15th Apr 2020 in Business

The mouth-watering aroma of freshly cooked wood-fired oven pizza has been drifting from the Cathedral Quarter’s Sunflower beer garden for four years now, luring hungry patrons to the chilled-out venue.

The man behind the artisan Boxing Hare Artisan Pizza is Matt Dalton who started up back in 2016 with a mere £2,000 business loan and his friendship with Sunflower publican Pedro Donald and right-hand man Eoin Loughran and a dream of being his own boss.

Matt Dalton and Eoin Loughran, picture by Athena Hajaig

It was a leap of faith given no previous experience in catering of any kind apart from some bar work, and a career background in IT and financial services.

So how did such a transformation in career come about?

Matt said: “I’ve always loved travelling and did a lot when I was younger. I also love food and cooking and the combination of all three and tried cuisine from all over the world on my travels.

“I came back home and started working in the financial sector but quite frankly didn’t like it.

“It was mentally killing me and I was just so unhappy I had to do something else.

“A couple of friends of mine made a trip overland to Italy in an old Piaggio van for a festival and just for the road trip and on the way back to boost funds they fitted an oven into the back and started cooking and selling pizzas on the way to make money to fund the journey.

“They did really well and were able to travel all over and when they got back set up at a market in London and are still going strong.

“That gave me the ideas of doing something similar and I looked around and found there were a few artisan pizza places around.

“The ones that interested me most were those attached to other businesses like pubs as that removed the need for dedicated premises.”

Matt said he used his contacts in the hospitality industry to put out feelers, as well as doing his own research online.

“I knew Pedro from working at the John Hewitt, which is also in the Cathedral Quarter, and heard he was taking on the block next to the Sunflower to open as a beer garden.

“I thought it would be perfect for what I had in mind and mutually beneficial to both of us, so I just cheekily asked him if I could have a bit of space in the corner and he said yes.

“I got a business start-up loan of just £2,000 to get me going and so had to do everything on a very tight budget.

“I looked at various designs of ovens and bought one online and used local tradespeople to fit it and build my counters etc using reclaimed materials.”

The pizza counter is now part of the furniture at the Sunflower with regular patrons coming in after work for a pint and a pizza at what is very reasonable price for food in the city centre.

Matt Dalton, picture by Athena Hajaig

Matt sources as much of his ingredients and supplies from local producers as possible and has come up with his own combinations for original recipes as well as more traditional margherita, pepperoni and calzone.

“I invented a kebab pizza as one night I just got a craving for a kebab so thought I’d try and make one in a pizza and it turned out pretty good.

“I try to freshen up the menu fairly often and we will always make one to a customer’s request anyway, so we don’t have to have a huge list of alternatives.”

Pizza breads are also on offer, and all pizzas are (at the time of publishing) in the £6.50 to £7.50 range for a standard 10 inch.

As the venture started to turn a profit Matt reinvested in improving the workspace and surrounds and Boxing Hare is now a permanent fixture and a big part of the draw at the Sunflower.

It’s done so well, Matt has now branched out from the Cathedral Quarter and started another outlet at another great watering hole, The Crown and Shamrock Inn on the outskirts of north Belfast.

The pub dates back to the times of rebellion and the United Irishmen and weapons from that era were even found hidden around the bar and outbuildings.

It has a colourful past and at one time was even bought by a church and turned into a teetotal teahouse to halt the carousing going on.

It’s been in the O’Boyle family since the 1930s and is now run by a nephew in the family, Aidan McAlinden.

He and Matt agreed the Cathedral Quarter ethos of music, craft beers, music and good artisan food and a welcome for all would work just as well at The Crown and Shamrock and decided to set up another Boxing Hare on the side of the existing pub and beer garden there.

The operation is now in full swing and Matt believes it will do just as well as the first venture and can’t wait for the long summer evenings.

The beer garden at the back is a huge grassy area with picnic tables perfect for families or groups, has a decent size carpark and like the Sunflower, is also dog friendly.

It appears the Cathedral Quarter vibe is spreading.

Boxing Hare Artisan Pizza, Sunflower Bar, Union Street, Belfast

Open Thursday to Sunday, 5pm to 10.30pm (From Wednesday after Easter)

Crown and Shamrock Inn, 584 Antrim Road, Newtownabbey

Open Thursday to Sunday 5pm to 10.30pm (From Wednesday after Easter)

Prices for pizzas start from £6 ranging up to around £8.50.

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