Inside Track: Eileen O’Connor, Café Riva founder

The Irish catering company provides gourmet food to private jet companies

What is special about your business?

We specialise in private jet catering. We are the anchor caterer for all the private jet companies operating in Ireland including NetJets, the world’s largest private jet operator with a fleet of more than 700 aircraft. We also provide gourmet catering to the corporate executive market.

What sets your business apart?

We achieve a great food experience within the confines of a jet several thousand feet in the air!

Studies have shown that the atmosphere in an aircraft reduces our sense of taste by about 30 per cent. We understand the challenges this involves and have concentrated our focus on the use of the fifth sense known as “umami” – a Japanese term describing a pleasant savoury taste.

What has been your biggest challenge?

On a personal level, taking the big leap from a secure teaching post to start my own business.


From a business perspective, managing cash flow during start-up.

We started the business entirely from our own resources and cash flow is a real challenge until a steady income stream begins to flow.

What has been your biggest success?

It was a major achievement to be appointed anchor caterer for NetJets (Europe and international) for Irish airports.

Equally important for us was moving from a rented premises, which had many restrictions, to our own custom-designed unit closer to the airport. We invested heavily in this move.

What piece of advice would you give to someone starting a business?

Try to stand out from the rest. Recognise that your customers and your staff are your business and its success depends on how both are engaged with the business and with each other. Be willing to take risks for business growth, seize opportunities, and be prepared to work hard with long hours.

Who do you admire most in business and why?

To me,

Margaret Heffernan


Dunnes Stores

is an icon for Irish women in business and really demonstrates what levels of success women in business can achieve. More generally, I admire all women running their own SMEs.

What two things could the Government do to help SMEs?

Maintain the 9 per cent VAT for the food and service sector. Reduce employers’ PRSI for SMEs and reduce USC and tax rates on employees’ pay.

In your experience, are the banks lending?

The banking sector in Ireland is dysfunctional when it comes to SMEs. It is not a case that they are not lending, but that the lending is very restrictive. Banking in Ireland operates on an asset-based lending model. However, the typical SME requires project-based lending, which is a well-understood practice in other European countries and internationally. If an SME here has an opportunity to increase its business and needs to scale its operations to match, there is no mechanism within the Irish banking system to facilitate funding for this.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in business?

The one that springs to mind is a reluctance to delegate in the early days. This can slow down the growth of your business.

What is the most frustrating part of running a small business?

In the early days it was that the phone rang 24 hours a day because most of our orders came by phone and our clients are spread across different time zones. Businesses starting out today don’t know how lucky they are to have email and online communication. Secondly, we employ 10 people and would like to employ more but you have to weigh up the costs involved.

What’s your business worth and would you sell it?

Selling it is not something we’ve contemplated. We’re constantly looking at opportunities for growth. We’re in business 15 years and it takes a long time to get your business to a point where you can appoint key people to take over the day-to-day operations. Having reached this point, I can now invest my time primarily in growth and customer care.

It also takes years to build a committed team who understand the service level goals and really want to achieve them. We put a lot of emphasis on staff retention and training. Many of the team have worked here for over 10 years. This has enabled them to develop a personal knowledge of our customers’ needs and that’s not easy to put a price on.