Thursday 5 December 2019

Get the simple things right in the food business

Finola O'Doherty of the Bluebell Cafe, Castlemartyr, Co. Cork. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Finola O'Doherty of the Bluebell Cafe, Castlemartyr, Co. Cork. Picture: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Lucinda O'Sullivan

THE ‘management meeting of one’ is the hardest meeting there is to have,” says Paul Williams of the uber cool Canteen eatery in Limerick. “Just staring back at yourself in the mirror. There's no one else to point the finger at. It's you, and you alone must find the solution.” Coffee shops, tearooms and small eateries have been opening all over the country. However, no matter its size or variety, there is an awful lot of work in putting the dream together and Paul Williams’s website posting on his experiences is a must read for those venturing into the industry.

“Every month or two, the management meeting of one must be held to evaluate what were the mistakes and the successes,” he says. “The hard question must be asked. Am I good enough? Was it a mistake opening this place? Is the concept right? Should I quit? I ask myself these questions all the time. Not so much when we are busy, but the quiet times, the less busy weeks.”

With an ironic sense of humour, he takes the reader through the Things Done Wrong. Mistake 1, he says, was in opening in the evenings for which his location of Mallow Street was not the right area with those working nearby having gone home to the suburbs. “Some nights our only company on Mallow Street were the local prostitutes and kerb crawlers.

Mistake 2 was not initially opening early enough — “people wanted their Badger & Dodo coffee fix before work.” Canteen now opens at 8am.

Mistake 3 was working every day. “When you open first, you want to make every wrap, serve every customer and clean every table. Time off is nearly more important than working time. Time away is the ‘ideas factory'. It's where you solve problems and come up with the next big idea. The day off is the most important workday of the week,” he says.

Mistake 4 was not hiring an accountant sooner. “Hire one and become friends, you need to trust them. Then let them worry about the paperwork. You must still know your gross profit per cent and margins but do you really need to spend five long nights inputting every receipt and invoice into a spreadsheet?

“I may have been facing financial ruin opening in a recession,” he continues. “But what's worse, owing money or the disappointment of looking at myself in the mirror, never having tried? Or every time you get bad food or coffee saying, ‘I could do better', being forever hurler on the ditch, never hurler on the field.”

And so he moves on to Simple Things Done Right — which is his ethos — and which he does very well.

Paul, from Clonmel, Co Tipperary, originally studied engineering but “dropped out of that”. He then did culinary arts in DIT, which led him to Heston Blumenthal's famous Fat Duck restaurant in Berkshire for the next couple of years.”

I came back to Ireland then and worked in the Shannon Hotel School. I started importing wine, but in 06/07 people stopped paying, so I had enough of that. There wasn't a great choice around Limerick in ‘healthy options', it was all very much sandwiches and rolls. I decided to do a ‘pop up' in this property, where I could do it for not too much and have stayed open since. We cook all our food here and it's healthy fast food.

Everything we do is wraps and lunch boxes, wholemeal couscous, rice, seeds. We make our own drinks such as blood orange lemonade and we try to source locally. When you have food here, you are healthier leaving than when you came in.”

At Canteen, you can kick off your day with breakfast pots of Flahavan's organic porridge oats cooked in milk and served with fresh fruit, or have it Aztec-style topped with cacao, honey and banana. Beans on toast will be cannellini beans cooked in plum tomato sauce whilst a breakfast burrito will have tomato salsa, avocado and sour cream with sausage and rasher served in a tortilla wrap with chilli sauce. Lunch boxes (€8-€9) offer ‘Amazing Organic Meatballs' produced from Sheepwalk Farm organic lamb, cooked in plum tomato sauce, herbs and spices, served with wholemeal couscous and superslaw, topped with yogurt sauce. What caught my eye was Gobi vegetable curry made from sweet potato, cauliflower and pea curry cooked in spices and coconut. 

Paul has stuck to his ethos of simple things done right and two years on, it still works.

Former prison officer Finola O'Doherty opened her pretty Bluebell cafe in the village of Castlemartyr, east Cork, late last year. The village is home to the beautiful Castlemartyr Resort, which along with the nearby waterside Garryvoe and Bayview Hotels, bring a lot of visitors to the area.

To open a cafe or tearoom has always been a dream of Finola's. “I have been baking cakes since I was a small child. It has always been my passion. I was a prison officer for 13 years; I was only 21 when I joined up. It wasn't something I really wanted to do, but you know how plans are laid out and how things happen...”

Finola had applied for the Garda and Prison Service at the same time. The latter came up first and she took it. “I don't regret it because it was a good job and a great start.” From nearby Mogeely, Finola is married to a farmer and has three children aged 11, 16 and 18. “When I had a family I took a career break and then decided not to go back.”

She subsequently trained as a Montessori teacher which, as it happens, is also just perfect for aspects of her new career. “I was making wedding cakes for a few years and then looking for a premises to do something with baking. I was thinking of incorporating baking workshops for kids and doing the wedding cakes as well.”

When she came upon her current premises, she says she just couldn't walk away from it. She first looked at it 12 months before opening and was six months thinking about it. “The building was a shell, it had been renovated, it had permission for a cafe, so I said ‘here goes'. Everyone thinks I'm mad in the middle of a recession, but the support from the locals has been absolutely amazing and I just love the idea of a cafe/tea room. When I was a child, if we saw a cafe or a tea room... we always had to stop.”

A lovely bright fresh airy premises, Bluebell cafe is a great addition to the village. Take a look too at the lovely paintings on the walls by local artist Ben Donnelly.

Finola serves beautiful cakes as well as soups, quiches, paninis, wraps, waffles, breakfast all day long, French toast, porridge, homemade tarts and there is even a |pancake menu. Her baking workshops for birthday parties for children up to about 12 years old are a great idea — informative and fun. They cost €12.50 per child and they have a great time making things like pizzas, icing cupcakes, making homemade lollipops and so on.|Bluebell-Cafe

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