store and Restaurant in 2005, the town of Newtownards in Northern Ireland was a local food desert.

No one for miles was doing what he was doing, which meant there was no blueprint, no local success stories to glean ideas from and no guarantee that customers would come.

But customers did come. In fact, so many came that when Colin and his wife Linda first opened the farm shop and 60-seater restaurant, capacity was instantly too small to cope with demand.

“We couldn’t believe the success of the restaurant,” says Colin. “There were queues every day and people would have to leave because they realised they would never get in.”

Responding to the overwhelming demand, the McKees opened an expanded farm shop and restaurant in 2007 and the business has been growing year on year ever since.

“Home-grown beef and chickens, a busy production kitchen and thriving deli, combined with a strong vision and close attention to detail, make this business a winner.”

Sally Jackson

Chairman, Farm and Retail Markets Association

It took bags of leadership and vision, several calculated risks, some gutsy investments and an unerring confidence in his home-reared meat to build McKee’s into the £3m-turnover business it is today, but it’s easy to see why customers keep coming back.

In the restaurant, customers can eat fresh, home-cooked, locally-sourced food while they take in stunning views of the Craigantlet hills. In the shop, a vast butchery counter displays beef and free-range chickens reared on-site. And the deli counter was described by our independent judge as a “masterclass in added value”. A colourful display of local vegetables is supplied by farmers in nearby Comber – less than a 10-mile drive from McKee’s. Freezers and cold cabinets complete the local food offering, with butter, milk, cheese and ice cream from a range of Northern Ireland farms, dairies and creameries.

Professionalism runs throughout the business – from the in-store graphics that tell the story of the family farm’s 91-year history, to the organisation of staffing. By appointing general managers in each section, Colin has been able to hand over much of the day-to-day running of the business, giving him more time to focus on driving it forward.

This has helped McKee’s record an impressive growth rate of more than 7% in 2012. In the longer term Colin is aiming for a more sustainable annual growth rate of 3.5%, and there is a clear business plan in place to achieve that. The McKees have already got planning permission for an extension to the restaurant and an improved entrance to the building. They’re also hoping to grow the number of orders through their online shop and expand their relatively new catering operation.

One of the biggest testaments to the success of McKee’s is the opening of new farm shops in the area – all hoping to emulate its success. Newtownards is no longer a local food desert, which goes to prove that Colin is a true local food pioneer.