Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/9/2017 (286 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
As a rule, Bryan Cummins, owner of the U.K.-themed gift and curio shop Unique Ireland, tries to learn as much as possible about the merchandise lining his shelves.
If that means staying up late to watch old episodes of Dr. Who and Coronation Street, or getting up early to cheer on teams in the English Premier League, so be it. That said, there is one product Cummins peddles that he doesn’t have the faintest clue about, when customers ask him to describe its flavour.
"I don’t like seafood at all so potato chips — or crisps, as the British prefer to call them — that taste like shrimp? No, that’s not going to happen," says Cummins, holding up a bag of Walkers "prawn cocktail" crisps, one of dozens of treats he imports from Ireland, England and Scotland on a routine basis.
Also, that black-and-grey polo shirt he’s sporting that bears a certain Irish stout’s recognizable insignia? Well, it turns out Guinness isn’t high on his list of favourites, either.
"You’re going to laugh, but it’s true, I don’t like Guinness, or too many beers at all for that matter," he says, standing in front of a display table laden with Guiness-infused chocolate bars, fudge and barbecue sauce. "Every time my dad pours himself (a Guinness), I take a sip to see if my taste buds have changed, but nope. I can just imagine what people reading this are going to say, ‘Some Irishman.’"
'I really wanted a Pot Noodle but couldn't find them anywhere, so I asked Bryan and now he brings them in regularly. My Winnipeg friends would probably throw up at the sight of Pot Noodles, even though they taste amazing' — Unique Ireland customer Sophie Gibson
Cummins, 35, grew in Charleswood. He credits his parents for his lifelong affection for the Emerald Isle. His father, Hugh, a past president of the Irish Association of Manitoba, was one of seven siblings born and raised in County Derry, while his mother Carol hails from Ballymena, a town in County Antrim, which is also the birthplace of Oscar nominee Liam Neeson, the Irish Rovers’ George Millar and Eaton’s department store founder Timothy Eaton. Cummins laughs when asked if he knows how his parents, who moved to Manitoba together at age 19 to live with one of Hugh’s cousins, met in the first place.
"My dad was a bouncer at Kelly’s in Portrush, one of the most famous bars in the UK, and apparently, he threw my mom out one night. Obviously, she didn’t hold it against him."
In 2009, Cummins, an alumnus of the Brady Academy of Irish Dance, approached the organizers of Folklorama’s Irish Pavilion, to ask if he could set up a souvenir booth at the annual cultural festival. His stand was an immediate hit. By his third summer there, festival-goers were asking where his retail store was, in case they wanted to pick up a Celtic FC T-shirt or Ulster flag during the other 51 weeks of the year.
At the time, Cummins was working as a hotel banquet supervisor. As he began fielding more and more inquiries, however, he thought perhaps it was time to leave the hospitality business behind.
"I’ve always been a bit of a risk taker, and I figured if I don’t do it now, how upset I’d be if somebody beat me to it. That and I was still young enough, in my opinion, to take a chance, in the event things didn’t work out."
Cummins opened Unique Ireland on the second level of The Forks Market in 2012. His decision to rent space at the downtown tourist site was based largely on what he perceived as a built-in clientele, given The Forks attracts an estimated 4 million visitors annually. That’s not quite the way things worked out, though.
"I thought people would just show up — that I wouldn’t have to do much advertising — but it turned out to be the complete opposite," he says, shaking his head. "Three-quarters of the time, the area I was in was a complete ghost town. Or it was just window shoppers, people killing time before a Goldeyes game or couples on a date, looking for a place to eat. There were definitely days early on when I sold zero — not even a candy bar — but I always tried to stay positive by turning on some music and getting myself into a better place, in my head."
Cummins stuck it out at The Forks for almost four years, during which time he eventually managed to build up a small but steady customer-base, many of whom were ex-pats from across the pond, looking for a taste of home. When his lease came up for renewal in September 2016, however, he packed his up his Murray Mints, cheese-and-onion Taytos and Mrs. Brown’s Boys greeting cards and, after a month-long trip to Northern Ireland to recharge his batteries, went looking for a new, "bigger and better" spot to call home. (When people wonder why his store is called Unique Ireland, when he sells goods associated with countries from across Europe, Cummins’s standard response is, "It’s just a name. If you go to Banana Republic, you don’t expect to buy bananas, do you?")
In January, Cummins spotted a listing for a vacant, 900-square-foot premises in a strip mall at 2579 Pembina Hwy. Approximately three times the size of his former digs, the site offered him the opportunity to spread his wings, so to speak, by displaying dozens of colourful soccer jerseys, flags and coats of arms on the walls, and offer an even wider range of imported foodstuffs than before. (Mushy peas, anyone?) There was one problem: because of delays securing the necessary permits, he wasn’t able to open in time for St. Patrick’s Day, as he had hoped.
"It was a bit disappointing," he says of his April 1 grand opening, "but I’m already planning for next year, when I intend to have dancers and musicians performing outside, if the weather co-operates. We’ll make up for lost time, don’t worry."
Sophie Gibson moved to Winnipeg from Mitcham, a district in southwest London, three and a half years ago. She became a familiar face at Unique Ireland’s original location, after stumbling upon it during a visit to The Forks with her family a couple of years ago. She laughs when asked what draws her to Cummins’s new location, most specifically.
"I really wanted a Pot Noodle but couldn’t find them anywhere, so I asked Bryan and now he brings them in regularly," she says of the Wales-produced, dehydrated noodle mix that created headlines in the UK in 2002, thanks to a sexist ad campaign that referred to the instant soup as ‘the slag of all snacks.’ "My Winnipeg friends would probably throw up at the sight of Pot Noodles, even though they taste amazing,"
Watson is also a big fan of the British-made chocolate Cummins carries, but that doesn’t mean she’ll be sharing her Nestle’s Blue Riband bars and Cadbury Wispas with her pals, any time soon.
"No, I’m a little bit selfish when it comes to my English foods," she says.
Other items available at Unique Ireland include all-leather, Highland dance slippers, authentic, lambs-wool scarves and a line of Hogwarts Express backpacks and satchels. (Lately, Cummins’ nephews have been bringing him up to speed on all-things-Harry-Potter, he says.)
"My mind is constantly going all the time, in terms of what can I bring in next?" he continues, straightening bottles of Irn-Bru, which he describes as "Scotland’s go-to drink… kind of a cross between cream soda and bubblegum."
"And it doesn’t have to be food. Maybe you were in a pub in Dublin or Belfast and spotted a particular shirt or cap. If you give me enough clues, I can usually track it down and get it for you."
There’s another good reason to shop at Unique Ireland, he says with a chuckle. Because almost everything in the store boasts a label along the lines of "Made in England" or "Made in Ireland," if you are ever travelling through Great Britain and forget to bring back a souvenir for a friend or relative, they’ll never know the difference if you nab something from his shop, when you get back to Winnipeg.
"It’s always nice chatting with people who moved here from Ireland or wherever, but for the store to be a success in the long run, I definitely need to broaden my base. A few of the food items may not sound appealing — things like spit-roast steak or roast chicken crisps — but slowly and surely, Manitobans and Winnipeggers are getting hooked on some of this stuff, too."
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric businesses and restaurants.