By Georgina Downes

I could write endlessly about the accolades Garvey’s SuperValu has received recently; National Store of the Year 2017, Gold Medal winners for Retail Excellence 2018, overall Best Fresh Food Retailer 2018, but that doesn’t really get to the heart of their success. What makes this store an absolute, hands-down winner has to be its staff, the people you meet every day when you pop in for your coffee, deli roll, your five-a-day or your weekly shop. A quick chat with a few members of the team and I’m convinced they are all genuinely united in their goal to provide the friendliest, most personal and professional shopping experience possible. It’s not lip service; it’s the Garvey family way. The customer is King (or Queen, naturally). In fact, a full length mirror above the stairs in the staff quarters reminds everyone to check their appearance before descending onto the shop floor, make sure they’re customer-ready. A quick adjustment of my skirt and I think I’ll do.

Tralee is the headquarters of the Garvey empire which boasts seven SuperValu shops in Munster. From humble beginnings in Dingle, the Garvey Group have expanded to become the largest family-owned grocer in the country. Listowel woman Sandra Lynch is with the group 17 years and has been managing the flagship Tralee store for the past eight.

“Garvey’s are great employers. My son is 2 ½ now. When I came back after a year on maternity leave, they were really accommodating. I love Tralee, especially in the summer with the passing trade. There’s a great buzz with everyone on their summer holidays.”

I ask her about the impressive 2016 re-vamp that has retailers from Europe flocking to take a look.

“It’s fabulous. It gave us all a new lease of life. We do fresh produce really well but before it was hidden at the back of the shop. Now it’s right out in front and it looks enticing and colourful. The staff loved the whole process. They take great pride in their work and in the new store. Definitely, there is more footfall with the two entrances. It’s added a wonderful flow to the place.”

And perks of the job?

“They throw a great Christmas party,” Sandra laughs. “But seriously, there are fantastic opportunities for progression here or you could relocate to one of the other stores. They are very flexible and they encourage people to aim for promotion.”

“Food retail has become very competitive in Ireland, especially with the arrival of German and British retailers to the market. We had to adapt but we held our own. What’s important to our customers is quality, good service and the personal touch.”

To prove the point, Sandra tells me their online service has an actual human being behind it (Patricia). If an item is out of stock, Patricia will call to let you know. SuperValu are an inclusive store, and very community-minded. They were the first supermarket in Ireland to introduce the specially adapted Elf trolley for shoppers with autism and special needs. They strive to be progressive employers, interested in people who love working with the public. They are quick to spot potential and encourage advancement through training. Amber Moriarty, just 24, was promoted to Trainee Manager last August and she couldn’t be happier in her new role.

“I did a PLC in beauty therapy and I gave in a CV for a summer job here. I’d no retail experience but really enjoyed working with people. I got a job in the news agency. That was five years ago! After a while, I put my name forward for advancement but forgot about it until they told me I was getting a promotion. I was shocked! It’s a lot more responsibility but I love it. I love the routine and the sense of community here. The regulars are great. We even exchange Christmas cards!”

SuperValu is an important contributor to the Tralee economy, employing 110 staff. Clearly, it’s an attractive place to work because people tend to stay. Their butcher is here 40 years; their fruit and veg man 20; their baker over 10; their deli girl; over five. I say ‘girl’ because Niamh Stack, the chef who runs the deli counter, looks like she might still be at school. But her youthful appearance belies her experience. She’s already clocked up five years’ with the 5 star Hotel Europe in Killarney and completed a stint in the French Alps. She tells me vegan options are on the rise but for the most part, school kids will always order hot chicken rolls and wedges, but salads are becoming more and more popular, especially at this time of year. Thank you Christmas over-indulgence.

Sarah Whitehead works in the fish department. This is her first full-time job in years and she hasn’t looked back. She began on the meat counter two years ago. One day, the fish monger was absent so Sarah was drafted in. Turns out, she has a real flare for it. She tells me all the white fish is wild, like the hake (my personal favourite) cod, haddock and monk, and fish-bags have revolutionised the way people cook fish.

“I’m a mum of three. I love cooking but every time I applied for a job involving food they asked if I had HACCP training (Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Point). I didn’t and it was an expensive course for me to do. But then I applied here and they said they would provide the training for me. I was absolutely delighted and working here has definitely changed my life.”

Kevin O Donoghue has been looking after the fruit and veg department for 25 years. What began as a summer job between college terms has turned into a career.

“I started cleaning and worked my way up. I love it, love the fresh produce. We always support local producers. We do vegetables from Kilmoyley and Maherees. Our eggs are from Ardfert, the strawberries are from Farrenfore.”

Have you seen changes in preferences over the years?

“Absolutely. Diets have changed. Avocados and sweet potatoes are popular now. Ready-to-go things, healthy options, all of those are getting more prevalent. People are becoming more health conscience, playing sports.”

Speaking of sport, Kevin is Treasurer of the Garvey’s Tralee Warriors basketball team, who incidentally won the Super League in 2019 and who are currently in the National Cup semi-final. Must be all that fresh fruit and veg.

There are four fully-qualified butchers on the SuperValu meat counter and Aaron O Connell is one of them. His father made sausages for the Queen in the 1960s. His burgers have won the Craft Butchers of Ireland award he has been National Champion White Pudding, Black Pudding, Sausage and Drisheen maker, twice.

“I can be expressive here with my food,” he tells me. “ I love that.”

Will you share your winning burger recipe, I ask.

“It’s a secret,” he shrugs, but he does say a splash of Worchester Sause in the recipe I shared with him would be a nice touch. Aaron’s craft burgers are available from the meat counter.

The bakery is impressive too. All the confectionary is made from scratch in-house. A single weekend can see up to 75 fresh-cream cakes fly out the doors. Not literally. If you want a photo on the cake, bring it along.

I met John Reilly who manages the award-winning Off licence. John has over 20  years’ experience in the liquor trade. He tells me the Graham Norton wine was popular last year and he expects this trend to continue. Graham Norton. Wine. I’m confused. John reminds me  of the wine-drinking throughout Norton’s show. Now the endorsement makes sense. Apparently, the wine is a Marlborough grown grape, a Sauvignon Blanc. John loves talking about wine so don’t be afraid to ask questions. In fact, don’t be afraid to ask any Garvey’s employee a question. Each and every one of them will be only too delighted to help in any way they can.