What do you do when overnight, your successful business model no longer works? Susan O'Sullivan, owner of Dublin's Farmhouse Café tells us how she has adapted.
"About four weeks before Covid hit," Susan O'Sullivan tells me, "we had one of those mad lunchtime rushes. We had five in the kitchen, a queue coming in the front door, a queue coming in the side door, and we were just going hell for leather. I remember looking up and thinking: 'Where can I go with this, we're at full tilt here'. Never thinking in four weeks that we'd actually be closed."
Such was the conundrum that faced businesses of all kinds across the country when the coronavirus pandemic hit, including Farmhouse Café that Susan owns and runs. The question now, is how to continue when the world in which they thrived has changed?
In 2019 Farmhouse Café was named Café of the Year in the John and Sally McKenna Guide, a huge accolade for the family-run business. Much of the produce and ingredients used in the food comes from Susan's farm in Co Meath. "We make everything from scratch," Susan explains. "We use traditional cooking methods, but with relevant and modern flavours."
Cafés and restaurants face a particular challenge in reopening with social distancing in place, as they usually rely on packed tables and fitting plenty of customers in at peak times to bring in enough to be profitable. During lockdown though, Susan decided she needed to adapt the business, and try a new approach.
She says that the farm and her walled gardens kept her occupied during lockdown, where she has everything from Gloucester Old Spot pigs to vegetable beds. "I was very busy throughout the three months, and I was actually having a blast with none of the racing up and down to Dublin on the motorway." She decided during this time that they should incorporate retail into the business.
The café was re-opened a week ago, and while it still offers its delicious menu of breakfast and lunch items alongside bread, pastries and coffee, all to take-away, Susan has also established a range of artisan food products that customers can take home. "Now you can shop and buy your goodies for the weekend," she explains. "You can buy your decent bread and cheese and wine, and relishes, and still buy your lunch or have coffee."
The range of products wasn't difficult to decide on for Susan. "We have made small batch foods for a long time to use in the dishes, and I recently started putting them into jars. Before though, we hadn't got the space, because although I put in display units, the queues were so big people couldn't see anything."
Alongside their homemade jams, pickles, preserves, spreads and granola, as well as ingredients fresh from the farm such as lamb, butter, and cheese, there are also foods and ingredients from other producers. "I wanted to champion small Irish artisan people who are trying to make real food properly," Susan explains.
She has plans for a 'Weekend Box' of a curated selection of items like a bottle of wine, a good cheese and some relish which she hopes to launch soon. She's also planning to package and slice the bread made in-house to make it more attractive for people to use at home.
The café itself has been adapted to this new identity. Although the space used to seat 70, all indoor seating has been removed, and an extra door has been added so there is a clear route through with no-one having to double back.
A large deli counter has been added, along with extra display space and fridges for the chilled products. Benches have been added under a tarpaulin outside the shop, should people wish to eat their food there. There was an effort, though, to keep the spirit of the previous space.
"We've tried to keep some of the old fittings so there's still a flavour of the café," Susan says. "I have Highland cattle, and I have a head of one of them on the wall that's been there for ages. They're the ones with big horns and long red hair, they're gorgeous: so he's still there."
Although cafés and restaurants will be allowed to seat customers indoors from Monday, Susan has no plans to bring back her indoor seats yet. "We're considering putting more tables outside for picnic type stuff. But we have found already that we're trying to keep people apart inside. And that's quite difficult."
She points out that social distancing means they can also only have two people in the kitchen instead of five. "It makes it harder for us to get food out fast and that was always our thing."
The challenge, she says is to stay afloat while all these costs are going out and while the business is not as busy as it was pre-Covid. "We're leeching money at the moment, it's just going out. But we just have to keep our head down and hope for the best."
As well as the cost of all theses modifications, Susan says that a real struggle has been getting enough customers back through the door. Located on the Long Mile Road, the café has traditionally served people working in the area, especially the many business people from Citywest. Many of these people, however, aren't in their offices, and won't be for some time.
"So we're now trying to find out where our customers are," Susan explains. "We have to reach out to those people who are working from home and living around us because our previous customers who worked in Citywest live up and down the M50, they're not around us anymore. So suddenly we're beached here with all this lovely stuff and we have to find the customers."
One thing Susan hopes will attract new customers is the high quality of what they offer. "I want our products to be a treat, because I think since Covid people began to be more aware of the quality of their food: the provenance as well as the flavours. We make it easy to have a yum lunch in your yum house, because people have spent fortunes on their homes. There's gorgeous houses around Dublin. So you can buy these nice things, bring them home, and sit in your own gorgeous house, or in the back garden."
She believes too that the quality of the food, as well as its sustainability will make up for not having the experience of eating in a café that people are used to. "The reason you go out for breakfast is to have flavours that you don't cook yourself," she says. "But if you can buy something like local tomatoes, some dukkah and a loaf of sourdough, it's very straightforward to have a gorgeous breakfast at home."
With people more concerned than ever about the environment, the café's sustainability credentials have always been impressive. "We're very careful about where we buy stuff, and of course we grow as much as we can," Susan explains.
"We haven't used avocado for two years. We took it off because it got ridiculous, it just wasn't sustainable with the damage that we're doing to other countries. So because we grow spinach we put on a cheesy spinach dish instead. The spinach is from my garden so it can't be more local. It's wilted on the pan with Parmesan on top of sourdough with poached eggs, and that's a super brunch."
It may be tough for businesses to adapt to this post-lockdown world, but Susan O'Sullivan has certainly given her café the best chance to succeed.
Photos: Renata Capuzo
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