Moran’s Centra on Derry’s Strand Road has not closed for a single day in 21 years and “it’s going to take bulldozers to finally do the job,” says owner John Moran.
The “ever reliable” Strand Road store will be demolished on July 30 to make way for a “re-invention” of the family-owned-and-run business.
When the store first opened in 1997, Donegal drivers still filled their fuel tanks in Derry. Unleaded petrol and diesel were 59.9p per litre, the Strand Road was dual-lane traffic and the new service station’s deli was an exciting new concept in Ireland.
With the breakfast roll boom now considered old hat for many and fuel customers trickling back across the border, the Moran family is planning to knock it all down and start again.
That’s how John and Donna Moran started the business - the old Esso Service Station was razed to the ground within months of them buying it in 1996.
“And that’s how we’re going to re-invent ourselves once again, ” John explains. “We’ve been open for 7,532 days, non-stop - even on Christmas Day. We’ve not closed one single day in 20 years, 7 months and 15 days. I’d imagine that’s some kind of record, if not in all of Northern Ireland, certainly in the North West, ” he adds.
The redevelopment will include a state-of-the-art new store and an innovative food-to-go concept in an investment of £1.6m. The project will take eight months to complete and will create 15 new full and part time jobs. Notably, employees will be retained, where possible, during the period of construction - a reflection of the company’s long-standing Investor in People status.
“We must keep all our long-standing, hardworking staff throughout construction because we owe it to them for their loyalty, ” John said. “We know how important they are to our business.
“Leaving our customers without a store was a big decision to make and we apologise to all of them. People are saying they will miss us something terrible, but the store needs refurbished and the only way to do the job right is to flatten it completely and start again. We have listened and will continue to listen to our customers and we believe strongly that innovation is the best way to bring our customers the improvements in service and offering that they deserve.”
Back in 1997, Moran’s Centra on Strand Road was one of the first Centra Stores in Northern Ireland and a part of one of the biggest innovations in fresh food to go when it brought the service station deli revolution to the North West.
“The concept was so alien - we had the first service station deli in Derry and it was among the first on the island, ” recalls John. “People thought we were mad. I remember one of our friends saying: Derry people won’t get up to buy hot breakfast from a shop, are you nuts?’
The concept was new, so it was a big move for us at the time.”
The food offering played a big part in sustaining the new venture when fuel sales suffered a hefty body blow within a year of opening.
“We lost 70 per cent of our fuel business nine months after opening - that was a catastrophe, ” he recalled. “The currency fluctuations and the fuel tax difference resulted in most of our customers simply moving across the border to fill up. There was nothing we could do to bring them back. That was in 1998 and we’ve been waiting very patiently ever since for them to return.”
The new store, which is due to open in February 2019, will see an even greater investment in the fuel forecourt.
“We now see a much brighter future in it and that’s played a big part in our decision to make such a significant investment in this infrastructure. By its very nature, installing new fuel tanks, new pumps and new infrastructure is making a massive statement to say our fuel business is here to stay.”
John is not deterred by Brexit uncertainty as he believes the family business - which traded during conflict, peace and recession in Derry - will continue to flourish whatever the outcome.
“Brexit could be the worst thing ever or the best thing ever, especially when it comes to fuel sales - we just don’t know. Why wait? We know that the time has come to move our business forward once again.”