Q&A Inside Track: Sarah Harty, Gallery Café, Gort
More than food on the menu at the Gallery Café
Sarah Harty:“I set up the restaurant when I was 25 and I was clueless.”
What distinguishes your business from competitors?
We don’t just do food. We host pop-up shops, literary readings, live gigs, art exhibitions and plays in the restaurant. We support artisan producers and try to use only seasonal, local and organic food in our recipes.
What’s been the biggest challenge you have had to face?
Starting a business with no experience in the industry. I had a romantic idea about running my own business, but the reality hit pretty quickly. There was a lot of red tape and I wasn’t used to dealing with tax collectors, health inspectors, fire officers, etc.
Rates are also a challenge. I have paid massive rates in the town for the last eight years. The streets are a mess and there are potholes everywhere. When I first opened the restaurant, I couldn’t believe how much the council rates and water rates were.
And your major success to date?
Staying in business for eight years without going completely mad. I used to have a 25-seater restaurant, but opened a bigger 70-seater restaurant in 2011. The number of staff grew from six to 16 when we moved and we are turning over a lot more food too.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in business?
I set up the restaurant when I was 25 and I was clueless. I was an artist, painting pictures, and selling them to my parents’ friends. I thought I could paint in the café and serve people. I spent my nights reading cookbooks and burning scones. I think I might have served some terrible tasting dishes to people at the start. The food is really good now, but I let other people look after it.
During the heatwave in July I placed some tables and chairs outside the cafe to cash in on the good weather. I received a court summons as a result. It warned me I could be facing a fine up to €5,000. Understandably rules and regulations are in place for a reason, but surely the local government should be able to take matters into their own hands to have some flexibility in order to allow their town stay alive.
What was the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received?
My dad once said to me that I was unemployable. That has always kept me going, as I knew if I wasn’t self-employed, I’d be out of a job. The thought of that keeps me motivated and always looking ahead to ensure the success of my business.
Who do you most admire in business and why?
I admire my mother Maura Harty. She is always calm and focused. If I could clone my mum for my business I’d be sorted. She established clothing boutiques in Dublin and Nenagh called Lisa Baker that are doing very well.
What piece of advice would you give to the Government to stimulate the economy?
They should support self-employed people, not crush them with more taxes. Councils should work with small businesses to support them rather than kill them with the same rules and regulations that were there during the boom.
In many towns across the country, the only free car parks are those in the growing mass of global supermarkets. Gort is no exception, Aldi and Lidl have a free car park. This encourages money to be spent in larger supermarkets, and takes away from smaller businesses in the town centre where there is no free parking.
Do you think the banks are open for business at the moment?
The banks are open as long as you are successful and bringing in the money. They only help you if you are producing the goods. I try not to rely on them and work with what I have.
How do you see the short-term future for your business?
I am renovating my old café [the 25-seater café in the town of Gort]. I’m going to open that in the autumn. I also want to get teenagers involved in cooking by running some courses for them.
How much is your business worth and would you sell it?
Some days I would sell it. I have a very changeable relationship with the business. I like the business today, but I’m not in work yet. If I got a good offer, I would definitely sell it.
In conversation with Pamela Newenham