A business with wings
Sara Mitchell and her husband Gavin's free-range rotisserie chicken company has really taken flight
Sara Mitchell's first child was just 10 days old when her husband lost his job. Gavin had been working for a property developer in Dublin, and when the financial crash hit in 2008, he struggled to find another job in the same industry.
"I was working for myself at the time but I had obviously just had a baby, so we had no income coming in," says Sara. "He had been given a redundancy package from the developers so we were able to use that to set up our own business."
That business grew to become Poulet Bonne Femme, the rotisserie chicken and meats specialist that now holds a place in four Avoca stores across the country.
The idea for Poulet Bonne Femme - named after a peasant's recipe from the south of France that was popular in Sara's childhood home - came during a holiday to Costa de Almería in Spain, where they sampled a selection of delicious rotisserie chicken dishes in the coastal villages.
"We just thought, it's not in Ireland, we'd never seen it anywhere and it would work really well here. Farmers' markets were popping up all the time and there was a lot of emphasis on buying Irish, so we thought we'd give it a go," she says.
However, Sara (38) and her husband had a considerably less sunny start at home in Dublin, at the mercy of wet and windy weather in a 2x4 trailer at the weekly food market in Dun Laoghaire in 2009.
Sara's background was in marketing, and neither had any experience in the food industry or any formal culinary training, so it proved to be a tough challenge. "We both had been in quite corporate environments before - I had worked for Budweiser in the UK - and it was all very office-based, so actually getting into that trailer and putting an apron on and selling was quite hard," she says.
When they were starting out, Sara describes their decision to use free-range chicken as a no-brainer.
"I don't think it actually was a hard decision, because it wasn't really up for debate. It's the much more humane decision," she explains.
She admits they felt nervous at first about making such a costly decision, but that it has worked in their favour. Today, they source their chicken from a group called Farmers to Market, a conglomerate of farmers based in Cavan and Monaghan.
"It got really busy, really quickly," she says of their first year. Within 12 months, Poulet Bonne Femme had two trailers on the road seven days a week, attending various farmers' markets and events around the country.
Initially devised as a short-term solution to their unemployment, they had never anticipated such success. "Gavin had intended to get back into property but when he got offered a job a year-and-a-half later, he turned it down. That was a turning point, when we realised we loved what we were doing and there was no way we were going back to the corporate world," she recalls.
The next turning point came towards the end of 2011, when they established their first counter presence in the newly opened Avoca Monkstown.
"It was terrifying yet amazing. We had been looking for a premises, because we really needed to get out of the markets. They were so weather-dependent and we had had a few complete wipe-outs with snow or four days of stormy rain where you couldn't set up," Sara explains.
A year later, they opened in Avoca Rathcoole, which she says was an even bigger highlight. "That was literally doubling its size in one year for us, it was really exciting. We realised that we could actually grow it bigger and bigger, and then it becomes easier to do the next one and the next one."
They now have 24 staff working across their four Avoca concessions, but the business is still run by Sara and Gavin. "We actually work really well together," she laughs. "People say to me all the time, 'I don't know how you do it, working with your husband', but we actually get on well when we're together all the time."
The couple now have three sons - Samuel (8), Marc (6) and JJ (22 months) - and Sara says it can be tricky to find a healthy work-life balance. "It's a mad house. There are a few sides to working for yourself: there's the flexibility of it, so on one hand, it's great. When our childminder went away for a week, I was able to take it off, and if the kids are sick, I'm able to drop home.
"On the other hand you can't really take any prolonged time off. There was no such thing as maternity leave. When JJ was born I was back in a week, they just come with you. If I'm honest, I find it hard trying to balance it all, but at the same time I don't think I'd change it because I really appreciate that flexibility in my life."
Last year, the US-owned multinational Aramark bought Avoca, and Sara says they plan to work with the company to continue to grow their own brand. Poulet Bonne Femme has also started producing an "off-the-shelf" range of side dishes to accompany their chicken and meats.
For now, the couple is happy to stay in Dublin and to return to the market where they started out every Sunday with their kids. "We live in Dun Laoghaire right beside the market, and we go every week. It's lovely," she says.
VIETNAMESE CHICKEN PHO
Usually this dish is made with freshly cooked chicken, but it is a perfect meal to use up any leftover chicken from your roast dinner and an ideal way to use your delicious free-range chicken stock.
Approx 1.5lt chicken stock
Left over free-range roast chicken shredded, 200g per person
2 cardamom pods
2½-in cinnamon stick
2 whole star anise
1 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp black peppercorns
½ tsp white peppercorns
1 tsp goji berries
2 shallots, halved
1 small onion, quartered
1 leek, halved lengthwise and cut into 2in pieces
1 tbsp dark brown sugar
To garnish 200g dried rice noodles
50ml sunflower oil
3 medium shallots, finely sliced
1 tbsp fish sauce
60g sliced scallions
60g chopped coriander
Bean sprouts, basil, mint, thinly sliced red chillies and lime wedges, for serving
In a large heavy based pot, combine the cardamom, cinnamon stick, star anise, coriander, black and white peppercorns and goji berries. Cook over low heat, constantly stirring for 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl.
In the same pan, combine the shallots, onion and leek. Cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until a lovely golden colour, this should take about 10 minutes.
In a separate pan heat the chicken stock up gently, and when it is starting to bubble add the pan-roasted shallot, onion and leek mixture. Stir the toasted spices and goji berries into the broth. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Finally add the sugar and simmer for another 30 minutes.
Strain the broth into a large bowl, pressing down on the mixture to make sure you capture all the flavour, discard the onion and leek mixture and pour the broth into a clean saucepan.
Soak the noodles in a large bowl of boiling water as per package instructions.
In a large skillet, heat the oil. Add the shallots and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the shallots to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Let cool.
Bring the broth to a simmer. Stir in the fish sauce and season the broth with salt. Stir in the shredded chicken until heated through.
Drain the rice noodles and transfer to large bowls. Ladle the broth and chicken over the noodles. Top with the scallions and coriander. Garnish with the crispy shallots, bean sprouts, basil, mint and chillies and serve with lime wedges.
FREE RANGE IRISH CHICKEN STOCK
When you make chicken stock from a quality bird you will be amazed at the difference in the taste and texture. You can add it to a risotto, soup or to any sauce and it will give it such a lift in flavour.
Chicken carcass from 1.5kg bird (make sure to throw in the wings)
2-3 bay leaves
3 celery stalks
10 black pepper corns
1 large carrot
Half an onion, leave the skin on
Handful of parsley stalks
Add all the ingredients into a large saucepan and cover with water. Put the lid on and turn up the heat. Once it is just about to boil, turn the heat right down low and let it simmer away for 3 to 4 hours with the lid off (2 hours if you have less time). Never let stock boil as it becomes cloudy. You want to have a nice clear brown liquid.
Keep skimming away the fat as it rises to the top of the pan.
Strain through a fine sieve, you can even put it through a muslin if you want it to be extra clear.