SOME stalls in the English Market have held their station for so long, they have become part of the fabric of the market itself, as though they have always been there and always will.
Mr Bell’s Emporium does just that.
Two generations in, Cork’s mini spice medina was here plying its trade in exotic spices and oriental sauces before the average Corkonian knew they needed what Driss Belmajdoub was selling.
Driss, the original ‘Mr Bell’, had a passion for food, spice and the craft of salesmanship; grit, determination and love for his family provided the fuel for his success.
In November, 2016, Driss passed away. Out of the sadness, Mr Bell’s Emporium was reimagined by his son, Alan Belmajdoub.
As we sit sipping coffee in the Farmgate Café, we talk about future plans, product innovation, branding and so on, but it is when talk turns to his father that Alan’s face lights up.
It’s clear that although this humble centre for Cork spice has been injected with a serious dose of ambition, some things will remain unaltered — a commitment to quality, great service and a willingness to give others a hand up — just like his father received when he first established Mr Bell’s Emporium in 1984.
“My father originally trained as an accountant, and worked as a chef in Belgium to earn some money while he was in college. My mother, who’s from Cork, was teaching English in Belgium, and that was where they met.
“When he came to Ireland in the late ’60s, he lived with my grandparents in Healy’s Bridge for about a year. He worked four or five different jobs to get some money together, and originally started off with a very small stall in the English Market selling Moroccan leather goods: wallets, vases, Moroccan-style dresses.
“In the late 1970s, he set up Cork Catering Services with three others, and ran the restaurant and bar up in the Airport.
“In 1980, he got a stall in the English Market and sold homemade coleslaw and lasagne dishes, herbs and spices. People walked by and decided it wasn’t for them, even though nowadays those kind of things are normal.
“In 1984, he got the stall that is just across from Mary-Rose’s Coffee Central, on her recommendation. She was a big help in dad expanding his business in here, bringing in spices, oriental foods and dried goods. He used to throw away more than he would sell back then because people didn’t know about sweet chili sauces, they didn’t know about paprika!
“Before that, and before I was born, he opened a restaurant in our house. It was called The Ranch House in Ballinhassig. He’d seat 40 or 50, if not more, for dinner and host events for the guards and fire officers, and catered chicken suppers in Crosshaven.
“He was a workaholic — I’d say I have half the drive, but that’s still a lot!
“I remember, growing up, everything was work, his mind was continually non-stop thinking of things to do. He had a passion for it and loved his food, and that translated into all the stuff he used to bring and try to sell. He had a good spark about him, a good way with people — a natural salesperson.
“In the early 1990s, it was getting busier in the market and he had more restaurants on board, so he took a unit on Tramore Road and then the second unit in the English Market.
“He had a strange way about stocking the two shops, a lot of overlapping. We used to ask him why he kept the two shops, but he loved the fact that he had the two, going from one to the other when he was in here, to see people, talk to people. It was just his way.
“The English Market reminded him of the medinas in Morocco, I think it reminded him of being at home, in Fez.”
Some 35 years on, and Mr Bell’s is still 100% owned by the family: Alan, his sister who works part time in accounts and social media, and their mother. But change is on the horizon, as Alan puts plans into motion to merge the two Market shops into one.
“The way I look at it,” he says, “if you stand still people will just go past you, so you have to change. Not so much that it changes what you do, but just enough to be an improvement — little and often.
“We’re keeping the stall we renovated a year and a half ago. That investment has paid off and business has picked up there, but it needed it. A lot of places in the market have renovated and new places have come in now too, so you have to get with the times.
“We’re opening a new shop in the warehouse in Togher, similar in style to our English Market shop where you can bring your own tubs and containers and we’ll fill them for you. The big plus for us is that there is parking at the door.
“Some of the items we have we can’t sell in the English Market because they’re too big —you couldn’t be walking around town with a 10kg bag of rice under your arm!”
The newly-planned Togher shop, which will open later in 2019, will be able to cater for both retail and wholesale, opening Monday to Saturday, and if things go well, maybe Sunday opening too. Alan hints of possible in-house spice workshops and cookery demos — all part of Mr Bell’s ongoing spice education.
“Going back 10 years, the range of spices people buy now compared to then is much bigger. People are using spices non-stop — in baking and in all sorts of ways. People are more adventurous in the types of spice they use — things like Za’atar and Sumac are flying off the shelves.
“In 2016, my sister and I launched our range of pinch pots. We started with 30 spice blend varieties, now we have about 90 varieties of spice blends. They’ve proved very popular.”
People cooking at home want really good flavour in their food but are caught for time. Mr Bell’s Pinch Pots offer a solution that works for the time-pressed home cook without compromising on flavour. Making a Korma can be as easy as adding coconut milk and chopped tomatoes to your spice blend with onions, meat, vegetables and letting it simmer. Alternatively, put everything into your slow cooker before work in the morning, and a delicious meal is ready for you at the end of a long day.
“It’s just easier for people and healthier — we don’t add any preservatives, MSG or additives; just pure, natural spice. Provide a good product and people will keep coming back.”
Keeping ahead of any new trends is key too, says Alan, who spends a lot of time researching.
“Be the one who will set the trend instead of chasing it,” he says.
“At the moment, people want hot food — the hotter the better. We sell hot sauces from Cork producers Rock Steady Food Co and Cork Chili Company. People come in to buy that and they’ll pick up something else while they’re there. It’s good for me and I’m supporting local businesses … we’re not the food capital for nothing!”
Mr Bell’s Emporium now stocks more than 100 different varieties of spices, salt and herb blends, as well as stocking a huge array of oriental sauces, condiments, grains and pulses.
The Pimento blend for Spice Beef was created by Alan’s father just a couple of years ago, and sells really well with butchers at Christmas; and their most popular is the Steak Seasoning made with a blend of 12 different spices.
But one thing he has never been able to crack is his father’s recipe for Thai Green Curry.
“I love cooking, I used to watch my dad cook, although he’d never tell me how to do something or what went into it. His Thai Green Curry was unbelievable, and although I keep trying, I just can’t make it as good as he did!”
Next Monday: Gautham Iyer of Iyers.