Tuesday 11 December 2018

Food guru caters for the hospitality dreamers who need business acumen

Owning a cafe: a dream that can become a nightmare. That's where expert trainer Bláthnaid Bergin comes in

Bláthnaid Bergin runs The Business of Food which offers a variety of courses aimed at the hospitality industry from Abbeyleix: Photo: Steve Humphreys
Bláthnaid Bergin runs The Business of Food which offers a variety of courses aimed at the hospitality industry from Abbeyleix: Photo: Steve Humphreys

Aine O'Connor

Bláthnaid Bergin believes business is in her blood. She grew up in Cullohill, Co Laois, where her family owned the town's general merchant's which included a grocery, a pub, an undertakers, a post office, a service station and an agricultural business. It gave the nine O'Connell children a broad insight into life and business. Two of her brothers still run the agricultural service in Cullohill and Bláthnaid is one of three of the siblings to venture into a food business. Her sister is Darina Allen and her brother the chef Rory O'Connell.

Following a degree in hotel management in Shannon, Bergin moved to the UK for several years before returning to Laois to run the family business. "By then we just had the pub and the agricultural business. We did food in the pub so I ran that part for a few years, then I got married in my mid-20s, which was quite late then.

"I was having a family, so I wanted something I could do from home and I set up my own catering business and small cookery school in Abbeyleix."

She ran this business for almost two decades during which time she was asked on occasion to advise hospitality businesses.

Bergin had always wanted to get back into the management side and over time the idea of forming a food business consultancy grew. With her children now grown up, she went to DIT in Cathal Brugha Street where she took a master's degree in hospitality management.

Decades of consultancy across the hospitality industry had shown Blathnáid that where and when businesses were in trouble, it tended to be down to the same general mistakes.

There is a certain romanticism about owning a little cafe or restaurant but many people embark on that journey never having worked in the field. "You absolutely have to have some experience in the business to understand how it works, and, despite everything else you find out whether or not you like it because sometimes people who go into it without experience find that they really, really don't like it," says Bergin.

"The other thing I say to people - they sometimes think I'm being slightly amusing, but I'm not - you really have to like people to go into the business. You see all versions of humanity and if you don't like people it is the wrong business to go into." Another common issue is failing to see that the normal rules of business apply. "They think they're running a cafe or restaurant. They're not, they're running a business," says Bergin.

"It happens to be a cafe or a restaurant but all business rules apply, the financial rules, the operating rules, the employment rules, the management rules." This, in turn, leads to other mistakes like not having a budget and sticking to it, spending too much too soon which results in little, or no, operating capital.

"I'm a real systems person and people have to set up proper operating systems so that things happen in a structured way," Bergin adds.

"Look at and learn from the big guys, the chains, you mightn't like the food but the way that they do it is absolutely brilliant. So you have a system for the management of your accounts, a system for the way you make food, for the way you order food, system system system."

Systems can help prevent another serious Bergin sees regularly, namely waste.

"I can't describe the level of food waste that I see that people don't seem to think is a problem. But there are all sorts of waste, lighting, heat, water, oil, time, chipping away at your bottom line very gradually until the gap is too big to bridge."

The same applies to staff: ill-trained staff are inefficient staff.

"Cafes are particularly guilty. They're usually well overstaffed because the people working on the floor haven't been trained properly in ABC (Always Be Carrying). Labour costs are one of the biggest costs in the industry so if you're overstaffed by double because you're not efficient, you're never going to make money."

Only twice has Bergin seen businesses that were beyond saving. Most can be saved - if owners are willing to take advice. "Sometimes people call in experts and then they say, 'Actually I don't think you know what you're talking about'. It's almost funny," says Bergin.

Over a decade ago Bergin wondered where people could go to learn these skills in order to avoid making the mistakes. Research revealed, however, that the only options were long college courses, the shortest of which was a year.

People in business, especially a business in difficulty, rarely have a year in which to go to college. It was a gap in the market that Bergin decided to fill, developing courses to cover every stage of working in the hospitality industry, from inception to near collapse.

"It took me about three years to develop them and I kept looking at what people really, really needed and paring it back and paring it back so that they would get the crucial information quickly."

That has become a series of courses which run from three days to six weeks. They started in Abbeyleix, where she lives, but now take place in various locations including the twice yearly Business of Food course in the Ballymaloe Cookery School. An intensive, targeted 10-day course aimed at anyone setting up any kind of food business, it has attracted students from as far afield as Australia and Azerbaijan. As the only courses in the field the Business of Food courses are part funded by the National Organic Training Skillnet, funding that is available to Irish residents either employed or self-employed.

Bergin has also been asked to develop courses for specific areas. Longer courses include training from experts in other fields, legal, accountancy, design, social media and photography.

Bergin has kept up her own training, going back to college a number of times to do courses in conflict resolution and mediation, adult learning and most recently a diploma in mindfulness-based interventions. She wasn't sure how business people would respond to this holistic approach but has been amazed by the response "to even a few minutes" of stopping and breathing.

"The term 'mindfulness' has been a little bit bandied around but it can be life-changing," she says, adding that the self-employed in particular are often under great stress. "I love what I do. I love working with self-employed people, maybe because I come from a self-employed background I have some sort of understanding of them. They think in a particular way, they look at life in a particular way and are often very creative and people who want to become self-employed they are risk takers. So I try to help them take a calculated risk.

"It's extraordinary the range of careers that people come from. It's a dream for so many but it is one that can become an absolute nightmare. I think people make a mistake of thinking that cooking is the business. It's much sexier to do a cookery course than a business course."

And, because it is a dream, a romantic notion, they can fall down on the practical aspects.

"It's very seductive because from the outside looking in it looks glamorous and romantic, but the day to day nitty gritties of it are quite the opposite. But, having said that, when it's working properly it's the most fantastic buzz and there is great pleasure out of doing it right and making money. And lots of people are."

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