'If you're truly passionate, why drop quality?'
WHEN Claire Nash's insurance broker came to her and broke the news of an impending premium rise, theirs was a short conversation.
"I looked at him and I said 'read my lips -- no, not up, down'," Nash recalls, her tone as commanding as the most proficient of dog trainers.
It might not have been the response her beleaguered broker was expecting, but then Nash is a businesswoman who seems to almost thrive on defying expectations.
This spring marks the two-year anniversary of her decision to close her Cork city restaurant on Saturdays, and memories of the bewildered reaction of her peers still bring out a smile
"Of course there were [people who thought I was nuts]," she says spiritedly. "It didn't tick all the boxes for the financers of this world, or for my accountant, but it was a life choice."
That life choice -- inspired by Nash's frustration with the "almost fast food style of cooking" demanded by the Saturday rush coupled with her desire for a "normal working week" for Nash 19's staff -- came to fruition in the summer of 2008.
"Four or five months later I realised 'Jesus, there's a recession here'," recalls Nash, who had a broad vantage point as the then-president of the Cork Business Association.
The downturn might have scared some in Nash's position into opening the doors on Saturday, Sunday even, in a bid to draw in some much-needed revenue, but the Limerick native wasn't for turning.
"Saturday produced something I wasn't proud of, and I wanted to maintain my staff and not have them always yearning for life at the other side," she says.
Her attitude to pricing is similarly unflinching, and Nash 19 is probably one of the only eateries in the country that hasn't cut prices across the board. "I've had a horrendous year of battle with some customers who have almost recommended that I drop my quality [so I can drop my prices]," she says.
"Anyone can get fish from the bottom of a freezer, mine came up from Castletownbere this morning -- if you're truly passionate about the business like I am why would you drop your quality?"
Nash is also prone to telling customers "your salary probably tripled during the Celtic Tiger but I didn't change my prices at all" and insisting an average price of €20 for lunch is "really good value" for quality food and service.
It's a boldness that sounds like madness in an environment like this, yet Nash 19 is positively buzzing, even at the off-peak hour of three on a weekday afternoon.
"This is more than a place to eat," says Nash, who was recently nominated Hostess of the Year by fellow members of the Good Food Ireland promotion group.
Nash 19's distinction from its peers is evident all the way through to the bottom line -- the Restaurant Association of Ireland estimates that 80pc of its members are now trading at a loss, but Nash's restaurant actually recorded a marginal profit in 2009 and managed to survive the year without cutting wages for any of its 22 staff.
Nash attributes her restaurant's success to passion and an unfaltering commitment to standards, but the business's relative prosperity also has its roots in an ability to innovate when the climate demands it.
Top of the innovation list is Nash 19's food shop, launched in September 2008 when Nash realised that her fully-equipped kitchen was "sitting idle" from about 3.30 each afternoon.
The food shop has since evolved into an extensive range of products made in-house, as well as a selection of the wares of other Good Food Ireland producers. Having built a steady trade from day one, the food shop really came into its own over the festive season, driven by a 'treats and cheats' promotion and hampers.
"My shop rocked over Christmas," says Nash.
"You had people who'd never spent Christmas in Ireland and suddenly they were staying home this year and they were panicking, they've got these beautiful houses but they can't open the oven.
"We couldn't keep the shelves stocked."
All in, the shop is now contributing 20pc to Nash 19's total turnover and Nash credits it with pulling her through the recession. "The overall spend for 2009 was still down between 9 and 11pc, but I kept out of overdraft, I made my wages and we made a negligible net profit," she adds.
Having spent much of 2009 "fire-fighting" Nash is eager to begin innovating again in 2010, possibly by taking over the vacant premises next door to hers, or possibly by branching into new lines.
The key to this year's performance, however, is likely to be the aggressive cost cuts Nash fought for in 2009. Having done battle with the original insurance broker and forced a saving of almost 20pc, Nash went on to cut between 30 and 40pc off her other policies.
"I did the same thing with all my maintenance contracts," she said. "I had one guy who was charging me €69 as a call-out fee for coming from a mile-and-a-half down the road and then €59 an hour after that.
"I said to him, 'right, we're abolishing the call-out charge'. Eventually we agreed a call-out and an hour's labour for €80. I couldn't believe he jumped at it, but if I didn't ask I wouldn't' have gotten it."