Wednesday 13 December 2017

Bondings: Our own public Idaho

Mairead and Richard Jacob own an award-winning cafe in Cork, and are known for being 'vocal about local'

Mairead and Richard Jacob
Mairead and Richard Jacob
Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith

First impressions can linger. So when Mairead Crowley spotted Richard Jacob on her first day as restaurant manager at Ballymaloe House in Cork in 1994, she didn't exactly jump for joy. "I thought, 'Oh no, it's that guy from college,'" she recalls. "We were at DIT, Cathal Brugha Street, at the same time so I had seen him around. He was studying hotel management, and I thought he was good-looking, but as he was the guy that everyone fancied, except me, I imagined he was a full-of-himself dope."

Dubliner Richard had started working as front-of-house manager at Ballymaloe House three months earlier, and when Mairead arrived, he also recognised her and recalled her wearing her chef whites around college. Despite her initial misgivings, they got on very well, and started dating after five months.

"Everyone said how obvious it was that there was chemistry between us, and used to tell us to just get together," says Mairead, who is a day older than Richard, which, she jokes, makes her extra wise and mature. "We shared a house with another girl, and were always throwing parties and barbecues. We played hangman one night at three in the morning, drinking a bottle of pinot grigio, and both spelled out each other's names. And that was how it happened, as corny as it sounds."

Mairead then went to work in the Cayman Islands for a year, and Richard went over to visit. Then she came back and got a job in Dublin, where Richard was working at that stage. They got married in 1997, and had two ceremonies as Richard is Quaker and Mairead is Catholic.

Richard grew up on Wellington Road in Ballsbridge, as the youngest of the late Belinda and Robert's four children. Mairead is from a farming background, having grown up in Watergrasshill in Cork. She's the youngest of Denis and Sheila Crowley's three children, but sadly her brother Michael passed away aged 26 following an accident on their farm, which she says was devastating. "Michael was my best friend," she says. "Seeing my parents disintegrating was the worst, as while we have dealt with some deaths since then, Michael's was the first and it was colossal for our family."

After they got married, Mairead and Richard went to Australia for a year and worked in small cafes. They loved it, as they had held a number of busy, high-end, high-stress positions in the previous years, and realised that this was what they wanted for themselves. Having settled in Cork, they found a space for their new cafe in the city in 2001, behind Brown Thomas, which they called Idaho Cafe. "It was a tiny little corner with a kitchen the size of a shoebox, and the layout seated only 15 people," says Richard. "I'm sure people didn't buy it because they didn't think you could run a cafe with a kitchen that small, but Mairead saw that it could be done in Australia, and it was no bother to her. We are open 14 years and it is going great, and now it seats 30. We get so much satisfaction from seeing people enjoy what we've created. We still have some of the same customers from the first day we opened, which is amazing."

Mairead says that they wanted the cafe to be enjoyable to work in, and for their customers to enjoy great food and fun. They must be doing something right as they recently won the best cafe award at the Irish Restaurant Awards for the second time. While the cafe has blossomed, Mairead and Richard have been hit with a few personal losses. A month after Idaho opened, Mairead's dad had a stroke and died two months later, and Richard's mum died five years ago. Mairead says she has drawn the positive out of these losses, and they have made her more receptive and sensitive to other people's hardships.

"Mairead's mantra is that you don't know what is going on in customers' lives," says Richard. "When they see you in the morning, you set the tone for their whole day, so you have to be nice to everyone. She is so lovely and demure, but then she comes out with these mad jokes as she has a wacky sense of humour. She is also very black and white, so she doesn't hold back and her directness is fantastic."

This straightness has caused Richard to delete a couple of Mairead's tweets, because by her own admission, she can be outspoken and holds strong opinions on issues. They are both "vocal about local," and believe that people should support local businesses and use fresh local produce, rather than putting their money into big franchises. "Richard can be too nice sometimes, and I have to toughen him up a little in certain situations because he is so kind-hearted," she says with a laugh. "He is so intelligent and is like a walking Google, so I ask him about everything."

Idaho Cafe is looking forward to being part of Our Table today at the much-loved, multidisciplinary Cork Midsummer Festival, in which 400 people will enjoy a summer's evening of food and entertainment on Oliver Plunkett Street. It will feature a banquet from the combined culinary talents of 12 of Cork's finest eating houses, along with street performers, minstrels and musicians.

Having children was not part of Mairead and Richard's plans, but they adore their cat, Scrappy. Nor have they plans to franchise their business as they believe its success is due to the fact that it's small and they can give customers the personal touch, but they are opening a pop-up ice-cream and waffle bar this summer next door to the cafe, which is going to be a really fun addition to their existing business. "We are famous in Cork for our waffles," says Mairead. "I have made our own batter recipe over the years, and we have queues for them. I have a huge love of ice cream too, and we are going to have our own toppings, like hot, dark chocolate sauce."

Cork Midsummer Festival takes place this weekend and next weekend and features 43 events and 95 performances in 25 venues.

Idaho Cafe, 19 Caroline Street, Cork.

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