The butler did it
The Butler's Pantry has a foolproof recipe for success, managing director Jacquie Marsh tells Chrissie Russell: don't mess with the classics
'Beef bourguignon, lemon meringue pie, coffee cake, shepherd's pie…mashed potato!" Jacquie Marsh, managing director of The Butler's Pantry, is reeling off a mouthwatering list of favoured products that are, most definitely, not to be messed with.
"Those are some of our 'hero products' and if we ever took those off the shelves… Lord help us!" she laughs. "We do a real chicken soup and took it off during the summer because it's quite a heavy soup and we couldn't imagine people on a hot summer's day drinking it but, well, there was war. It had to go back on!"
Listening to their dedicated customer base and keeping the favourites on the shelves are just two of the core tenets that have helped the artisan food company notch up an impressive 30 years in business.
From their first shop on Mount Merrion Avenue (still going strong) to recently opening up in Raheny, The Butler's Pantry empire is now 10 premises strong with plans under way to expand the business to 15 shops in the near future.
Over three decades they've managed to weather two recessions, the ascendancy of the ready meal and the recent demonising of all things sugary, yet still The Butler's Pantry remains a perennial favourite for foodies across Dublin craving a sweet hit or easy, tasty supper.
As far as founder Jacquie is concerned, the recipe to success lies in her business's name. "In years gone by The Butler's Pantry was the room in which all the finest ingredients were kept and where, if the family was home or the Lord and Lady were entertaining, the butler or cook would go to get the best ingredients to really spoil them.
"That name really embodies what we're all about. We want the customer to get that 'butler' experience and our shops are full of the freshest and finest ingredients."
Today, the plentiful Pantry offers a wide selection of delights including bread and cakes, soups, pâtés, dips, salads, meat platters, quiches, ready-made main courses and desserts.
Customer interest in food provenance, 'whole' foods, free-range, freshness and so on may be a relatively recent thing, but it has been at the core of The Butler's Pantry ethos from the get-go. That much-loved mashed potato that rushes off the shelves? Every day, the guys in Bray HQ are hand-mashing 120-140kg of fresh, locally grown spuds, adding nothing but Kerrygold butter and dairy cream. Many of The Butler's Pantry's providers are producers and small, local artisan companies, like themselves.
"We've always cooked from scratch," explains Jacquie. "No additives, no preservatives, none of this 'pre-mix syndrome' you see around the place. 'Fresh' to us means not frozen, no par-bakes, no gas-flushing [a packaging system used to prolong freshness] or chlorinating [antibacterial rinses used on meat and poultry]." She's too professional to name and shame those who do, but adds grimly, "Many retailers out there are claiming 'fresh' and 'natural' and there is nothing fresh or natural about the product."
In the late 1980s, The Butler's Pantry met an emerging demand. Women were returning to the workplace and more and more people were hopping on planes to go on holiday and coming back with a taste for exotic cuisine. Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of the ready-made beef bourguignon business. "The first number of years, we were the only people in the landscape doing hand-made ready-meal solutions," recalls Jacquie. "Then, naturally enough, competition started to come into our space."
The business went into early expansion mode. "That's always a difficult part of growth and, for many micro-businesses, that's the rock on which they perish," says Jacquie. "It's a very difficult stage because you've got to learn to hand over responsibility… then we hit a recession - that was hell. Then the last recession was hell for everybody."
As boom turned to bust, people unsurprisingly started laying off disposable pleasures like a daily almond slice or a handy pre-prepared pasta dish. "People were in negative equity so they certainly weren't coming into The Butler's Pantry Monday to Thursday; we became their treat as opposed to their way of life," explains Jacquie. "We thought, 'Okay, we've got to design an offering so we do have customers seven days a week,' and a couple of shifts happened to enable us to develop products at a price point that worked without compromising our core values and standards."
Bread and buns proved central to the solution. "No matter how bad things are, there's still nothing like really good bread," laughs Jacquie. "People still wanted that little indulgence: a good sourdough or multiseed or a muffin. They figured, 'I deserve this', and they were right!"
And, while dining out might have been out of the question, cash-strapped customers didn't want to forgo entertainment entirely, so in-house dining, courtesy of The Butler's Pantry, became a recession trend.
"We were the go-to for casual entertaining at home and just came up with products that people could buy on a Thursday or Friday night in containers they could bring home, and there you go - one-pot wonder."
But it wasn't easy, high rents with each and every landlord had to be renegotiated. With 85 people employed by The Butler's Pantry, Jacquie felt a personal responsibility to keep the business going strong. "As an employer, you have that responsibility," she explains. "To me, I visualised it as 85 boxes of cornflakes that needed to be going on 85 breakfast tables every morning. It was my responsibility to make sure that was sustainable."
Today, the business is built on moving not only with the times, trends and demands but also with the seasons. Just recently the menu has shifted from summer to autumn: strawberry meringues are out and new products like a hearty cashew nut loaf served in a lovely winter ragù are in.
Already, Jacquie and her nine-strong forum for product development are meeting once a week to devise next spring and summer's products. "About 20pc of next summer's range would be seasonal," she explains. "The other 80pc, we leave it there because if you took it away, the customer would kill you! But that's not to say we're not constantly looking at our core offering and how to remaster it to make it better."
Trends-wise, vegetables are 'in', not because people aren't eating meat but because they're opting to only buy very good meat and would rather buy less often in order to afford that prime cut.
"And carbs are back!" announces Jacquie gleefully. "People have started to realise that not all carbs are bad and it's a case of 'everything in moderation', so we have one or two lovely pasta dishes on our new menu.
"One of the biggest trends right now is 'wellness'," she continues. "Not dieting but a more rounded approach to health and well-being." But how does a bakery cope with the prevalent line of thinking that sugar is Satan? "Oh, there's always a place for treats," chuckles Jacquie. "First off, we use real butter, so there's none of these nasty palm oils going into our products; we use free-range Wicklow eggs from down the road. With our savoury products we make all our own stock, so the salt and sugar content is naturally low, because we're not buying in commercial bullion.
"We've also come in with a range of what we're calling 'mini indulgences', like having a really lovely pumpkin-seed and chocolate flapjack. It's full of protein; it's got all natural ingredients and it's a mini indulgence so it's not going to do you any harm," Jacquie concludes. "Having a treat is good for you!"
The Butler's Pantry shares three of their best-loved recipes.
Wild Mushroom Risotto with Butternut Squash & Aged Parmesan
1 small butternut squash
1 tbsp olive oil
1 shallot, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 sprig of thyme
200g risotto rice
1 glass white wine
1 litre vegetable stock
150g wild mushrooms
Knob of butter, plus extra for frying
50g aged Parmesan, grated, plus extra for shaving on top
1. Peel and dice the squash and boil in salted water until tender. Transfer to a blender and purée until smooth. Pass through a fine sieve to refine.
2. Heat the olive oil in a deep frying pan and sauté the shallot, garlic and sprig of thyme until golden.
3. Add the rice and lightly toast for a couple of minutes, then add the white wine and reduce.
4. Add the stock, ladle by ladle, waiting for each ladleful to be absorbed by the rice before adding any more. Stir constantly. As the rice cooks, the risotto will start to thicken. After about 20 minutes, the rice should no longer be crunchy and the risotto will be creamy. Continue adding more stock in this way until you are happy with the consistency - you may not need all the stock.
5. Fry the mushrooms in a little butter and add to the rice along with the squash purée.
6. Add the butter and Parmesan; serve in bowls with extra shavings of cheese.
Winter fruit crumble
1 pod of vanilla, split
2 punnets of blackberries
For the almond crumble:
100g ground almonds
100g plain flour
1. Cut the plums into quarters and remove the stones.
2. Core the apples and cut into eighths.
3. Heat a large frying pan, add the butter and split vanilla pod and, when the butter starts to foam, add in all the fruit and the sugar.
4. Toss in the pan and cook for a couple of minutes before transferring to an 8in pie dish.
5. For the crumble topping, mix all the ingredients together until it becomes coarse crumbs.
6. Sprinkle the crumble on top of the fruit and bake in a preheated oven at 160˚C (fan 140˚C)/320˚F/gas mark 3 until golden brown.
7. Serve with vanilla ice-cream or whipped cream.
Real Chicken Soup with Chives
100g onions, diced
65g plain flour
1.4 litres chicken stock
600g cooked chicken
A little salt and pepper, to taste
1 small bunch of chives
1. Melt the butter in a large pot over a medium heat, add in the diced onions, and cook for 10 minutes until translucent. Do not allow the onions to colour.
2. Add in the flour and cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
3. Add the chicken stock slowly, a little at a time, and stir until well incorporated. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes.
4. Dice the cooked chicken, add to the soup and check for seasoning.
5. Chop the chives and add to the soup just before serving.