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End of an era as pioneering Louth fine food store closes its doors after 17 years

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As the news filtered through that Stockwell Artisan Foods in the heart of the town was shutting after 17 years, a constant stream of loyal customers and well-wishers visited the compact café, most bearing bouquets for owners Gwen Fearon and Orlaith Callaghan and their friendly staff.

“Honestly it’s like a funeral parlour here today, there’s that many bunches of flowers,” jokes Gwen in her inimitable style. “We have been blown away by the number of people who have popped into today, so many of them in shock, but all of them with lovely messages for us, so we both want to say a huge thank you to everyone who made the effort.”

Since opening their doors in 2006, the two Dublin-born women have made a huge impact on the retail landscape in Drogheda, introducing unusual products to a very traditional market, as well as innovative ideas like bartering.

Along the way, the duo picked up a plethora of local and national awards, from Bridgestone Guide awards to local business and chamber awards.

“We were only open three weeks when they sent the Bridgestone award to us, so we thought there must have been some sort of mistake,” says Orlaith with a smile. “We rang them and said you’ve made a mistake, but no, we had won it for our Tipsy Mincemeat, which they had sampled at a food fair before we opened!”

The pair had known each other from working in the food and retail industry before they moved to Termonfeckin and thought the local market was ripe for something different.

“There was very limited availability in the town for products from local artisan producers or original or unusual products, and when we opened first, we were part of the Louth Food Network and it was an exciting time of launches like Bronagh (Conlon’s) Poitin, Dermot Seberry’s book A Culinary Journey in the North East and Drummond’s Garlic, all of which we would carry on our shelves,” says Gwen. “We loved seeing the local food scene evolve and how we could play a part in it; that’s what it’s about, you should never look down at people, unless you have an extended hand.

“If you have shelf space, why not offer it to somebody who’s in the beginning?”

One of their most innovative ideas was in 2009, reviving the ancient art of bartering, where they practically declared themselves a republic, with Stockwell ‘currency’!

When Drogheda Borough Council give land to groups for allotments, the growers weren’t allowed to sell their produce for profit but when veg comes into season, the crops grow and produce a lot!

There is only so much you can do with cucumbers and, only so much tzatziki you can eat, and pumpkin pie can you make!

‘We had growers bringing veg every day , with all types of marrows, cucumbers, beets, spinach, kale, courgette, so we made a fab ‘Allotment Salad’ and use the produce in our daily dishes.’

The ‘Stockwell money’ or vouchers were then used to purchase the store’s local honey and jams, as well as local free range eggs, so it was a win, win for everyone.”

Like many small retail businesses, the women were forced to adapt when COVID hit, but weathered that storm through hard work and creativity.

“We traded right through COVID, and that was really interesting because we launched the website, with 90 Irish retailers on the shelves,” explains Gwen. “We did so much online sales; I posted hampers all around Ireland, we did so many deliveries, graze boxes, Breakfast Club, in the hospital every day.

“We were doing what we love doing best; being a collective in a community. And now that’s all gone.”

And therein lies some of the reasons the girls have decided to call it a day.

“There are so, so many reasons why, but in a nutshell, it’s just time,” they both agree. “The demographic of the town has changed, we’ve no banks left, not many independent shops,

“The Drogheda post-COVID Is not the same as Drogheda pre COVID and you know what, at the end of the day, it is time for change.”

She says there is little disposable income too.

“We went from selling 100 of Matilda’s sour dough loaves on a Thursday, to maybe three months ago, when we were lucky to sell 12,” recalls Gwen. “ Lidl and Aldi have also played a big role in this, as the artisan producers we would have dealt with are now being bought up and stocked on their shelves, and we can’t compete with that.”

They say it is clearly a commuter town so people are just not shopping in the town centre anymore, and looking for cut-price shopping.

“I can only speak for myself, but I’m tired and bored,” adds Gwen. “We simply didn’t bounce back from the COVID times and we need a new challenge.”

What that challenge will be is not yet ready to be revealed, if indeed the women know what it is yet, but for now they are planning a well-earned holiday!

“Being a small business owner is challenging at the best of times, and being a small retailer is particularly difficult and I think it seems especially hard in Drogheda,” says Orlaith. “Every town should have an area where artisan producers should be able to sell, but look around and you see all that type of retailer is being forced to close.

“If it’s not supported, it just can’t last.”

There’s no word yet as to what will attempt to replace the irreplaceble cafée, which became an institution in less than two decades, but the girls hope it will be another local producer passionate about supplying unique products.

“We did our time and are very proud of what we achieved, and want to say a big thank you to all our loyal customers over the years,” concludes Orlaith. “It’s someone else’s turn now, and we’ll have a holiday and decide our next adventure!”

They will be sadly missed, as will be their legendary warm welcome and lemon meringue pie. Best of luck girls…

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