As Ireland reopens, food lovers are taking stock and preparing to rebuild.
Following the shutdown of the hospitality industry and markets, Stefan Griesbach, of Galway's Gannet Fishmongers wasted no time swinging into action with his fledgling online portal. "It went from a cottage industry project in development to becoming a monster," he says.
"Setting up an online store sounded easy - buy a website, populate it with products, sell and make money. With everyone in lockdown, cooking good food became a comfort. Panic bulk-buying orders poured in uncontrollably."
Stefan had to cap the number of orders they could handle, restrict selection, splitting the team into shifts to allow extra working space and was only able to leave the online store open for short spells. "Too much business brings its own problems. We struggled to maintain service to our pre-existing online customers and regular shoppers in Galway.
"The lack of export market for some species may have forced some boats to stop working. Not so much the big ones catching fish and prawns, but more an issue for seafood such as scallops and lobsters. We've been working with the same guys for years in Ballycotton, Ciaran, our scallop fisherman in Clew Bay, and PJ our lobster guy in Lettermore. We reopened our shop and markets a month ago. We're still very busy online but a welcome reduction in the volume of orders means we're able to open our online store 24/7."
Making good use of his downtime, Thomas Clarke, of The Fig Tree restaurant on Kilkenny's High Street, became a food producer, launching two dressings into five SuperValu branches in Kilkenny city and county only four weeks ago. He and wife Helen set up The Fig Tree in September 2011 in the middle of a recession. "Covid-19 has had a devastating effect on our business," he said. "It took us four years to establish the business and now we feel we're restarting in very difficult times.
"We provide home baking, chutneys and jams, along with a casual dining experience, seven days week, employing 10 people. Kilkenny is a beautiful medieval city. We have a fantastic local customer base, but we need tourists to sustain our business."
The Fig Tree original house dressing (vegan) and the honey and cayenne version (vegetarian) are emulsified and can also be used for marinating fish or chicken. Both are gluten free. The restaurant is reopening on Wednesday next with a reduced menu and seating at less than half capacity to accommodate socia-distancing regulations.
"We are ambitious to resume," says Thomas. "The VAT rate needs to be reviewed and we certainly need support to survive."
As a shareholder and longtime manager of Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud - with two Michelin stars - there isn't a thing the urbane Stephane Robin doesn't know about the dining secrets and vagaries of the rich and famous. From pop stars to politicians, billionaires to visiting royalty, presidents to normal people, Stephane greets them all in the same welcoming fashion.
"The uncertainty was unnerving," he says. "Our priority on closing was to hold on to our excellent professionally trained team. Without them there's no restaurant. We've been paying them since closing with assistance from the Government.
"Restaurant hours are long. The sudden halt took getting used to, but it was positive in many ways. It was lovely to spend time gardening, cooking and playing cards. I even took up drawing! The worry was always there though.
"There is something sinister about the invisible enemy, and reports from our families in France were at times terrifying. My sister works in the healthcare industry, and it's been a traumatic time for her. The way Ireland handled the crisis is admirable. The Government has been decisive and led by science, you see the alternative and it's not good."
Stephane, Patrick, and executive chef Guillaume Lebrun are excited to be able to take a step forward now. "The team is in place and ready," says Stephane.
Reopening tomorrow, having implemented Bord Failte guidelines, they've developed a virtual menu and wine list that guests can access from their own devices. They're optimistic about the future at Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud. "We have to be," says Stephane, "for us and for everyone else in our industry."
Ciaran Fitzgerald is at the heart of tourism and hospitality in Kinsale with his Blue Haven Hotel, five-star Old Bank Guesthouse, Hamlet's Bar, plus Vikki's Cafe in Cork. He's a tireless worker and advocate for all that is Kinsale.
"We learned a lot of hard lessons during the last crisis, so I was determined that we were going to do things the right way and navigate a path through the pandemic in a positive manner with no regrets," he says. "Having to sign 94 temporary redundancy letters on shutdown was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. From that day, our attention moved to planning for reopening. The painting and other work started in rotating shifts 24 hours a day. I believe we will need to be, and are, in the best shape of our lives physically, mentally and financially as a business when we reopen this week. In our mothership, the Blue Haven Hotel, we looked at how service will work post Covid-19, minimising touch points by using QR codes for our menus and other initiatives. Hamlet's has been reborn as Hamlet's Street Food & Gastro Garden with a BBQ, vintage fish & chip truck, pizza oven, and dessert & smoothie bar, all done in a socially distant environment.
"The Kinsale Comeback Campaign as our roadmap to recovery, got us all rowing in the same direction with on street dining and pedestrianisation. Reopening is going to be challenging but we have prepared ourselves. We're in a resilient industry in a resilient town that's known for the odd battle!"