Creative collaboration SPARKs new custom for businesses

Wednesday 22 November 2023

In September 2021 Mid and East Antrim Borough Council launched SPARK - an exciting programme offering specialist mentoring support to early-stage businesses - tailored to the individual client needs.

Whitney McIlfatrick from Greenhill Vegan Bakery

Over the past two years, SPARK has assisted over 170 businesses, providing close to 1,100 hours of support, representing an investment of £60,000.  The programme has helped support new SMEs and Social Enterprises navigate and thrive in a changing business environment resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit and other economic influences.

Amid the challenges posed by recent times, these new businesses have shown continued resilience, innovation and unwavering entrepreneurial spirit. Ranging from innovative professional service providers including health and wellbeing, photography specialists and beauty therapy to customer and community led food specialists and catering establishments - these businesses contribute vibrancy and vitality to the local economy.

Over the past two years a number of SPARK clients have reaped the rewards of collaboration, pulling together on their research and creative endeavours for mutual benefits that provide an enhanced service offering for their customers. 

These inspirational examples include:

Carrick Greengrocers

Carrickfergus Greengrocers opened its doors at 28 West Street in July 2023, following 18 months of behind the scenes work from its nine volunteer directors.

The need for a town centre greengrocers emerged from the Positive Carrickfergus group and their involvement in Mid and East Antrim Borough Council’s Sustainable Food Places project. The greengrocer’s vision was to ensure that everyone in the community would have the opportunity to access nutrient-rich, locally sourced, and in season food.

The business has been established as a community benefit society - the first of its kind in Carrickfergus.  Over £34,000 in startup costs was raised through the purchase of shares and it now has 434 members and co-owners. This was an important step in the development of the business and ensures that everyone who bought shares in the greengrocers is a member of the cooperative plus a part owner of the shop.

Using only organically produced items, Carrickfergus Greengrocer is proud to trade in such a way that supports a sustainable environment and economy, creating and developing relationships with local suppliers and enabling these businesses to sell their produce through one central location.

Recently Carrickfergus Greengrocers was recognised at the Social Enterprise NI Awards, picking up the ‘Outstanding Volunteer Team’ award in honour of the hardworking members that keep the business going and develop the incredible collaborations with local suppliers.

In addition to seasonal fruit and veg, Carrickfergus Greengrocers also stocks local and award-winning artisan breads, chutneys, locally produced coffee and sweet delights. 

Greenhill Vegan Bakery

Greenhill Vegan Bakery provides local businesses with vegan cakes, biscuits, and other bakes to satisfy the sweet tooth of their customers who require egg-free, dairy-free, and gluten-free treats. The business is a one-woman show, run by Whitney McIlfatrick who bakes all her items from a catering trailer at her home near Broughshane.

Through her own personal journey and the needs of her young family, Whitney spotted a niche gap in the market.

Whitney benefitted from support programmes in setting up and growing her business, including the ‘Go For It’ Programme, the Gallaher Trust Seed Fund Grant, and most recently SPARK.

Whitney explains: “SPARK set me up with a mentor who helped me to invigorate my social media content, investigate new sources for sales and create a direct marketing campaign for my audience. As I run a business alone I found it very useful to have someone with different skills to brainstorm with and help progress new ideas. Being the sole person responsible for all aspects of a business can be overwhelming but the support from both my ‘Go For It’ and SPARK mentors has helped me to manage wearing so many hats!”

Currently, Greenhill Vegan Bakery attends two monthly markets and supplies two cafes, a bakery, an eco-refill store and Carrickfergus Greengrocers. More recently, Greenhill Vegan Bakery entered into a partnership with Dougie’s Goodies - a Ballymena bakery established 40 years ago - to expand their range with vegan and gluten-free items.

Whitney finds great satisfaction in collaborating with other local small businesses to support the economy within the community and looks for organisations that share similar values.

Both Greenhill Vegan Bakery and Carrick Greengrocers are small businesses with a mission to help their customers shop better by reducing their carbon footprint, food and packaging waste and preserving the local food chain. Sustainable, local food is a cornerstone if both businesses with seasonal changes to reflect the locally grown produce available at any given time.

The SPARK programme has been superseded by an exciting new NI Enterprise Support Service ‘Go Succeed’.

This new service aims to put in place an ambitious approach to the delivery of start-up and growth support - revamping the current offering and increasing the number, survival, and growth rates of new businesses across the region. The service will provide a set of connected enterprise support services where individuals, entrepreneurs or businesses can access a continuum of support to meet their needs, aligned with the relevant stage of their business.

To learn more about this new service visit the Go Succeed website or call T: 0800 027 0639.