Your Business: Serving up a success story
Sara Mitchell tells Sean Gallagher that necessity inspired her and husband Gavin to start their rotisserie business
If you are one of those people who love stories about heroes and heroines who put setbacks behind them in order to push through to success, then you'll be inspired by Sara Mitchell and her husband, Gavin McCarthy. Finding themselves out of work in 2008, this enterprising couple spent what little savings they had starting a new business roasting free-range meats.
Today, their business, Poulet Bonne Femme, employs 40 staff and has a turnover of more than €1.5m per year. Theirs is a story of great determination and even greater resilience.
"We are Ireland's first free-range rotisserie meats business," explains Sara when I meet her in her outlet in the Avoca store in Kilmacanogue, Co Wicklow. "We sell meats straight from the spit, including chicken, ham, pork, beef and lamb. These are sold whole to take away or in sandwiches or with salads and sides. What's unique about cooking on a rotisserie is that the meat can continuously baste in its own juices while the fat drips off, resulting in the most tender and succulent meal - the ultimate convenience but with a home-cooked feel to it," insists Sara.
While business is now booming for the couple, this was not the path they had envisaged. Having grown up in Dublin's Monkstown, Sara studied Marketing and French in Portobello College in Rathmines before getting her first job with a tech startup. From there, she moved to London where she worked in marketing and events with drinks giant Budweiser. By 2005, she was ready to return home to Dublin where she landed a job for a period in sales and marketing with a property company.
Two years later, in June 2007, she married Gavin. Having worked as an estate agent with Hooke and McDonald, he had, by then, taken up a role with property developer Bernard McNamara. The future certainly looked bright. They were even more delighted when, the following August, they welcomed their first child, Sam, into the world. But then things took a turn for the worst.
Gavin lost his job and with it, their income. Try as he may, he couldn't find another job because the property sector had tanked. Many suggested they emigrate to Canada but neither wanted to leave Ireland. Their only option was to try and set up their own business. "We brainstormed lots of ideas but the rotisserie was the one we kept coming back to. We remembered enjoying chicken off the spit in the markets on holidays in Spain and we thought it might go well here," says Sara.
"We invested the small amount of redundancy Gavin had received plus all the savings we had, which wasn't much, into buying a food grade trailer and the best rotisserie machine we could afford. My mother came up with the name, based on a recipe from the south of France."
Shortly afterwards, in May 2009, the pair took a small stall at the farmers market in Leopardstown. They were now officially in business.
"Some people thought we were mad to try and sell more expensive free-range chicken at a time when the country was in the midst of its worst downturn," says Sara. "But we've never supported the idea of barn or caged birds so for us it had to be free range. Plus the meat tastes so much better."
There are always plenty of challenges around starting a new business. For Sara and Gavin these included learning about food preparation and managing tight cash flows. Their greatest challenge was getting used to the reality that they were now working in a trailer selling chickens to their friends and former colleagues.
"It was life changing," admits Sara. "But we grew to love it. In the beginning, there was often just the two of us in the trailer with our baby, Sam, in a buggy out front. Those were the days before we could afford childcare," she adds, smiling.
Before long they had invested in a second trailer and were working harder than ever. Sara identifies two significant turning points. The first was the Oxygen Festival in Laois.
"We signed up at huge expense and headed down with a fridge-van full of chickens expecting to sell tonnes of picnic boxes," she recalls. "However, we quickly realised this approach wasn't working. Having bought so much stock, we were faced with a disaster so in the end, we cut up French bread sticks, filled them with chicken and sold them as chicken rolls for a fiver. Customers came in droves. While we just about broke even, it turned out to be the catalyst behind us starting our now award-winning Poulet Bonne Femme sandwiches," she adds.
The second turning point came during the heavy snow of 2010, when farmers' markets were cancelled and they had nowhere to sell their meats.
"We rang all the customers we knew and offered to deliver cooked chicken to their homes. I can still remember loading our two youngest boys, Sam and Marc, into the back of the car and driving all around Dublin. But it was all we could do to make ends meet at the time," admits Sara.
The experience helped them realise they needed a dedicated premises. Having found a suitable unit in Monkstown, they were ready to push the button on it when they heard that Avoca was opening up just down the road. Worse still, they were planning on starting their own rotisserie section.
"We were gutted. We even thought of abandoning the whole idea when my father advised us to pick up the phone and ring Simon Pratt, (one of the owners at the time) and offer to go in and run the rotisserie for him. To our delight, he accepted and that was really the beginning of Poulet Bonne Femme," explains Sara.
The company now have outlets in four Avoca stores, Monkstown, Rathcoole, Suffolk Street and Kilmacanogue, with a new one, their largest yet, due to open in Dunboyne, Co Meath, in April. These are run on a 'concession' basis where Avoca supplies the space and Poulet Bonne Femme provides its own equipment and staff. Instead of rent, Avoca receive a percentage of the turnover of the business. Last year the couple opened a central production unit and are now producing their own branded fridge products which we will be sold in other stores as well as their own.
"We also recently signed a five-year deal with Aramark which has allowed us open an outlet in Dundrum Town Centre with a second one due to open shortly in UCD," says Sara.
"We see this as a great opportunity to open more stores in Ireland as well as in the UK. And we'd also love to open our own branded store at some time in the future. Looking back, we have come to believe that Gavin losing his job was the best thing that could have happened to us. In the past we had two lives: one work and the other family. Today, they blend into one. I think that this was meant to be," says Sara.
Sara's advice for other businesses
1 Hard work and dedication solve most problems
There's no escaping it, if you want to run your own business you have to be willing to put in the hard work. Everything takes effort and you have to be willing to take full responsibility for everything you are doing. No one else can do it for you. If it's going to work it's up to you to make it happen.
2 Keep going, even at the worst of times
There will be lots of times when you will feel like giving up. But these are the times when you will need to persevere. Very often the problems we think will likely end our business are the ones that can bring us the best opportunities for success.
3 Get advice from experienced mentors
Surround yourself with people who know what they are doing. Going for Growth was the best thing I did in 2016. The advice and guidance I received was invaluable and changed my outlook on growing Poulet Bonne Femme. It gave me both the skills and the time to think more strategically - to work on the business rather than working in it.
Company: Poulet Bonne Femme
Business: Food retail
Set up: 2009
Founders: Gavin McCarthy and Sara Mitchell
No of Employees: 40
Location: Headquartered in Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin with outlets in Dundrum Town Centre and Avoca stores in Monkstown, Rathcoole, Suffolk Street, and Kilmacanogue
For further information, see www.pouletbonnefemme.com
Sunday Indo Business