Summers in the States whetted the culinary appetite of children's book writer turned cafe owner, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan DELIVERED: Pig & Heifer owner Patrick Hyland pictured outside his cafe at City Quay, Dublin. Photo: David Conachy
I have always been of the view that if you open an eatery in the middle of a field offering really good food and value, you will do business. Patrick Hyland didn't open in the middle of a field, but his Pig & Heifer Deli Cafes do such cracking salads and charcuterie, at really good value prices, that they have quadrupled around Dublin city centre. Hyland doesn't believe in spending money on marketing, packaging or big signs outside his cafe doors. His raison d'etre is good food, good value and word of mouth.
A Terenure College boy from Templeogue, Patrick grew up in a household that loved good simple fresh food. His parents had Tipperary / Laois farming backgrounds, and his father ran a well-known butcher's shop in Lennox Street, off the South Circular Road, in what was known as the Jewish Quarter of Dublin, and which Patrick remembers very fondly.
Like many, Patrick didn't immediately go into the food business. In fact, somewhat unusually for a Dublin chap, on leaving school he headed for agricultural college as he wanted to do farming. "I spent all my summers as a kid on my uncle's farm in Tipperary, and I loved every minute of it. I headed off to Warrenstown Agricultural College and then started the farm apprenticeship course but after a while I changed my mind. I then went to Trinity College and studied philosophy for four years."
That was followed by a stint in London, working in the City for a couple of years, which he "kind of hated".
"I came back here and was doing much the same sort of thing as I was doing in London, for six or eight months, and then just didn't want to work for anyone else bar myself. I bought a van and became a courier for about a year and a half. However, we are a food family. My father was a butcher/farmer and my mother is a good simple cook, and I love food. I opened a Pig & Heifer Cafe in Charlotte Way and I just made the food that I liked."
Not only does he have a love of good food but Patrick is also a bit of a romantic who also used to write children's stories. "I wrote stories, just for the craic, about a pig and a heifer who had adventures, and got into scrapes, and this and that, so I named the cafe the Pig & Heifer. When I was in college, like a lot of students, I went to the States for the summer. I used to love the big pastrami sandwiches in the delis, and I just thought it was amazing the way they did it over there. I had that notion in my head when I opened the Pig & Heifer, but it is now really more European, more Mediterranean."
American food is, of course, a great crossover of cultures, from Poland to South American, Italy to China.
"I was born on Lennox Street and, before the family moved to Templeogue, we used get our breads at the Bretzel Bakery, the famous Kosher bakery. The late Con Houlihan, who lived around the corner, was a great friend of my dad's, and used to come into the shop all the time.
"Then there was 'Jack the Jewman'. My father and Con used to have great fun with him. 'Jack' would come into the shop and shout at my dad 'Gentile' and my dad would shout back at him 'you're a bad Jew, Jack'. They used to have great craic shouting at one another and Con would be in there. Con was a real nice, good guy; he used to pay for other people's meat and such.
"I remember that he also paid college fees for a girl at that time, when you had to pay fees. I was down in Lennox Street recently, and there was another man from around that time 'Fred the Fly' and he's still around. It was a cool neighbourhood way before Dublin became cosmopolitan, and my parents loved it. They found it so welcoming to outsiders when they first came to Dublin.
"My mother, Noreen Hyland, still bakes Christmas cakes for three old ladies. When we were growing up, these ladies used to buy their meat in the shop. As they got older, my mother would go home and cook dinner for my dad and the chap who worked for him, and the rest of our family. She used to also cook extra dinners for the old ladies and we would have to bring them around to them. At that stage, my mom was making 16 or 17 Christmas cakes for all the old ladies around the area. When they got sick we used to visit them in hospital.
"Mom, who is 78, still works in the Pig & Heifer. She washes all the towels and aprons, checks the toilets, gets change for the tills, goes around outside picking up cigarette butts. She visits all the cafes every day, delivers the bread for us. She is fantastic.
"What my mom did for people is the sort of philosophy we have with staff who work here."
Two of the cafes, at City Quay and Pearse Street, are part-owned by Pedro de Silva from Portugal, who worked for many years for Patrick before they went into business together, and he says he may be doing this again with another long-standing staff member.
"In a way, I'm a sort of socialist-capitalist in that these people have been with me for ages and have worked hard, it's only fair. I like all the cafes to be slightly different; I want people there to make it their own. I hate franchises, I hate chains. I like the cafes to be slightly individual. I went recently to the Languedoc on holiday. Meanwhile, Pedro is currently in Portugal and northern Spain. We always come back with new ideas and sit down and talk about what we saw during the summer."
The cafes have a great salad bar, offering 16 to 20 salads every day. "A couple of them stay the same, but the rest change all the time. All our meats are Irish, and we make all our breads by hand. Vladimir is the baker."
They make fantastic pumpernickel bread, as well as great tomato bread. "It doesn't make sense economically for us to make it with the labour involved, we would be better off buying everything in. We could buy in hams for half the price it costs to do them ourselves, but we prefer to do them nicely. Ninety per cent of people wouldn't know what we do, or the effort we put in to make things right.
"We really care about doing the food properly. We spend no money on marketing and promotions, we only spend money on the food you eat. The money saved goes towards keeping the prices down. You can get coffee here for €2. You are not paying for nice packaging, you are paying for the food."
There aren't many places around where you can get scrambled eggs and coriander for breakfast at just €3.50 or a regular breakfast at €7.25. They do fantastic pastrami with gorgonzola cheese on a spinach salad for €6.50, and a New York Reuben with pastrami, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and spinach salad at the same price. Anything you could want is there at great prices.
Patrick is hot against the idea of displaying calories on menus. "Don't start me on Minister O'Reilly and the calorie thing. It's the most ridiculous idea I ever heard in my life. Two things will happen if he brings it in. It will grow the profits of the fast food chains, which it has already done in France. You are then equating calories in a fast food meal with that of food served in a restaurant. You can't. As far as I am concerned there is no comparison between fast food and freshly cooked fresh ingredients served at home, in a restaurant, or even a good carvery in a decent pub. I look at people in the south-east of France where they eat high calorific food, foie gras, terrines, bread, but nobody is fat. It is proper food. If he allows this to happen it will grow the profits of the fast food chains and the waistlines of the Irish people."
It seems the Pig & Heifer of children's lore had a happy ending to their escapades.