Sunday 22 July 2018

Lay of the Land: Country town businesses are no sitting bull

Glen of Aherlow
Glen of Aherlow

Fiona O'Connell

You know you're in the country when the vehicle winding along the ancient road in front of you has 'agri-hire' stamped on the back, along with an actual person's name and phone number - instead of an international chain with lo-call number and website. Though perhaps the biggest giveaway is the proudly displayed slogan: 'We don't talk s***e - we spread it.'

But some rural entrepreneurs are neither talking crap nor spreading it, and in fact are doing the opposite, by producing goods that are good for both people and the planet.

Like cattle dealer's daughter Helen Costelloe, who used to run a weekend vegetarian buffet in this country town, her ultimate dream being to own a full-time restaurant. But while an appetite for animal-free food is growing in this country, reflecting a worldwide trend towards a plant-based diet, a country town is still too small a market to make an entirely meat-free menu feasible.

However, Helen didn't give up on her gourmet goal and has even surpassed it, with vegan fast food joint The Cutting Vedge that she opened in Kilkenny city last year. Especially impressive in this age of obesity are her sugar-free desserts, which are sweetened with xylitol and apple syrup.

A city may have saved Helen's bacon when it came to her vegetarian vision, but you can still tell you're in rural Ireland by the impressive number of independently owned enterprises - also with surname or imaginative title on the signage - that can still be found in towns and even villages. For country bravehearts and bright sparks continue to battle to do business, despite the vast amounts of manure they have to endure. Such as a famine of basic facilities that their urban counterparts can take for granted, like working broadband and branches of the major banks.

And while the authorities can take the post office out of the country town, it isn't so easy to purge the lure of country life from the postman's granddaughter, even after decades in the UK; such being the background of one half of the can-do couple that has transformed the main street of this country town.

"We worked for a London company that moved its business to Ireland so we moved with it," explains Marie Croft. "Then it went into liquidation, so we were stuck here with no jobs.

"We did a number of small enterprises, including a children's camp, opened a couple of shops - basically tried to integrate into our community and keep ourselves out of trouble. Didn't always go to plan. It's taken until now to settle."

Then they started shaking things up. First, they transformed a handsome building that had long stood empty into The Hub - a venue where other entrepreneurs, farmers and artisans can operate under one stuffed-to-the-quirky-gills roof. Far from being afraid of getting their fingers burnt by expanding further, they have just opened a full-time wine bar called Toast next door.

Now, that's what I call a nifty number two!

Sunday Independent

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