Whether it’s adapting their existing food offering or pursuing old ambitions, hospitality owners are shaking things up and setting the scene for a different kind of post-Covid industry, writes Denise Maguire

A plethora of new businesses in the hospitality sector have sprung up since March 2020, some entirely new and some an adaptation of existing cafes or restaurants that have been forced to do something different to survive. The impact that the pandemic has had on the industry can’t be underestimated and with no firm date for indoor dining on the cards just yet, that fug of uncertainty still lingers. Yet, despite that uncertainty or perhaps because of it, some business owners have been inspired to pursue an old, forgotten ambition or even go down a completely different route.

Conor Duggan, Neil O’Reilly and Conor Mulligan were all involved in the hospitality industry to some degree before Covid hit. Lockdown inspired them to create something new and exciting around online wine subscription, an industry that’s worth €100 million a year in Ireland. The trio launched Boxofwine.ie, Ireland’s first “tailored to your taste” wine subscription company last July and hit the headlines recently with news of their partnership with Wineport Lodge. “We teamed up with Ray Byrne and Jane English to create a special sommeliers box that contains three wines from a particular region, along with food pairing suggestions from the restaurant. We thought it was a great way of promoting their business while they were closed and getting our brand out there,” said MD Conor Duggan. Boxofwine.ie now has 650 active subscribers and the company has taken on part-time staff to deal with the demand. “We’ve had an amazing first nine months. There’s a huge demand for this type of online service. We’re aiming to break into the UK market before the end of this year. There’s definitely an appetite for it.” Is he worried that as hospitality reopens, demand will drop off? “It’s something that’s been in the back of our minds but people are creatures of habit; they’ve already been ordering wine online for quite some time. It’s an industry that’s growing 15% year on year and we’re looking to grow that out.”

Hospitality businesses are unleashing their creative streak this year, says Irish Hotels Federation (IHF) Director Elaina Fitzgerald Kane, as opposed to last year which was all about adapting to the new circumstances. “We’re seeing great innovation throughout the industry at the moment and I think we have a real opportunity this summer to show how amazing the Irish hospitality experience can be. The figures show that only 29% of Irish people actually took a break last year. This summer, July and August will be critical when it comes to being sustainable beyond September. I’m hopeful that the industry will have a busy trading period and I think that the creativity being shown by businesses right now will certainly help.” Changes made over the past 14 months at the Armada Hotel in Spanish Point, Co Clare are keeping the tills ringing as well as maintaining employment. New investment has gone into the popular Armada Farm, which now features two huge 50ft polytunnels, used for growing herbs for the hotel’s kitchen. Last summer the hotel opened ‘Catch’, its outdoor seafood truck. “It’s now open seven days a week and the emphasis is very much on local ingredients. We get all our seafood from Garrihy’s in Doolin. This year we also opened Little Johnny’s Pizza and Gulls Coffee is open seven days a week. Keeping our staff in jobs is a big consideration but so is sustainability; the tomatoes and herbs that we use on our pizzas are from Armada Farm and we serve our own roast coffee blend at Gulls,” said Frank Minogue, General Manager at the Armada. Even when they’re fully reopened, the plan is to retain the outdoor food offerings. “They’ll serve to boost the business and add an extra dimension for our guests. That’s what it’s all about right now.”

The prospect of returning to a pre-Covid working life isn’t an attractive prospect for some. Patrick O’Reilly runs Cornrue Bakery in Westport, Co Mayo and says he has no intention of opening his sit-in café ever again. During the first lockdown he refocused his efforts onto his bakery, specialising in sourdough and takeaway coffee. Today, his loaves sell out daily and if you’re after some fresh sourdough at the weekend, booking is essential. “That realisation in the first lockdown that I could just focus on the bakery was revelatory. I’ve spent my life in this business and I think I had become institutionalised. The idea that I could put all my energy into the bakery while maintaining a healthy family life was an eye-opener.” The boom bust nature of a town like Westport that relies on tourism during the summer months also made the decision to forego the café an easier one. “Sure, I’m making money in the summer but I’m losing hand over fist all winter. I think that the economics of the restaurant business needs to be rethought. Financially, it just doesn’t stack up.” Today, Patrick has three full-time employees and has expanded the bakery’s range to include a boule, a larger loaf and three cakes. He also sells par-baked pizza bases which come with a sauce and a portion of cheese. “The pizza bases are hugely popular. We thought we’d start with 20 or so but we’re selling 200 every weekend. We could do more but I’m trying to find a balancing point where I don’t have to hire more people. Every decision I’ve made over the past couple of years is based on how it will affect my family.” Patrick knows that the bakery’s success isn’t down to just hard work. His decision to specialise in one type of bread coincided with a surge in popularity for sourdough. “Sourdough suddenly became this thing and we were lucky to be in the right place at the right time. We’re doing really well at the moment and that’s despite a loaf of our bread costing €10. I can’t keep them on the shelves!”

Dervla James and Jonny Conlon who run Pudding Row in Easkey, Sligo are also enjoying the benefits of a healthier work/life balance. In March 2020, they closed their café and began operating click and collect. Their ‘comfort boxes’ were a huge success and before long, they were shipping them around the country. Last July they opened a deli, bakery and grocer business, selling their own breads, cakes, sandwiches and savoury dishes. “Essentially, the grocer is a smaller version of what we were doing in the café, all for takeaway. We’re also still doing the comfort boxes. We’re very busy right now,” said Jonny. Whether or not they’ll reopen the café is a different matter. “We have no plans to do it anytime soon and certainly not this year. The kitchen has spread out to other parts of the café and we have no outdoor space. It’s not really viable for us to reopen.” Dervla bakes while Jonny looks after the admin side of the business. “We have two young kids so it’s great to finish up that bit quicker every day. Opening a grocer was something we used to talk about. We had a small retail shelf in the café and we’d see products that we knew people would like to buy, but we just never had the time or space or even energy to do it. Covid gave us a huge opportunity to change things up.” Being part of Sligo Food Trail has helped get the message out there that the Pudding Row grocer is open for business. “Even just to make connections with other business owners and call on them for advice and help has been great. You might be doing something new and you’re so focused on it that you don’t have time to get the message out there. The Food Trail is great for that.”

Moving to a retail offering has kept lots of businesses afloat during lockdown. Adriana and Mark Fitzpatrick, owners of Old Street in Malahide, have continued to adapt their business throughout the pandemic. Last year, they opened a shop on the ground floor selling jarred and pickled foods, fresh bread, coffee, wine packs, gift packs, ready-made meals and more. “When restrictions on indoor dining were relaxed last year, we understood the precariousness of the situation and hedged our bets by opening a shop on our ground floor and operating the restaurant from the first floor. The sudden closure of indoor dining on Christmas Eve allowed us to sell a lot of our restaurant stock through the shop so it worked well,” said Mark. Since April, the restaurant has also been running a BBQ in its courtyard area. “We’re delighted with the response to the Grocer, it’s a great range of produce for people given the circumstances but ultimately, we can’t wait to invite our friends and guests back into our restaurant.”

Back in Westport, Savoir Fare changed things up last year with a zero-waste reheat at home takeaway offering, sold in glass jars on a deposit and return scheme. The driving force behind the glass jars was, says owner Alain Morice, an environmental one. “Our aim was to reduce the packaging load with our takeaways. The jars have worked very well and we’ve actually had a better winter this year than we normally would have. A lot of that is down to the support we’ve received from locals, they’ve been amazing.” Very little is being done to facilitate a summer outdoors in the West, says Alain. “The Council isn’t particularly forward thinking. I’m on quite a big street, part of which could easily be closed off. Only the odd parking space is being given over which makes it very difficult for restaurants that don’t have space out front to operate.” Alain says he’s waiting for an announcement on indoor dining but for now, he’ll continue with his takeaways and retail offering. “We sell Irish artisan products and we have a wine shop, a cheese counter and charcuterie. We also do our own terrines and pates which have been going well. Last summer, you could see people walking around Westport who didn’t manage to get a reservation anywhere so we’ll have a nice picnic offering available that we’re hoping will also work well.” Alain and his team have been offering their customers a different takeaway menu every single week. “At this stage we’re running out of inspiration! We’ll definitely keep going with the jars, but maybe our menu won’t change as often. As soon as we have indoor dining, we’ll put them on the back burner for a while and focus on delivering a great summer to our guests.”

Not all of the new offerings mentioned in this article will stay the course when Covid eventually becomes a thing of the past. The ones that are retained will provide businesses with an extra dimension and a safety net to help protect against future crises. For the businesses that have discovered a better way to live, like Patrick O’Reilly in Cornrue, there’s no turning back. “Today, we have a busy, profitable business. It has taken me a lifetime to find that balance.”