When the country went into its first lockdown, I wondered what I could do to help the food and hospitality industry, which had arguably been hit hardest of all.
With everyone stuck at home, many goods-based companies experienced an online renaissance through the likes of Amazon, while tech businesses like Netflix thrived as well, not to mention big pharma and the companies responsible for billions of masks and an ocean of hand sanitiser.
Meanwhile, the hospitality industry was at a horrifying standstill. People were bewildered and hurting badly, trying desperately to cope with what was happening to their lives and livelihoods.
I pitched an idea to my editor for a weekly column focusing on four different people and their businesses, at different ends of the industry, giving them a platform to tell their stories, express their views, and get anything they wanted to off their chests in a completely unhindered fashion.
He was immediately very supportive of the concept. I thought it would run for three months or so, never dreaming that almost a year-and-a-half later I would still be doing it.
During that time, I have interviewed 256 people countrywide, discussing Covid’s impact, as they have pivoted their businesses through four lockdowns with takeaways, food boxes, food trucks, online cooking classes etc.
Some have left their high-paying, high-pressure jobs, to work now at a more holistic pace, such as chef Tom Flavin, featured today, who appeared in the first Foodies Fight Back.
With hotels now open, and indoor dining kicking off again tomorrow, I think it is safe to say (fingers-crossed) that we are getting back to some sense of normality.
I would like to thank all the wonderful hard-working people I have interviewed since May 2020, and all of the readers who threw their support behind our fabulous industry.
So, without further ado, job done, I give you my final four Foodies Fighting Back.
“We just want to get back to work and believe we can do it safely,” says Shane O’Farrell of Butler & Barry Gastrobar, which enjoys breathtaking views on the promenade in Bray, Co Wicklow.
“Nobody needs to hear more of the hardship, we did hope the recovery would have started by now. We really did. It’s what we had planned for.”
In one way, he says, they are very lucky that they managed to create a very successful new brand that does takeaway well.
“The Dough Box and its wood-fired pizza and the relocation to Butler & Barry has been rewarding in so many ways. We have been lucky to find a very high calibre of pizza chef and the expansion will allow us to offer even more to our customers now they are finally able to sit indoors again.”
All this said, Shane says the reality of hiring new staff and competition within the industry makes turning a profit even more difficult after what has been the most challenging financial period of their existence.
“The toughest challenges await but we’re ready. We’re not sure what else could be thrown at us at this stage but, having reshaped our business entirely to facilitate social distancing and a takeaway service in the most professional and committed way possible, we believe we are well equipped for the months ahead. We are hopeful and optimistic.
“Finally, we’d like to extend our gratitude to all the staff that have gone above and beyond, and to the continued support of our community in Bray. We can’t wait to open our doors again and celebrate being back together.”
“The past 16 months has had lots of highs and lows for me,” says Tom Flavin, former executive chef of the Limerick Strand Hotel.
“The transition from running the kitchens of the hotel, preparing and serving over 2,000 meals per day with the buzz of the 50-strong kitchen team, to turning the kitchen lights off for the first time in 14 years, was one of the low points of the pandemic.”
Tom, who has over 30 years’ experience in the hotel, catering and restaurant trade, used his time constructively, spending lots of quality time at home with his family, gardening, and cooking for elderly neighbours and frontline workers.
“I’d never spent so much quality time with family, sitting at the table for breakfast, lunch and dinner almost every day. Is this what normal people do? I was loving it.”
As the weeks and months rolled on, Tom realised they were in it for the long haul.
“We began building an outdoor kitchen and an extension to the vegetable plot at home. Long walks and cycles on the Limerick Greenway were a gift to keep from going stir crazy.
“I was already involved in the Limerick Food Group, promoting local food, drinks and boosting tourism — then I got an opportunity to teach transition year students a taste of culinary arts on a pilot scheme run by the Limerick and Clare Education and Training Board.
“It was a huge success, and something that would be very beneficial to run nationwide.”
As summer 2020 rolled into winter, they were open for essential workers and takeaway only.
“I was on a reduced salary and cut to a three-day week, but I could survive. This was my light bulb moment. I realised the true value of life isn’t material things or work, it’s about being happy and enjoying your family and friends. So, I decided to re-invent myself.
“After some weeks of discussion with Mol, my better half, and a few close friends, my new company, Tom Flavin Chef and Food Consultant, was born.
“I now offer expert support and advice to all businesses in the food production and service industry. The response so far has been astounding and I look forward to the next chapter and sharing the passion for quality Irish food.”
Nisheeth Tak’s Rasam Indian restaurant in Glasthule is one of Dublin’s best restaurants, with a regular clientele that includes rock star royalty like Chris de Burgh and his family, Miriam O’Callaghan, Pat Kenny… it even attracted Nigella Lawson.
“We are super excited to re-open tomorrow. The past year has been challenging beyond belief but we feel truly fortunate to have had the support and goodwill of so many loyal customers during these difficult times,” says Nisheeth.
Rasam has been providing stellar takeaways throughout the lockdowns but with no outdoor dining facilities, was not able to open earlier.
Nisheeth kindly says: “The power of Lucinda’s weekly Foodies Fight Back, emphasising the relevance and importance of the hospitality industry in Ireland, and being a cheerleader for restaurants, guest houses, hotels, pubs and food producers throughout the country, can’t be underestimated.
“That goodwill without doubt made an important difference to staying positive when the going was tough.”
During the months of restrictions, Nisheeth and his team dug deep into their rich culinary heritage to be able to produce fresh new flavours.
“We know Indian cuisine does not need to be rich and heavy and in our new menu for reopening we have used the sweetness of carrots, beetroot and butternut squash, mixed with freshly prepared spices to make dishes lighter and healthier.
“We remain fully committed to the safety of our customer and staff alike and the Top Ozone machine used nightly ensures the air is kept clean and purified. With the support of our loyal customers, we are optimistic about the future and Rasam going from strength to strength.”
Bill Kelly and his daughter Laura, of the legendary Kelly’s Resort Hotel and Spa on Rosslare Strand, were among the first people to tell me how they were coping with Covid. I caught up with them to see how they were doing one year on.
“To open our doors again was a moment of joy. We’re delighted to be back and thrilled to welcome our guests who have been our support throughout,” says Laura.
“People are so happy to be allowed to holiday again, and they feel safe at Kelly’s which give us confidence we’re doing something right.”
“All the new regulations, which are important, have certainly put a lot of stress on the business,” adds Bill.
“We’ve had to change the way we operate. This has its challenges, but it allows us to look at the business from a new and different angle, moving us into a different era. I’d like to think things will change and go back to normal, but I feel we’ll have to live with Covid and adapt to the new norm.”
“The hospitality industry has been hit hard in the last two years and that has been a strain on the staff,” says Laura.
“But, they’ve been fantastic in the way they’ve embraced the changes and been loyal to the hotel.”
While closed, they undertook some improvements, including a redesign of the entrance to “create a lasting first impression”, the addition of a new outdoor dining concept, TheVan@Kellys – a stylish marquee with two food trucks and a small bar allowing guests to dine outside for lunch or afternoon treats.
For non-residents in their La Marine Bar & Restaurant they have introduced more tables and additional shelter if the weather is inclement.
Here’s to another 125 plus years of Kelly’s.