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Lucinda O’Sullivan’s Foodies fight back: Stay positive, always adapt, be tough, and we will get through this together

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Dona Watchorne in the Southbank Cafe, Dublin 6.

Dona Watchorne in the Southbank Cafe, Dublin 6.

Bronagh & Cathal O’Rourke, Burren Farm Experience, Co Clare

Bronagh & Cathal O’Rourke, Burren Farm Experience, Co Clare

Jo Daly & Debbie O’Reilly, Quay West, Donegal Town, Co Donegal

Jo Daly & Debbie O’Reilly, Quay West, Donegal Town, Co Donegal

Martin Mangan, Carton House, Maynooth, Co Kildare

Martin Mangan, Carton House, Maynooth, Co Kildare

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Dona Watchorne in the Southbank Cafe, Dublin 6.

Dona Watchorne opened her Grove Road cafe in April 2014, beside the La Touche B ridge over the Grand Canal approaching Rathmines in Dublin. Seven years later, she’s just opened the cool new Southbank Cafe at the next bridge along, the Robert Emmet, the gateway to the ever more trendy Harold’s Cross .

THE CAFE

“I lost count of the amount of people who told me nothing works on this corner,” Dona says. “Seven years later the reverse is the case; they congratulate me for being the only person to survive and thrive even here.”   

Having closed initially in March 2020, Dona reopened for takeaways the following month. “It’s not in my nature or any business owner’s nature, I’m guessing, to keep a business closed when it could be trading. People were so happy to be able to get a coffee and have a chat.”

Dona had been retailing coffee-brewing equipment. “Then, I had, what I thought was a brainwave while eating some White Mausu Peanut Rayu at home — ‘I think I should sell this’!” She added a grocery retail section to the cafe and sourced mostly local products from independent businesses, then adding some wines, greeting cards and nice little gift ideas.

“Having started working on Southbank in December 2019, I was adamant I wouldn’t open until seating in restaurants was permitted again. Last December, it dawned on me that I could be a long time waiting so I decided to plough ahead in March, opening as a takeaway business also. The support and well wishes from people has been amazing. It seems that going for coffee is the new going out!”

Dona feels lucky to be in a business that can trade as a takeaway and is positive about the future of the business. “I hope the hospitality industry is given adequate notice about the opening of restaurants. It’s difficult even now to get staff and it’s going to be a major challenge when restaurants can operate at capacity.”

groveroadcafe.ie 

THE FARM

Set on a working farm and offering tours, food trails, nature centric events, the O’Rourke Family’s Burren Farm Experience at the Burren National Park. Co Clare, is a wonderful escape from the noisy fast-paced nonsense of the modern world. I spoke to Bronagh O’Rourke.

“We started our journey with rose-tinted glasses after 2019; a record-breaking year for tourism. It was all guns blazing in February 2020. We had lots of booking from international tourists, just purchased our Vintage Land Rover to transport our guests, and one by one all of the bookings were cancelled. We opened temporarily in June, and were busy for a short while, having collaborated with various wellness and food professionals to bring really well-received events like our nature connection, yoga, foraging and food trail events.”

With Covid restrictions tightening, Bronagh decided that if people couldn’t have a real Burren Farm Experience why not give them a taste with their own Burren Premium Beef 10kg & 20kg boxes.

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Knowing, however, that the lockdowns won’t go on forever, Bronagh says that “with international travel a pipe dream, we’re aiming at providing the domestic market with a super summer at home. We’re renting teardrop campers that can be attached to your tow bar. They’re small, but mighty!” They’re also offering a glamping option with stylish Bell tents. “Stay positive, constantly adapt, stay tough, never give up, fight your corner, watch out for others and we will get through this together.”

burrenfarmexperience.ie

THE RESTAURANT

Beautifully situated opposite Donegal Pier in the county town, the award winning Quay West Restaurant, set on two levels, and ably helmed by chef owners Jo Daly and Debbie O’Reilly, offers fantastic views with food to match. Jo told me how they’d been coping.

“On January 22, 2020, my son, who’d only just returned from China, told me about a new virus that had been discovered. Little did we know the impact it would have on us but as Covid-19 spread to other countries and devastated places like Bergamo in Italy, I knew it was only a matter of time before it came to Ireland. A plan started to form in my head, and unbeknown to me, my friend Tim Twomey was thinking the same way.”

On March 14 last year they closed the doors of their award-winning restaurant for the foreseeable future, but on March 16, along with Tim Twomey, Sinead McTernan and Adrian McDaid, Jo set up Chef Aid Donegal Town, an outreach programme to provide a daily hot meal to those who were advised to cocoon. Seven more kitchens were opened throughout Co Donegal, and together with the help and assistance from An Garda Síochána and the many volunteers, it ran for 15 weeks and provided more than 80,000 free meals during the first lockdown.”

Jo and Debbie reopened the doors of Quay West last July 2 and had a busy summer, but in September had to close once again. “Debbie and I threw ourselves into up-skilling and online training. I also was privileged to accept the role of president of The Donegal Women in Business Network. We are very disappointed not to have been given any signal as to when we can reopen in the recent government announcement, but I’m at a loss to understand why they’re letting hotels reopen before restaurants. I cannot fathom why they say it’s safe to stay in a hotel for 24 hours but not a restaurant for 105 minutes.”

quaywestdonegal.ie 

THE HOTEL

Martin Mangan, former general manager of the five-star Conrad Hilton Dublin, tells me about the past year and his exciting move in taking over the reins at the Carton House Hotel, on 1,100 acres in Maynooth, Co Kildare.

“I returned from Shanghai in November 2019 following a very successful trade show selling Ireland as a destination to high-end outbound luxury travel agents who were eager to learn all about Ireland. I remember speaking to some colleagues in Asia the following February who’d seen their businesses collapse to levels never seen before.”

Martin says the pandemic taught him so many lessons. “It knocked me for six but I decided I was going to fight back and not allow it to defeat me”.

To that end, he says he innovated like never before. “We flipped well-established concepts, developed outdoor dining spaces, turned meeting spaces into cinemas, did fun things like placing a horsebox in Earlsfort Terrace serving coffee to our frontline workers and passers-by, created a click-and-collect afternoon tea at home and developed an online retail offering — anything to remain open and protect as many jobs as possible.

"On a personal level, the past year has allowed me spend more time with my growing family. It has also allowed me indulge a few of my passions like cycling, gardening — my vegetable garden and polytunnel received a serious makeover. I worked on my sourdough (it’s getting close) and brewed my first IPA!

“I’m excited for the future and taking up my new role as general manager of Carton House as we prepare to reopen this summer as the first Fairmont Managed Hotel in Ireland following a magnificent refurbishment of the original house, surrounding hotel and stunning grounds.”

cartonhouse.com


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