Wednesday 22 November 2017

These are the people for whom home is where the business is

Forget Airbnb - meet some entrepreneurs who have opened home and hearth to strangers - all in the interest of business, writes Fiona McBennett

Kevin Powell and Robin Hoshino of Dublin supper club
Kevin Powell and Robin Hoshino of Dublin supper club

Fiona McBennett

Founded in the US in 2008, rental accommodation website, Airbnb, has had huge success in Ireland and around the world.

Connecting those seeking temporary accommodation with hosts, whose offers range from a budget-friendly blow-up bed on a living room floor to a high-end luxury castle, it has become popular amongst homeowners looking to earn some extra cash.

While having a stranger to stay might not appeal to everyone, there are many who have gone a step further and turned their home into a business.

Self-styled folk-artist Biddy McLaughlin has been opening the doors of her 140-year-old Dalkey cottage to the public since 2013. Offering evenings of traditional storytelling, alongside tea and home-made oat cakes, 'Biddy's Cottage' is a slice of Ireland that has been embraced by tourists and locals alike.

"I have been living in this cottage now for the past 18 years and it's exactly the way I always wanted to live - I am addicted to old Ireland," says McLaughlin.

"It has the turf fire, the old dresser, the Sacred Heart on the wall - it's all authentic. I tell stories that have been passed down to me by my mother and father and I research old Irish traditions. I'm not into any paddywhackery and I think that has been the saving grace of the place."

McLaughlin is also a painter and says that while sharing her private space with strangers is something she is now comfortable with, she was apprehensive at first.

"It's a big thing to open your house to the public and I was very nervous about it," she admits. "I have all kinds of people coming to me, everyone from Texan cowboys to locals - I never know who's going to come through the door.

"Society has become very untrustworthy and closed but I love having people in. You have to have your boundaries; when I'm not working, the shutters are closed and I'm watching Breaking Bad with my feet up. Having strangers in once a week is manageable."

Much of McLaughlin's time is devoted to the business, which she hopes will one day develop into a bigger venture. However, money is not her motivation.

"It's very much a one woman show and a lot of energy goes into it - it's a labour of love," she explains. "In a way, I feel duty-bound to do it. In 20 years' time, those who experienced old Ireland will be gone and their stories will be gone with them.

"I'm not seeing any returns on it yet - but hopefully it will become a proper business. Hotels are recommending me to tourists now and I was voted the number one attraction in Dalkey by TripAdvisor. It's very early days, but it's a little gem - and I'm very proud of it."

Another American trend proving to be popular in Ireland is the supper club, where homeowners cook for the public in their kitchen.

Kevin Powell, founder of Gruel Guerrilla, a supper club and pop-up event business, has been wining and dining strangers in his Temple Bar apartment since 2012. A self-taught chef, Powell originally worked as a cheesemaker.

"I started a food blog while I was in the cheese industry as a way of promoting local producers, then I had the idea of running a supper club. My apartment had always been a sociable place, so having different people here wasn't really a new thing.

"The biggest challenge was keeping it clean enough to have strangers in every week - I would rarely have polished glasses before that," he laughs.

Powell now runs the business with his girlfriend, Robin Hoshino, and the pair currently hold monthly supper clubs at their home, as well as cooking at pop-up events, parties and weddings. Powell also works as a food consultant and says the supper clubs launched his career.

"I refer to my supper clubs as my big tasty business card, as people can see if they want to work with us by trying our food and seeing how I work. We get all sorts of people, we've had wine clubs and book clubs come to us as well.

"There were a few teething issues and I've had to become a tidier and quieter cook. We have a rule that everyone leaves at midnight - though I'm very sociable, there are times when we've been cooking since early morning and I find that I need my home back to myself at the end of the night. We really enjoy it and have a lot of fun doing them."

Another home worker is curator Etaoin Holahan. And five years ago when she moved into former pub Fennelly's, in Callan, Co Kilkenny, she knew that it was a space to be enjoyed by the public.

Although the premises is her home, Holahan runs public cultural events there, where everything from live music events, film nights or burlesque dancing takes place.

"My father bought Fennelly's just before the property bubble burst, with a view to developing it," explains Holahan.

"When the market changed I began to work at renovating it and then moved in. It's delineated quite cleverly into a public and private space, so it's easy to keep the two separate when holding an event."

Also a curator at the Workhouse Assembly in Callan, Holahan is passionate about keeping her home town alive through the work that she does in Fennelly's.

"The place has a very special place in the hearts of the people in Callan and many of the locals remember its past incarnations as a pub, a butchers, a funeral home, an egg store and a dairy.

"I run the events in conjunction with local suppliers and cultural talent and I'm interested in seeing what local assets are out there through curating these events in my home."

Holahan currently runs twice monthly events but hopes to make them a more regular occurrence. She also says that unruly or disrespectful guests have never been an issue.

"I was never apprehensive about having people into my house, as I've always been a pretty welcoming person - people around me advised me to put away some of my personal belongings, in case something was stolen. But I've never had any kind of antisocial behaviour happen.

"While Fennelly's has all the hallmarks of a public house, there is also the feeling that you are being welcomed into someone's home and I find that people are the best version of themselves when they are here."

While the building itself is clearly divided into a public and private space, Holahan admits that it was difficult to keep those boundaries in mind at the start.

"At the beginning it kind of felt like a house party where people could come and stay as long as they liked. I really had to pull back after a few months.

"It was trial by fire but it's been very rewarding to have people say how happy they are to be back in a building that their parents brought them to as a child. I feel wonderful when there are people here, it feels right and it reinvigorates the house."

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