Avoca: from a small mill to empire in Irish retail
I hope our brand is something Irish people can be proud of, says managing director
A sale is on in Avoca's store on Dublin's Suffolk Street and the place is buzzing. Shoppers are drawn by an eclectic mix of everything from clothes to jewellery, scented candles, crockery, books and food.
On the stairs down to the food hall in the basement, a neon sign catches your eye.
"Sometimes I think. Sometimes I don't," it reads.
But what's going on in the customers' heads?
"I come up from Dundalk fairly frequently and my first port of call is Avoca," says shopper Patricia Kelly (54). "I like the coffee shop upstairs, that's how I start off, have a cup of tea, have something to eat. It's very central, you're just round the corner from all the shops I like to go to."
Like many Avoca shoppers these days, Patricia is most interested in the food, but other products such as the children's clothes and skin cream also catch her eye.
Avoca's success is built on an unusual range of products and a family bond that has seen a group of siblings take over the firm their parents created and turn it into a mini-empire employing 800 people.
But this week, the seemingly irresistible rise of one of middle-class Ireland's favourite retail chains seemed to falter with the news that head designer Amanda Pratt has left after 30-odd years, although she does remain a shareholder.
What this means for the company remains to be seen but shoppers were still flocking to the Suffolk Street store yesterday morning, drawn by Amanda's design nous, the managerial skills of her brother Simon along with the behind-the-scenes labour of Vanessa and Ivan Pratt.
The (mostly female) customers all seemed rather well-to-do. They would have to be. In the cafe on the second floor, a cheeseburger served with chips and mayonnaise costs €14.95, while a regular-sized Americano costs €2.85. Downstairs in the food hall, a boxed ham, leek and cheddar tart is €14.95, a large loaf of brown bread is €3.65, and six "festive crumble mince pies" will set you back €7.95.
"It is expensive, that's the only thing I would say about it, but it's wholesome food, very good quality," says Anne Walsh (37).
Despite the prices, Simon Pratt denies Avoca is the spiritual home of any particular class or type.
"I think there's niches throughout all industries, and in terms of retail and cafe and food, we're in a particular niche. I wouldn't regard it as being middle-class personally.
"I would say we try to do things well. We've always tried to do things properly and the long hand way. So when it comes to food, which is now almost 70pc of our business, we just do things the way they should be done.
"When we do cakes and ready meals and that type of thing, we do them the way you would do them at home but we do them with professional chefs. We don't use a lot of automation."
The company behind Avoca is in good financial health, posting an after-tax profit of €1.8m in its last set of accounts, with revenues of €55m.
Change is now afoot with Amanda Pratt's departure, and though Simon Pratt says the company will miss her, he seems optimistic about the future.
"She just wants to pursue other things. I totally wish her nothing but the best, we have a very close relationship, a very close family relationship, so it's absolutely not about that. It's about her pursuing new ideas. It's a long time to work in one place. I think we probably all feel that from time to time," Mr Pratt said.
"We'll absolutely miss her and I wish her nothing but the best in whatever she does next. Amanda's been designing a range called Anthology for the last couple of years, but she hasn't really been involved apart from a few months this year in the shop side of it.
"So the creativity on the shops and the cafes and the food, she hasn't been involved in. We have five other designers, so yes she'll be missed but there's a wealth of design talent within the company which is what we'll be using to drive forward."
What will also help Avoca to drive forward is the fact that its fans clearly see it as a provider of quality.
"If I'm looking for a good gift, where you get it is here," says shopper Monica Gartland (73).
"I would look for something that you could wear, and I find it's very good even if you need to take the stuff up. There's other little gifts, like if I was going say to America, I'd pick up an Irish thing which is nice to bring with me."
Dave Dennis (38) comes to Avoca because it offers him something a bit different.
"You get a couple of different labels that they don't have elsewhere, Scotch & Soda would be one for blokes, and just the food as well is great," he says.
As well as the Suffolk Street store, Avoca has branches in, amongst other places, Belfast, Connemara, and the Ring of Kerry.
Its headquarters is in Kilma-canogue, Co Wicklow.
The company was born when Mr Pratt's father Donald, a solicitor, decided to buy a derelict weaving mill in Avoca village, Co Wicklow. Avoca started out with a focus on design products but now food is king.
Simon Pratt told the Irish Independent the company only stocks items that fit with its brand.
"What that means to individual people, we don't over-analyse that. We just try to do it the way we can, what instinctively feels right, and, touch wood, that's worked for us. I hope as an Irish brand it stands for some-thing that Irish people can be proud of, and quality, and with a design aesthetic that's fun."
Working with the family wasn't something he and his siblings saw as a given.
"We did holiday work and that kind of thing, but it wasn't an obvious thing.
"I did business studies in Trinity, and I worked for the Trade Board then for a year after college and Amanda went to London. And basically at the same time in the late 1980s we decided we'd give it a go.
"I suppose we felt that there was something interesting there and maybe we could make a good impression on it.
"It can be the very best, and it can be the worst of the world. But we've worked together since the late 1980s, and I think one of the things about families is you know that ultimately everybody's got the same goal. So they may not be doing something exactly the same way as you would do it, but their interests are aligned and everybody is really working in the one direction.
"You can have very informal meetings and gatherings so issues can come up, but minds can be changed very fast. It makes for, in some ways, a much faster and more reactive company.
"For sure, it's hard at times but ultimately it's been extremely rewarding."