Sunday 21 July 2019

Local heroes: New York-inspired catering and restaurant chain serves up success

Foodie entrepreneurs carve a strong niche in a competitive sector, writes John Cradden

Gourmet Food Parlour’s Lorraine Heskin said they aim to offer ‘something that combined a mix of food influences with a homemade twist’. Picture by David Conachy
Gourmet Food Parlour’s Lorraine Heskin said they aim to offer ‘something that combined a mix of food influences with a homemade twist’. Picture by David Conachy

It's been a journey in more ways than one for long-time friends Lorraine Heskin and Lorraine Byrne, founders of Gourmet Food Parlour, a chain of restaurants with a mobile catering arm which they started 12 years ago.

Like most of us, they didn't anticipate the severity of the recession that was to come when they opened their first restaurant in 2006, but a combination of tight cost-control and savvy brand management and business development has seen it grow to a firm which employs 250 people across eight restaurants and an outside catering division - a head count that is set to rise again with two new restaurants in Skerries, Dublin, and Salthill, Co Galway.

Heskin and Byrne met while studying at the University of Limerick. Heskin, who hails from Co Galway, ended up in the food-import business in New York before returning home to become export manager of Jacob Fruitfield for a couple of years and then teamed up with Co Mayo-born Byrne to set up GFP.

Given that they had a lot of trouble accessing enough funding and credit to open their first small, 25-seater restaurant in Dun Laoghaire all those years ago, it is inspiring to learn how they survived the recession years in a challenging, low-margin retail sector. The business tends to burn out many of its brightest and best, but GFP managed to open three more restaurants during the period before later diversifying into catering.

So while the beginnings were modest, what was the idea behind GFP? "The aim from the start of this journey was to offer something that combined a mix of food influences with a homemade twist," said Heskin, who is managing director, while Byrne serves as finance director.

New York influence

"While working in New York in the food and catering business in the early noughties, I was really inspired by some of the new-style restaurants and trends that were emerging in New York at that time." One place in particular was a grocery store and restaurant in downtown New York called Garden of Eden.

"We were determined to create a unique offering in Dublin, combining some of my experiences from New York with Lorraine's ideas for a funky-style eatery."

A typical GFP menu might include things like serrano ham with brie, fresh artisan breads, posh sandwiches, antipasti boards and good cakes and scones - and 95pc of it is made on-site.

"We have good ingredients and tasty, home-cooked food, it's a relaxed, funky environment and we think we've kind of brought that buzzy element of New York into Dublin and created that through our restaurants, but with our own personality behind it."

While they survived the bust , and even opened restaurants in Swords in 2008 and an 80-seater in Malahide in 2011 at a time when others were closing down, Heskin admits that trying to bed down a more cohesive business structure was proving a challenge.

"Getting the right structure and getting the right people in the right roles to bring that element of growth to the business, and just bring that security and development... was extremely challenging. As we continued to grow and take on more and more staff, that responsibility gets a lot stronger every day, every week, every month."

There was a turning point in 2012, when they began working with business coach Jane Hogan. "She didn't tell me what to do, but she helped me to work with her to formulate an idea about how we could structure the business going forward," said Heskin. This included setting up proper departments for marketing and PR, business development, operations finance, HR - "all the essential core elements that you needed in a company".

"That's when things really started to come together for us, and we started to really grow from there," says Heskin. GFP turned its first profit in 2014, and, since then, the business has seen a significant rise in turnover from €5m in 2015 to more than €7m in 2016 and more than €9.5m in 2017.

The company opened a second deli-bar in Swords in 2013 and a new 80-seater in Dun Laoghaire in September 2015, followed by new premises in Santry in 2017 and in Skerries last July, while the Galway restaurant, its first outside Dublin, is set to open this November.

About 30pc of the business is now accounted for by the fast-growing catering division, which is working with many blue-chip corporate clients like AIG, Google, Alltech, Irish Ferries, Slane Castle, Verve, Zoetis and the Special Olympics.

But by far its most high-profile connection is with the Dublin GAA team, for which it serves as its official food partner.

"I'd love to say that I had a very special business model and had planned to bring in catering and events at the start but, really, cafes and restaurants were our vision at the beginning but the catering naturally evolved through the food ethics that we had within the core element of the business."

Heskin and Byrne have also achieved all this success without significant outside investment. "We are so proud to be able to work within our own terms and invest accordingly back into our business."

Positive work environment

The plan now is to grow the business by no less than 200pc over the next year. Perhaps the real secret to GFP's success in such a high-pressure, busy, people-driven sector is the determination to provide a positive work environment.

"We've a business model that opens at 8am every morning and stays open to 11.30pm every night, so it's a busy business model but it's also wonderfully exciting. We're in the food business and we love what we do."

"I love seeing customers come back time and time again, coming in to meet our staff and having such a great rapport with them. Our staff, they're just relentless. They are so hungry for success."

One of the projects GFP is currently working on is re-developing one of the old catering kitchens at its Swords premises into one that is focused exclusively on chef development. "What we do want to do there and to actually bring out the chefs together more and train them on site in this kitchen. We've got some very talented chefs who have been with us for years."

These same chefs are also responsible for revising the menu every three months - based on research but also customer feedback - to keep things fresh and interesting.

There will always be the classic staples that have featured on GFP's menus since day one. "It's very important to push out the boat as we continue to grow and move forward, but it's also very important that the credentials that we started out with all those years ago remain true."

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