Monday 24 July 2017

This jet caterer swapped teaching to cook up haute cuisine for the rich and famous

Eileen O'Connor tells Sean Gallagher how she swapped teaching to cook up haute cuisine for the rich and famous
Sean Gallagher with Eileen O’Connor from Cafe Riva. Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher with Eileen O’Connor from Cafe Riva. Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Former home economics teacher Eileen O'Connor left her teaching job and now runs a unique business providing catering to private jets and bespoke corporate events. Set up in 2000 and located in Ballycoolin in Dublin 15, Café Riva now employs 12 staff and has an annual turnover of over €1.5m.

"Each month there are approximately 300 jet movements into and out of Ireland and we are proud to have become the anchor caterer for most of the private jet companies operating here," explains Eileen. "Our biggest customer is NetJets, which owns the largest fleet of private jets in the world and we also look after the catering needs of others including VistaJet, Delisky, Air Culinaire, Execujet, DC Aviation and London Executive Aviation. In all, the private jet market represents about 55pc of our turnover with the remainder coming from the corporate catering side of the business," she adds.

While she never knows the identity of those on board, she is aware that most are successful business people or well-known celebrities such as movie stars, musicians or sports personalities. For Eileen it is less about knowing the names of her clients and more about making sure they are happy with the quality of the food that she and her team have ready for them when they arrive on board.

"Because everything is prepared fresh by our chefs and catering teams, we usually start very early in the morning, with deliveries going to the airport, sometimes from as early as 4am," says Eileen as she shows me around her industrial-sized kitchen facilities.

"What we prepare depends on a number of factors such as the time of day a jet is flying. If it's early in the morning then they'll need breakfast. A lot depends too on the type of aircraft that is flying because some are larger and have a full kitchen on board, with reheating facilities, while others don't. Similarly, if it's a long-haul flight, for example to the USA, then a selection of hot meals will be required, while on short flights, such as to Belfast, only a snack menu is provided," she adds.

As we speak, a new order arrives in the kitchen for a jet which is due to take off from Dublin Airport in just a few hours. The order is for dinner for a group of eight passengers. With a choice that includes fillet steaks, Dover sole and lobster, the kitchen staff are quick off the mark.

I am interested to see too that food is being packaged in different ways and soon learn that how the food is presented depends on whether or not there will be a flight attendant on board. If there is an attendant, the food is supplied in bulk and re-plated, on board, onto the jet's own crockery. If not, then everything is delivered already laid out on individual trays for convenience.

"For me a great food experience is really about using the very best ingredients that are available and ensuring they are at peak freshness. Our expertise is in ensuring that we achieve the highest culinary standards possible within the confines of a jet that is several thousand feet up in the air," says Eileen. "Studies have shown that the atmosphere within an aircraft reduces our sense of taste by as much as 30pc. Therefore, using the same recipes for our airline meals as we use on the ground for corporate catering events, isn't an option. Instead, we adapt our recipes for in-flight menus where we use ingredients such as soy sauce, spinach, mushrooms, sardines, tomatoes, parmigiana and sweet potato - all of which enrich the taste of the food at high altitude," she adds.

On the corporate catering side of the business, she works mostly with banking, legal and pharmaceutical type companies who require high-end bespoke catering for events such as board meetings, conferences or staff training as well as working with a number of national sporting organisations. It's certainly a different world from where she first started out in her career.

Eileen grew up on her family's farm near Charlestown, Co Mayo. As a child she loved to cook and at school, her favourite subject was home economics. So it came as no surprise to those who knew her that she went on to study the subject in Sion Hill teacher training college. From there she got a teaching post in Dublin's Wesley College where she taught for the next 10 years.

"I was always talking about one day running my own business and because of my background, it seemed that a food-related business would be the obvious choice. During my years teaching, I had also continued to develop my culinary skills and gained a number of chef qualifications which gave me a good understanding of how to run a commercial kitchen operation," said Eileen.

Following market research, she identified that a number of companies which had recently located to business parks in the nearby Blanchardstown area had no on-site catering facilities. This gave her the idea to set up her own business offering bespoke high-end catering to a number of these businesses. And so, in 2000, Café Riva was born with just herself and two staff. "It was a big leap of faith at the time to leave a secure teaching post but my then fiancée, now husband, was a big support to me" says Eileen.

As luck would have it, a director of one of the companies she was catering for happened to be travelling on a private jet to a meeting abroad. Not very satisfied with the standard of food on board, he suggested to the jet operator that they should contact Eileen to see if she would provide their on-board catering requirements. Things took off from there.

"It goes to show the importance of looking after your existing customers and how this can lead to new clients and new opportunities," says Eileen. "While we had to quickly learn about this new market, it was exactly the high quality food and service end of the business that we had been looking for. So, in 2003, we started servicing the private jet market for the first time and within two years we were appointed anchor caterer for the NetJets Group. From there, our reputation grew and we soon began winning over more and more of the jet operators," says Eileen proudly.

Like most business owners, Eileen insists that her staff have been critical to the success of the company. "Staff turnovers can be quite high in the food industry whereas many of our staff have been with us for over 10 years. This has enabled us develop a personal knowledge of our customers' needs, particularly our regular and long-standing clients," she adds.

With the corporate sector emerging from the downturn and business booming again in the aviation sector, things look positive for Eileen and her business. Having swapped the classroom for a commercial kitchen, she now loves the challenge that comes from running her own business.

"I went from three months of holidays to running a business that operates 364 days a year. Christmas day is the only day we are closed, but I love it," she says.

"As with all businesses, you can never sit back on your laurels so we are continuously looking for new opportunities to grow and expand what we do."

Eileen remains adamant that, just like the jets she supplies, the only way for Café Riva is up.

Eileen's advice for other businesses

1 Value every customer

Every customer is important to your business. Therefore, you need to look after their requests - no matter how small or difficult they may seem. Your staff also need to be aware of how going the extra mile helps builds strong customer relationships and customer loyalty.

2 Success comes from hard work and a willingness to take risks

In business, you have to be willing to take risks if you want to grow. And you have to learn how to act quickly when opportunities arise. But you also have to be committed and prepared to work hard and over long hours, particularly in the early days.

3 Stand out

To stand out in a busy marketplace you have to strive to be the best in your chosen field. Doing so will help you build a reputation for excellence and help attract loyal customers looking for quality and high levels of customer service.

Overview

Company: Café Riva

Business: Private jet and bespoke corporate catering

Set up: 2000

Founder: Eileen O'Connor

Turnover: €1.5m

No of Employees:12

Location: Northwest Business Park, Ballycoolin, Dublin 15

For further information: www.caferiva.com

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