Foodies fight back
As the Irish food and hospitality sector continues to rebuild post-lockdown, I spoke to four more awe-inspiring folk with SMEs about their experiences and their plans going forward.
THE FISH & CHIP BOX
What's better than great seafood when you're on holiday? Well, if you're on the South West trail, the best fish 'n' chips are to be found at the eponymous Rosscarbery Traditional Fish & Chips. It's also a hot favourite of my colleague Eoghan Harris when he's resting in his beloved West Cork.
Located on the N71 at Creggane, by a Top petrol station and a Spar shop, you can also have great burgers (€3.30-€8.90) with a local twist, like The Big Fella or The Drombeg Burger. But the fishy heroes - haddock, hake, and scampi - are knockout, priced between €5.70 and €6.30. They also have great deals for kids, too. Like everyone else in the country, they've been affected by Covid-19, but, as daughter of the house, Cassidy Hawkins, explained, they sprang into action by adding a lovely Covid-conscious cafe garden where they've created a stress-free green escape.
Never mind two-metres, tables seem to be four-metres apart, with two waitresses constantly present, distancing and observing. Contactless orders are taken on a tablet and whizzed straight to the kitchen, from where the food is brought direct to your table. Lots of gluten-free options. Pre-order: (023) 886-9694.
Eavaun Carmody, of Killenure Castle Dexter Gourmet, in Co Tipperary, has spent the last eight years growing her business, specialising in boutique beef, charcuterie, gourmet dripping and leather goods. The Dexter breed has been in serious decline in Ireland, and Eavaun has made it her mission to ensure this wonderful beast doesn't go mooing off into the sunset. Her herd of 800 cattle represents 40pc of Ireland's Dexter population.
"We were picking up great traction, selling eight to 10 carcasses per week, plus charcuterie, and we'd opened an online shop for the leather goods," she said. "Then Covid showed its ugly head and over 95pc of our customers closed due to government legislation.
"We continued to make charcuterie sales in luxury food boxes with the help of Sean Hussey & Sons, but, financially, this was just an ice-cube in a hot bath. I have no land. Our animals are in a B&B system with local farmers, who still had to be paid, so this was a huge source of anxiety. Eight years of blood, sweat and tears had gone into this project."
But, like so many of our hard-working enterprising producers, Eavaun picked herself up and forged onwards.
"What we've decided to do, going forward, is to distribute directly to our chefs and hotels, paddock to plate, cutting out the big distribution companies, which decreases the prices for the chefs and in turn, the end user. We're also planning to export to France. We're exporting to Hong Kong as it is, but the Continent would give us a bigger playing field. We had 28 people working on this project and are currently down to seven, but I know in time that I will get these people back."
"Opening a restaurant is hard at any time. Opening a restaurant without your wife, business partner and all-round wingman makes it that bit tougher. But, attempting to open a restaurant during a pandemic is a colossal undertaking."
So says James Sheridan, who has just opened Canteen restaurant at the Marlin Hotel on Bow Lane East, within the golden mile around St Stephen's Green.
James and his wife, French chef Soizic Humbert, who had a baby in May, had originally founded their Canteen at the Blackrock Market, before moving to his home area of Celbridge, but now James is back waving the pots and pans in the big smoke.
"When do we hire staff? When can we get work done on the kitchen? When can we open? Will anyone show up? All questions you ask yourself during the normal course of opening but amplified by the deafening sound of Covid-19. So, how do you do it? Slowly, one step at a time, with the same hope and optimism you would have any other time."
Supply lines are slow and unreliable, and James feels some customers will remain wary no matter what the official line is. "Guidelines seem to shift from day to day, and our industry needs clear, concise guidelines to work with."
All that aside, James has been able to put together a great kitchen team for his fab new-look Canteen, creating a food offering at The Marlin that makes it the food destination it really ought to be.
"The hotel have backed and supported us to make the move a success and we plan on making it just that."
You can read my review of Canteen Marlin next Sunday.
A couple of years ago, Arthur and Maruisz, two team members at the Great Southern Hotel Killarney, suggested planting vegetables in an under-utilised polytunnel on the grounds of the hotel, and, during lockdown, it became a symbol of hope, bringing staff together with a sense of pride in what they could achieve even in the darkest days, says Ettienne van Vrede, CEO of the Hayfield Family Collection, which also includes Cork's gorgeous five-star Hayfield Manor, and the plush boutique Killarney Royal.
"It was really important for me to keep in touch with the teams in our three hotels and encourage one another in this time," he said. "Once the reopening was announced, we saw a huge surge in bookings from the Irish market. We were overjoyed, especially our reservations team who'd spent weeks handling cancellations for what had looked like being our most successful year.
"Normally we'd have a huge base of international guests and it's usually this peak season that sustains hotels year-round. We recognise that the domestic market is price sensitive, with almost everyone impacted in some way by Covid-19, so we've reduced our general selling prices to end 2020 and, in addition, exclusively on our own websites, we've created some excellent value special offers for the summer staycation market. There's a sense of excitement, tinged with trepidation as the uncertainty lingers over us all.
"We are as prepared as we can be to taking on the next stage and it certainly beats watching plants grow. We'll adapt and learn like a very strong team and business needs to. It does feel a bit like the first day of school, new uniform, new rules... loving the idea but a bit anxious, too."