Thursday 27 April 2017

Garrett Fitzgerald on founding Brother Hubbard Cafes: 'Looking back, I don't know how we had the bravery'

Garrett Fitzgerald (39) is a cook, co-founder of Brother Hubbard Cafes, author and a former energy regulator. Born in Adare, Co Limerick, he lives in Ranelagh with his partner, James, and their dogs, Pepper and Pearl

Garrett Fitzgerald, cook and co-founder of Brother Hubbard Cafes
Garrett Fitzgerald, cook and co-founder of Brother Hubbard Cafes

Ciara Dwyer

I live with my partner, James, and our two little dogs, Pepper and Pearl. We're normally awake between 6.30am and 7am. I tend to be on alert after that point because our cafes, Brother Hubbard and Sister Sadie - which we have just rebranded as Brother Hubbard - are about to open. The alarm is set, but I'm one of those people who likes to sleep with the curtains open and let the daylight do its magic. Obviously, it doesn't work as well in winter, but in the summer time, it's wonderful. I was in Ghana once, and it was really interesting to observe the way people's sleeping patterns were connected with the equator. They were awake during daylight, and asleep at night-time. I guess it's the way we're designed to live.

James and I get up around the same time. He is my partner in life, and he is also fully involved in the business with me. He has just started the three-month Ballymaloe cookery course, the one I did years ago. He came from a finance background, and he has been with me in the business since the very beginning. We opened our first cafe, Brother Hubbard on Capel Street, in 2012, and the second one, on Harrington Street, two years later.

One of us will get the coffee on, and the other will let the dogs out. The porridge is put on, and we both get ready. Usually we have lyric fm on, with Marty In The Morning. It's a relaxing start to the day. James works from home, and recently, I've started to get into the habit of staying at home three mornings a week. This gives me a chance to catch up on emails. Later on, as soon as I step into the cafes, anything can happen.

The whole concept behind the cafes is that it's a friendly, positive environment. I want customers to feel that they are cared for, and that goes back to how we behave as an employer. We would be less typical of the hospitality industry in that we do the roster four weeks in advance. Also, it's all very collaborative. I have no interest in being the boss in the traditional sense. I listen to my staff and ask them what they need from me, so I can help them to be the best they can. It does seem to make a difference.

We have a policy of making everything from scratch, and a lot of our dishes are inspired by Middle Eastern cuisine. We use spices, but our food isn't spicy in the way that people might think it would be hot. We're known for our fresh, wholesome food. We're always coming up with new menus. A lot of people ask for our recipes, so now we have a cookbook. The good thing is that our meals are very simple to make.

The food influence goes back to my parents. They had a guest house in Adare, Co Limerick. Even though it was a B&B, my mother often cooked evening meals for the guests. So, I grew up in that environment. After school, I studied hotel management, and did a Bachelor of Commerce at the same time. When I graduated, it was the early days of the Celtic Tiger, so I left the hotel bit aside and focussed on business opportunities. I worked as a consultant, and then I joined the public sector, a State agency called the Commission for Energy Regulation. I was there for six years, and really enjoyed it. I became a senior manager and was reasonably rewarded for it.

Even though I was very happy in my job, I had this 'what if?' question in the back of my mind. It was always niggling away at me. I was very passionate about food, and I was always cooking. A big part of it was cooking for other people. The more I cooked, the more I enjoyed it. It was my passion. I did a bread-making course at night. And then James showed me a newspaper article about people always regretting the things that they didn't do. That was it! I decided I'd open a cafe. As part of the plan, I took a career break from my job, did the Ballymaloe cookery course, and then I headed off with James for two years.

For the first year, it was a backpacking trip with a foodie focus, and then, the second year, we settled in Melbourne. We got jobs in cafes similar to what we had in mind for our place in Dublin. They were owner-run cafes, and a great learning experience. I travelled a bit more - to the Middle East - and finally we came to Dublin. By then, the economy had drastically changed. But we found a premises, put our best foot forward and produced an offering that was close to our hearts. It seemed to get a warm reaction. Gradually, it got better and bigger. One of the best things about my job now is the variety. I love it. When I go to the cafes, I catch up with the various teams and then I step into service - either in the kitchen or on the floor. Most cooks never have a proper meal. I used to be that way, but now I make sure I have something - maybe a hotpot, and I eat a lot of hummus.

I've yet to have a boring day. Before we opened the cafe, there was a stage where I was contemplating going back to my old job. It was simply that the economic situation seemed so difficult. But even if I hadn't ended up doing Brother Hubbard, I think the travelling would have been a worthwhile experience. In the landscape of my life, it's something that I will always cherish. I'm delighted that so much change came out of it. When we came back to Ireland, we thought, 'We can wait for the world to change, or we can just get on with it'. I'm so proud that we did it. Looking back, I don't know how we had the bravery.

In the evenings, I catch up with James, bring the dogs out for a walk and have some dinner. I might read, and catch up on the news. Generally, I try to be in bed for 11pm. In the early days of the business, I used to be worrying about stuff. But then I became more organised and I developed a strong team. I got used to handling stress, and now it doesn't even feel like stress any more.

'The Brother Hubbard Cookbook' by Garrett Fitzgerald, is published by Gill Books, €27.99. See brotherhubbard.ie

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