Wednesday 21 March 2018

Health food restaurants on the rise as clean-eating goes mainstream in Ireland

Ronan Ryan and wife Pamela Flood of Counter Culture, Powerscourt Town House
Ronan Ryan and wife Pamela Flood of Counter Culture, Powerscourt Town House

Jillian Bolger

With healthy cafés tempting us with sugar, wheat and dairy-free food, clean-eating has gone mainstream

Staple Foods' Instagram account is a riot of glorious rainbow colours.

Shot after shot of scrumptious-looking food makes the mouth water, as you scroll from a salad bowl of warm quinoa with peppers, fennel, cranberry and walnuts to protein pancakes loaded with berry compote and Greek yoghurt, or baked falafel with hummus, roast peppers, avocado and slaw.

It's all deliciously wholesome and representative of menus favoured by a new wave of healthy cafes that have been popping up all over Dublin.

Domini Kemp of Alchemy Juice Bar
Domini Kemp of Alchemy Juice Bar

Kevin Mulvany (30) opened Staple Foods in 2013, a tiny six-seater spot in Merchant's Arch in Temple Bar. A far cry from investment banking, which he'd worked at in the US for the previous three years, he spotted the healthy-eating trend in America and figured it was only matter of time before it trended on these shores.

"CrossFit and healthy eating were huge in America and it was clear that health was becoming a status symbol," he observed. "Prior to the recession, it was Louis Vuitton handbags. I was looking for the next accessible, affordable status symbol."

He opened Staple Foods serving paleo, vegetarian and, more unusually, vegan foods alongside fresh juices - and business blossomed. Dairy, refined sugar and gluten were all off the menu and the public loved it, so much so that he quickly outgrew his premises, and moved to a bigger space.

It was here that he met customer Gordon D'Arcy, the former rugby international.

Staple Foods: Huevos Rancheros. Instagram
Staple Foods: Huevos Rancheros. Instagram

"He liked Staple Food and was looking for a complementary business to go into a property on Grattan Street where he runs Form School pilates studio with his wife."

Opening there in 2015 gave Kevin a bigger kitchen, wider customer base and an opportunity to expand his menu, focusing solely on vegan dishes.

"Vegan food is a growing trend, with people eating it for lots of different reasons. Some are eating it to save the earth, others for health reasons, some simply to be trendy. People now understand how important food is for the body and mind."

He recently shut his Temple Bar venue, as the kitchen was too restrictive, and has plans to open several Staple Foods branches in 2016 to meet the demand from "normal, real people who are open-minded about trying new foods".

Staple Foods: lunch box of kale, spinach, cashews, red quiona, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, avocado, pomegranate with raspberry and lemon dressing. Instagram
Staple Foods: lunch box of kale, spinach, cashews, red quiona, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, avocado, pomegranate with raspberry and lemon dressing. Instagram

Domini Kemp, who discovered the benefits of healthy, clean-eating during an illness several years ago, agrees that a healthier lifestyle has become the norm for many these days. Setting up Alchemy Juice Company with her sister, Peaches, in October 2014, the successful restaurateurs (who own the itsa… and Joe's cafés, among others) scored an instant hit with their green, clean-eating ethos.

With 'Eat better, Feel better, Be better' as their slogan and serving wholesome hits like Kale Crack Salad (kale, tahini, raisins, and seeds), Miso Salmon with Buckwheat Noodles and Mixed Leaves, and a selection of cold-pressed juices, they expected their menu to appeal but were surprised by the diversity of customers.

"I thought in BT2 we'd get a younger demographic, but we get people of all ages, including older men buying dinner for themselves and their families. We get people very into health and fitness too and it's especially nice to see parents coming in with teenagers."

Domini is astonished at the knowledge school kids have about nutrition. "These teens are so well-informed in terms of diet. We were clueless by comparison at that age."

Alchemy Juice Bar (dragonfruit bowls and toast). Instagram
Alchemy Juice Bar (dragonfruit bowls and toast). Instagram

The fact that teens are choosing green juices and sugar-free treats over fries and fizzy drinks is a reassuring sign of a cultural shift away from junk food.

There's a buoyant market for free-from baking too, partly for health and fitness reasons, partly for allergies and intolerances, and Alchemy's goodies tick all of those boxes.

"There's no dairy, no wheat and no gluten in our treats. Some treats do have sugar, maybe as dates or maple syrup, so while we're saying, 'Yes our Bounty bar brownie is probably better than the brownie we sell in itsa...,' for example, it's still a brownie! Don't come in here thinking, 'If I eat this it's going to be like a stick of celery', because it's not! It is a slightly better for you treat, but it is still a treat."

One of Counter Culture's colourful salad and juice creations. Facebook
One of Counter Culture's colourful salad and juice creations. Facebook

Another convert to clean-eating is restaurateur Ronan Ryan, who opened Counter Culture with his wife, Pamela Flood, in the Powerscourt Townhouse Centre in May 2014. Ronan may be the trained chef and restaurateur but it was Pamela's interest in natural, healthy, unprocessed food for their new baby that lead to them opening a healthy-eating café.

"I looked at a place in the US called The Protein Bar, serving really healthy fast food and figured something similar would work here," Ronan explains.

Despite opening on the third floor of the Powerscourt Townhouse Centre, with no footfall or passing trade, Counter Culture is a big hit, although Ronan admits it had a slow start.

"In the early days, we had four customers one day and every other table in the whole centre was full. But then more regulars started coming, we built it up and we're now looking for an outlet on the ground floor."

Today there's an order for an office lunch for 66 people.

"If staff eat pizza and burgers, there's no productivity in the afternoon. Our stuff is junk and stodge-free, whether it's hake, chicken or turkey and people really understand the benefits of nutritious food."

Counter Culture's healthy smoothie. Facebook.
Counter Culture's healthy smoothie. Facebook.

Juices are big sellers, with personal trainers like Paul Byrne coming in every day for a protein shake.

"We change the juices every three weeks to reflect seasonality. It's great to see sports professionals and trainers coming in. We see it is a big thumbs up."

Ronan describes how, in former restaurants, a regular customer meant they would come in five times a year.

"Now, I have customers who come in five times a week. Maybe they've been advised to watch their cholesterol, their weight or even improve their nutrition for training purposes."

With such a proliferation of healthy choices, eating clean has never been easier for the masses, but Kevin Mulvany of Staple Foods believes we still have some distance to go.

"In the States, it's perfectly normal to 'go for a salad'. We don't do that here yet, we still 'go for a sandwich' but I'm looking to change all that."

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