Aisling and Andrew Chapman began to notice more and more tourists stopping to take in the stunning scenery around their beef farm on the Wild Atlantic Way, and it dawned on them that there was a glorious opportunity to diversify.
And now they have a thriving coffee shop and petting area, Salthill Cabin near Mountcharles, overlooking Donegal Bay and the Bluestack Mountains… well, thriving until Covid-19 intervened.
"We had been noticing a lot of different people passing by, admiring the views while taking a stroll around some of the beautiful walkways," says Aisling.
"It got us thinking and we quickly realised that there was a gap in the market for something like our business."
The Chapmans didn't conduct any market research as such before setting up their venture two years ago, but they just knew from the start that it would work.
"Having kids ourselves, we knew that there was nothing similar to Salthill Cabin in our area - if we even wanted to have a family day away, in a relaxed setting like this, we had to drive to Letterkenny or Bundoran, which are both 40-50km away," says Aisling.
The Chapmans decided to dedicate half an acre of their coastal land to their new venture. They started off by buying a large wooden cabin from a local, private seller.
Then they sourced animals for the petting area - all from local sellers.
"I have always had a love for animals and instantly knew that I wanted to incorporate different types into the business, I knew they would be a family-friendly addition to the cabin," says Aisling.
"The first animals we sourced were pygmy goats; we got them at just three months old so they would get accustomed to human contact from an early age. They have an excellent temperament."
"Peacocks were next on the agenda," says Andrew. "My auntie always kept peacocks when we were young and they happily roamed the shores - it's like they're native to the area so we instantly wanted to get some."
Aisling adds: "We got a few smaller animals then, like rabbits, chickens, ducks, guinea pigs, and then the opportunity came up for us to buy the llamas - a local petting zoo was selling them. We had originally planned on getting just one but after doing a bit of research we discovered that they are herd animals and thrive best when they have the company of another llama, so we took two. They were already lead-trained and were used to being handled so they were ideal for us.
"Kunekune pigs were our last purchase; they're smaller than your average pig and are easily domesticated and trained."
The couple did much of the development work themselves, and created shelter and feeding areas for the animals.
Then Aisling and Andrew opened to the public, providing homemade refreshments and tea/coffee from the cabin. Andrew, being a qualified and experienced chef, makes most of the food himself. They also sell beef from the farm.
Salthill Cabin, which is dog-friendly, provides a free animal petting service. The lamas can also be taken for a walk by the shore. "The only thing we charge for is the llama walks," explains Aisling.
Salthill Cabin caters for children's birthday parties, school trips and group visits. "We do a lot of work with those with special needs," says Andrew.
During the winter months they open Friday to Sunday, 11am-6pm, and from May onwards Salthill Cabin operates seven days a week. There is a lot of work involved.
"I'm here every day from about 9.30am," says Aisling.
"I let out the chickens and ducks and feed all the animals. I also handle each animal daily, just to keep them accustomed to human contact and to ensure they stay as tame as they currently are.
"We clean out everything three days a week and every Thursday I go to our local feed merchant."
All four of the couple's children play a part.
"Ross, our eldest works in the shop and often looks after the animal petting part of things, Rachel works with us every weekend,
Lewis feeds and cleans the animals on Saturdays and Sundays and Lucy, our youngest, looks after the smaller animals such the rabbits and guinea pigs," says Aisling.
All the Chapmans' marketing is done through social media.
"Facebook and Instagram are our go-to places- we are quite active on these sites and it seems to work really well for us. It's cost-effective and you can reach a wide audience," says Aisling.
Salthill Cabin is set to get even busier as the Chapmans work in conjunction with Donegal County Council in the aim of getting safer boardwalks along the shore at their business.
What level of start-up costs did you incur in setting up the business?
"It took about €15,000 to get the business established, between buying the cabin and some sheds, sourcing the animals and paying for start-up costs like insurance."
What financing was readily available from the banks for this sort of business?
"Business loans were readily available for this type of business; we took out a loan of €10,000."
Was planning permission required and if so, was it difficult to get?
"We contacted the county council to enquire about planning permission and they advised us that seeing as our little wooden cabin is a mobile, moveable structure, we did not require it. Planning permission is not required for moveable items."
Did you need a licence or permission from any other government body?
"You have to register your food business with a competent authority before you start operating - this would be the case even if you were operating from home. Who you register with depends on the type of business you have and the type of food you are selling… we had to register with the local Health Environmental Office (of the HSE)."
What grant aid or other assistance was available?
"We weren't aware of any grants or other assistance. The business loan from the bank was the only form of assistance that we were aware of and thankfully it was perfect for us."
What supports bodies/state agencies were available to help?
Andrew and Aisling didn't consult any bodies for assistance but the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation can be of help in setting up a business.
Was insurance required?
"Yes, we had to get public liability insurance. Getting this was by far our biggest challenge - we were refused on various occasions. We then got in touch with a company called Keystone Insurance and we have been with them since we set up. We can't get contents insurance because of our location; we are too near the sea."
How did your new business effect your tax dealings?
"We just have to file our tax returns properly, the same as anyone who is self-employed."
How much time was needed to get the business off the ground?
"It took just six months. We did a lot of the work ourselves and put as much time into it as possible and it paid off."
Did you encourage any unexpected pitfalls or challenges?
"Everything has been relatively straight-forward. We were lucky in that we sourced everything locally. The biggest challenge for us was getting the insurance… it took quite a while, but we got there."