Business Irish

Saturday 29 April 2017

The Barn-storming idea that fuses food, history and artistry

James and Joanna Fennell have combined their passion for food and artistic talent to create a special experience at their restaurant and shop

James Farrell and his wife Joanna at their restaurant, The Green Barn, in Athy, Co Kildare. Photo: Mark Condren
James Farrell and his wife Joanna at their restaurant, The Green Barn, in Athy, Co Kildare. Photo: Mark Condren
Joanna Kiernan

Joanna Kiernan

The Green Barn is more than just a restaurant; it is an experience, which has been carefully crafted by Burtown House custodians James and Joanna Fennell. Burtown House, an early Georgian villa, was built near Ballitore in Co Kildare in 1710, and has been passed down through a number of generations to the Fennell family - four generations of whom currently call Burtown home.

Six years ago, as a means of creating an extra income, the family decided to open Burtown House gardens to the public. Thousands of visitors now flock to see Burtown's flower gardens, vegetable patches, parkland, woodland walks and secret gardens, each year.

"We were living in a converted stable building, then we had three children and moved into the main house nearly six years ago," Joanna said.

"We realised that our income was not going to be able to support the running costs of Burtown and the farm, so we thought that we would open the gardens.

"There were 12 acres of gardens that James's mum had been working on for 40 years. So we opened the gardens to the public and then thought a little cafe would be a good idea so that the people who came to visit the gardens could have something.

"When we started, we just did soup and quiche and that sort of cafe-style lunch. I had never done a cookery course, but I loved food and we had this lovely vegetable garden and always had an abundance of veg, so we opened the Gallery Cafe.

"I did a small menu and within months of opening, we had an awful lot of garden groups and buses and the restaurant was getting really busy."

Soon Burtown became recognised as much for its foodie offering as it was for its beautiful gardens. "More people were coming to eat than to go around the garden and pretty much 90pc of the people who did come to see the garden had lunch," Joanna said.

"It picked up pretty rapidly, but it was in the basement of the house and we only had one outdoor loo and not much space. So the reasoning behind building The Green Barn was to get the restaurant out of the house and to be able to facilitate the numbers we were getting. We also wanted to have a shop because we didn't have enough space there and we knew that we could sell a lot of products too; food products and antique products."

The Green Barn was built in front of Burtown house, overlooking the property's extensive organic kitchen gardens and now houses an eclectic mix of good food, books and art; it is a perfect mishmash of Joanna and James's love of organic food, interior design and creative thinking.

"We chose to call it The Green Barn for three reasons," James said. "We had a green barn where we initially thought we might put it, but couldn't; we thought being green and organic it was very suitable and we wanted a barn structure with an agricultural feel, corrugated roof feel to it and it was a cheap way of doing it.

"I am a photographer and Joanna studied interior design, so the two of us have a big interest in interiors. It's an amalgamation of the two of us really."

All along, both Joanna and James were cautious about maintaining the unique atmosphere they had managed to create in the Gallery Cafe; in expanding there was the omnipresent fear of losing what had made the place so special in the first place.

Thankfully, however, this proved unfounded.

"The menu is seasonal; it's not big and there are a lot of repeated vegetables throughout because we only use what is in the garden," Joanna said. "That's why it has to be small."

"We try to be 90pc sufficient from the garden," James said. "We have started working with a professional grower called Dermot Carey, who specialises in achieving high results from smaller spaces. He did the gardens in Lissadell and other amazing gardens. So we are about to do a four-acre plot now so we can stay true to the ethos; just in case we suddenly start doing 250 covers a day as our little vegetable garden might not see us through and we don't want to have to start buying in when we could be growing it here."

Next year, the couple also hope to sell boxes of fresh, organic produce. "We are hoping to be able to sell vegetable boxes. In the spring we will have the gallery finished and we will also have a plant sales area too," Joanna said.

"The gallery is going to bring another dimension to the place," James said. "At one end we are going to have my grandmother's painting desk and a display of originals, and at the other there will be really tight picture hangings. So people are going to be able to go in there and have drinks before their meals while they are waiting for a table.

"The idea is to make it like a really beautiful drawing room. We want to have as many wow factors as possible and we want the space to be changing all of the time." Eventually, the Fennells also hope to host workshops and courses at Burtown House, which will add a further dimension to this already buzzing family business and provide yet another valuable revenue stream.

"We never thought we would have this, I thought I was going to continue to be a photographer flying around the place, but I have pushed away from that now for a number of reasons," James said. "It's all very well when you are young and single, but not when you are married with three kids and a big country house.

"I feel a massive obligation to try to keep this place going because we are just passing through Burtown, we are custodians of it. We didn't buy the house and we don't intend to sell the house.

"My dad just managed to pass it on to us, but he lived his entire life in debt; it was a real struggle for him, so what we are trying to do is change things, so that it will not be such a struggle anymore."

James and Joanna financed The Green Barn by selling a field.

"We looked at borrowing and then we decided that the whole reason we are doing this is to not be in debt and not have financial pressures and if we had a big mortgage hanging over us in the restaurant business, which is quite versatile, it would be too much stress and, with young children, it was something that we didn't want," James said.

"After much humming and hawing, we sold a field. It was quite a difficult decision, but there was one field we thought we could sell that wouldn't impact too much on the estate, but there aren't any more fields that we can sell now - we are out of fields."

According to Joanna, The Green Barn was a gamble and certainly the leap from a 19-seater cafe to a purpose-built 120-seater restaurant is a big one. However, judging by the steady custom and huge interest the new restaurant has enjoyed so far, The Green Barn is certainly beginning to look like a sure thing. The Green Barn opened its doors from October 8 until December 18 last year and it will reopen in February.

http://burtownhouse.ie/green-barn-shop/

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