A STROLL around the aisles of Dunnes’ flagship store in Patrick Street, Cork city, these days will allow you to snap up everything from almond milk to fresh pastries and exotic fruit and vegetables.
Then there is high fashion from the likes of Paul Costelloe and Lennon Courtney.
It’s hard to believe that when the store opened 75 years ago on Monday, the fanciest items on sale were drapery, and fruit — at a time when most of Europe was at war — was an expensive luxury.
The Dunne’s in Pana opened on Friday, March 31, 1944, and as the main picture on the right shows, shoppers queued up eagerly for the chance to browse and buy from the new store.
The man behind it, Ben Dunne, had been born in Rostrevor, Co Down, in 1908. He had gained experience in a drapery shop in Drogheda and ended up working in Roches Stores in Patrick Street, Cork, in the 1940s.
It was here that Ben met his wife, Nora. They were to be married for 44 years and had six children.
While working at Roches Stores, Ben showed his retail talents and rose through the ranks, becoming a senior buyer. He was asked to oversee the store’s entire drapery business and agreed, on condition that he would receive a pay rise.
However, this request was turned down, with the owners saying that he if got a rise, he would be earning more than any of them.
Ben responded: “And I’m worth more as well.”
At that point, he decided to leave Roches Stores and make the fateful decision to set up on his own.
Ben opened the first branch of Dunnes Stores at 105, Patrick Street, with his savings. Such were the size of the crowds in pursuit of bargains that day 75 years ago, that the Guards had to be called. The words, ‘Better Value’ were emblazoned across the shop, reflecting Ben’s philosophy.
Today, Dunnes Stores has 136 outlets throughout Ireland, Northern Ireland and Spain, employing 15,000 people.
Over the years, employees who worked with Ben said he was “a bit of a genius who was often tough but always fair”. He brought choice at affordable prices to the lives of Irish housewives in the insular years of the 1940s and beyond.
One of the longest serving employees of Dunnes Stores in Cork is Joe Duke, who is the store manager at the Bishopstown Court outlet. That store has undergone a major revamp, employing about 300 people and occupying approximately 72,000 square feet.
Joe, originally from Athlone, joined Dunnes in 1978 and over the decades, has witnessed many changes.
“When I first joined the company, we basically just had our St Bernard brand. That has totally changed,” he says.
“We have our own private labels now, including My Family Favourites and our premium brands that go under the slogan, ‘Simply Better.’
“Chef Neven Maguire is the ambassador for that and we’re working closely with him, hoping he’ll come to the store to do a cookery demonstration.”
Joe has worked for Dunnes Stores all over Ireland. The first shop that he managed was the Nenagh outlet when he was just 20.
He started in Cork 32 years ago, first of all in Ballyvolane before opening Dunnes Stores in Douglas Court. He started working at Bishopstown Court 11 years ago.
Joe has noticed the changing trends in people’s food shopping in particular.
“ “People go abroad on holidays. They’re watching TV cookery programmes. Our range has evolved (to reflect that.)
“When I joined the company, there was no such thing as a bakery department. Now we have an in-store bakery. We do 64 breads and we also have the ABC (Alternative Bread Company) from the English Market.
“We have a new deli venture with Baxter & Greene with two chefs on site.”
As Joe says, shoppers in the Bishopstown Court area on the Bandon Road — and from further afield — don’t have to go into town for their favourite foods.
“The English Market is closed on Sundays but you can get fish, cheeses and breads here any day of the week. We have a venture with (fishmonger) Pat O’Connell from the English Market.”
Admitting to initially feeling a bit nervous about making space for Nourish, a health food brand, Joe says that it has turned into “a tremendous success with 2,500 to 3,000 items on sale.
He adds: “It has brought a whole new customer base to the store. It has led to a significant increase in our health foods. Rather than cannibalise our sales, Nourish complements what we have.”
How does Dunnes Stores compete with the new kids on the block — such as bargain German supermarkets, Aldi and Lidl?
“Every supermarket store is a competitor,” says Joe. “We take it on as a challenge. We still give good value and we cater for the more high end market as well.”
When Ben Dunne died from a heart attack in 1983, leadership of the company became the responsibility of his son, Ben Jr. However, this came to an end in 1992 when he was arrested for cocaine possession in a Florida Hotel.
The ensuing scandal saw the other publicity-shy family members oust their brother with sibling, Margaret Heffernan, taking on the leadership role. She took the company in a new direction adding home furnishings and moving into the mid-market retail category.
Joe has risen the ranks at Dunnes Stores and has no regrets about having had to move all over the country to pursue his career.
“I knew what I was getting into. I had my own drive and set myself personal goals. I wanted to manage a store by my early twenties. Thankfully, I did that and I haven’t looked back.”
Cork’s own singer/songwriter, John Spillane, had a hit with The Dunnes Stores Girl. ‘I’m gonna run down the aisle with the Dunnes Store’s girl/She rules my world’.
Dunnes Stores is still going strong and still boasting about offering ‘good value’, having started out all those years ago on Pana.