Tuesday 20 August 2019

How the dream of the yummy mummy lifestyle was sold on

One family's vision may prove to be a formula for international success, writes Nicola Anderson

Avoca on Suffolk Street
Avoca on Suffolk Street
Simon Pratt, Director Avoca , Kilmacanogue, Co Wicklow
President of Aramark's Irish Operations, Donal O'Brien and Simon Pratt, Managing Director of Avoca at Avoca Malahide Castle in Co Dublin
Sara Morrissey
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

'Did she love it? How much did she love it?" demands one of the American girls browsing the selection of daintily knitted woollen scarves and fripperies.

Her friend tells her that, yes, her grandmother did 'love' the gift that she bought her here last time.

"And that's it? No tears? I wanted reports of tears," says the other, in disbelief at such sheer ingratitude.

It seems like a disproportionate level of gush but then again, this is Avoca and these are Americans - which is precisely the magic formula that has been the makings of this business. And that the giant Philadelphia-based conglomerate, Aramark, is hoping to capitalise upon with its €60m-plus purchase of the lifestyle purveyor.

At lunchtime yesterday, the store on Suffolk Street in Dublin city centre is humming with activity.

Two women are browsing a tray of boho costume jewellery and a cheerful sales assistant is giving customer directions to the nearest Dart station.

A lone male, just waiting, seems to have cemented himself firmly to the wall of the stairs down to the food hall, unsure of his footing in such an overtly female paradise - which Avoca unashamedly is.

Clove-scented Christmas pinecones are drenching the air, upbeat pop is playing and the whole place is a veritable Aladdin's cave. A box of tea-bags sells for €7.50 - the blow softened by their coming in a blue tin box decorated with dear little owls; a gilt hand mirror straight from the illustrations of a fairy tale, at €13.95; a scented candle in a wine-coloured glass holder for €39.95 and there are monogrammed socks for Christmas, newly released from their cardboard box.

There are marshmallow lollipops; cosily bundled little Christmas hampers of provisions; a Normandy plum tart exquisitely packaged in duck-egg blue and storybook font.

Everything is just so, designed to appeal to the senses - and to weaknesses. None of this stuff could, in anybody's wildest dreams, constitute 'essentials.'

An article in the 'Daily Telegraph' likened it to "a cross between Anthropologie, J Crew and Urban Outfitters, with a large dollop of homespun Irish charm".

The only other similar brand they forgot to include was Whole Foods.

The mere name of Avoca may prompt eye-rolling in some quarters - but there are few who will turn their nose up at an Avoca cake.

Having come in purely to suss the place out, I somehow end up sliding over my credit card to the tune of €77,

though admittedly, one of the things is a Christmas present and the sales assistant earnestly tells me they are the only retail stockists of the brand which is generally only found in spas and in the K-Club. All in all, the classic Avoca 'Yummy Mummy Experience'. And I fell for it, hook, line and sinker.

But it's impossible not to admire the genius of it all: part boudoir, part souk, part Granny's kitchen, Avoca is much more than the sum of its parts, it is a way of life - or at least an aspiration.

You might be living in a one-bed city apartment but by buying a pot of artisan raspberry jam, you feel more in tune with nature.

You might be pregnant with your first child, but already you can picture the scene - your angelic sleeping tot, all snug in a bugaboo stroller, as you meet the rest of the girls and their babies at Avoca for coffee, a sneaky Mars Bar square and a catch-up. Blissfully undisturbed. Maybe pick up a pot of lavender on the way out.

It's all about the tantalising promise of pampering and the good life. Even at the height of recession, Avoca cafes were chock-a-block with yummy mummies, young families, mother and daughter pairings and even business associates determinedly treating themselves to complicated salads and fruit tarts - though they may not have bought some hand-painted Polish pottery on a whim on the way out, as they did in the Celtic Tiger era.

In a Starbucks-saturated and weary US market, is Aramark wilily calculating that this, more 'authentic', Avoca experience will be the next big thing?

The giant is involved in canteen catering, facilities management and uniform services and employs 270,000 people worldwide.

In a statement following the sale agreement, Donal O'Brien, president of Aramark's Irish operations, said the company saw "potential" to develop the Avoca concept in overseas markets.

"We have a huge opportunity to internationalise a truly Irish culinary dining experience," he said.

Known originally as Avoca Handweavers, Avoca is Ireland's oldest surviving business, ahead even of all the venerables like Guinness, Bewleys and Easons and was a co-operative which had its foundations in the bartering system.

It is also the oldest working woollen mill in Ireland and one of the world's oldest manufacturing companies.

Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli used its tweed, the British royals loved it and it was used to make up a waistcoat for King George VI and baby blankets for Queen Elizabeth II's children.

But then decline set in.

The mill was on its uppers by 1974 when Donald Pratt - a solicitor and father of five in his 30s - decided he'd had enough of law and would take a punt at buying Avoca, which a client of his wanted to offload.

The name Pratt dates back to the 7th century and is an old word for a magician or a conjuror - more than a little appropriate, given the magic act they have pulled off by taking the Irish dream, polishing it up, and selling it back to us in the form of Avoca.

In a previous interview, Hilary Pratt, Donald's wife, revealed that "there was no plan".

They got to know their market - and it was largely a tourist one. Americans loved them and if someone came in with an order for a cape, they cut up rugs and made it.

In 1986, the couple bought part of the Jameson Wicklow estate at Kilmacanogue, just outside Bray - the jewel in their crown.

Avoca went retail, rapidly opening new stores. That was also the year the Pratt children, Amanda and Simon, came on board.

Amanda returned first, from studying fashion technology in London - but wanted nothing to do with Avoca's heritage tweed.

Simon took over the food side - arguably Avoca's real success story.

Later, siblings Vanessa came in to work on the retail side of the Avoca business while brother Ivan came on board to look after the mill and wholesale divisions.

Amanda brought her own boho personality to the clothing range. Lace-trimmed socks became an instantly recognisable Avoca trademark. But behind the scenes, unrest was setting in.

Privately, those close to the family say Amanda and Simon fell out following a "disagreement".

Last night, Amanda admitted to the Irish Independent that 28 years of working with her parents and siblings took its toll.

"You get six members of a family working together for 30 years and I think everyone would understand that you might get to the stage of your life when you think, 'It's time not to work with your family,'" she said.

"I'm the oldest in my family and the last few years... I think they were all getting a bit ragged," she said of relations, adding: "But I think that was very normal."

Last Friday marked a year since she left the firm and Amanda said it was "very frightening" to leave something so familiar.

"When you're inside something as lovely as Avoca, you can't imagine what it's like not to be in that - but it's wonderful.

"I've learned so much by not being in the protected family company and it's incredibly interesting."

She told the Irish Independent that she was working for the Duke of Buccleuch in Scotland - the largest private landowner in the UK - on a project to develop a 300-year-old stables outside Edinburgh as a "lifestyle destination".

Asked if she hoped to pull off another Avoca, Amanda laughed.

On the sale of her family business, she said: "I wish everybody in Avoca the best, best of luck", while adding that she hopes they can keep the company the way it has always been.

Irish Independent

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