On a huge reclaimed frieze behind the bar at Avoca’s newest Dublin foodstore, there’s a carving of the Latin adage: Tempus fugit. Times flies. It certainly does.
When we visited on Thursday the grand opening was just four days away, yet the building was still a throbbing mélange of builders applying the finishing touches, managers racing around with clipboards and new staff in training.
In the foodservice business, and also in retailing, the final pulling together before the grand opening of a new venture is always peak madness for everybody involved. But there can never be any other way. This is how it is done.
Quickly, grab a sweeping brush. Stack a shelf. Test an oven. Hug a colleague who might be struggling under the strain, and then you can both laugh at the craziness of it all. Openings invoke nerve-shredding, wonderful, creative chaos.
The person in charge of conducting this anarchic orchestra is Tara O'Neill, managing director of Avoca. By Monday, she'll have delivered the luxury retailing and epicurean group's 13th outlet, a food-only venture at the Number One development in Ballsbridge, Dublin 4, on the site of an old veterinary college.
The new outlet strikes a new tone for Avoca, which is owned by the multinational catering group Aramark, and nudges its food offering further upmarket with the inclusion of an almost-standalone table service restaurant. There is also an upscale foodmarket, and a more casual foodservice area.
O'Neill, formerly a senior executive at the restaurant group owned by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, is about 15 months into her role after taking over from Simon Pratt, scion of Avoca's founding family who sold it to Aramark for a reputed €64 million a little over three years ago.
After an enthusiastic showaround of the split-level room, O’Neill puffs out her cheeks and slinks back into a chair at Fodder, the full-service restaurant that forms the classiest part of the new venture. A sympathetic colleague brings her a coffee, although caffeine is probably the last thing she needs.
As the adrenaline subsides, at least for a half hour or so, she reveals how the latest outlet fits into the group, and how the group fits into the outlet.
“We had to come up with something that fitted into the space,” she says. A decision was taken to leave out the non-food textile retailing for which Avoca, sometimes known as Avoca Handweavers, is widely known.
“The space dictated it. This unit is 7,000sq ft, whereas Avoca in Dunboyne [where it opened a broad range new outlet in 2017] is 56,000sq ft. We could fit everything we wanted there. Here, there were compromises to make.”
O’Neill is adamant, however, that the absence of non-food retailing at the new Ballsbridge outlet does not represent any strategic decision by the caterer Aramark to drag the entire group in that direction.
She says she is still committed to Avoca’s textiles heritage, although she says she wants the group to “do it even better”.
The Ballsbridge outlet is basically divided into three zones: restaurant, foodmarket, and fast-casual but on-trend dining. A modern epicurean trinity.
O’Neill, who spent 16 years working in London before she came home to join Avoca, describes herself as an avid “foodie”. She also trained as an accountant.
When it came to the decision to open the sizeable Fodder restaurant within the site, instead of handing that space over to more lucrative foodmarket retailing, the foodie battled the accountant, and the foodie won the day.
“If you money-mapped the space, you’d probably just extend the foodmarket there,” she says. Money mapping is the science of allocating floorspace towards the most revenue-generative business activity. It’s classic bean counter talk.
“But you can’t just look at the space and ask how you can make it churn money out. Of course it needs to work commercially, but it also needs to be a space that adds something to the feel of the overall store and works for the local community,” she says, her inner foodie casting off the bean counter, talking more sense.
Fodder’s theme is inspired by the old UCD veterinary college that once sat on the site. The wood panelling on the walls is meant to invoke stabling. The walls are adorned with vintage botany displays: century-old pressed flower exhibits that you’d expect to find in a dusty old academic setting.
In Avoca’s other outlets where retailing is side-by-side with foodservice, the restaurants rarely have their own entrances, their own identities. Fodder can be accessed through its own doors from a plaza behind the building, meaning it can function standalone, as a dinner restaurant after the shop part closes.
It has a cocktails counter, although the liquor licence doesn’t kick in until March 1st, so Fodder’s soft opening will also be a dry one for a couple of weeks.
The second zone – the foodmarket – sits in the middle of the new store. It includes the in-house Avoca Butcher counter, premium-priced dry goods, a high-end cheese and charcuterie counter, and a patisserie.
"Avoca normally sells scones the size of babies' heads, but we will also be selling more French-style artisan baked goods," says O'Neill. "It will still have that Avoca DNA, but it also offers something else for this audience."
This audience is the local denizens of Ballsbridge, which is ground zero for Irish middle and upper classes. It is also home to stockbroking firms, banks, and, soon, the new headquarters of Facebook. Avoca's previous, traditional home-style food persona has had an uptick at this outlet. D4 will be pleased.
The rest of the space is the “fast casual dining” zone at street level, on bustling Shelbourne Road. It includes a pop-up food concept corner, which will initially be occupied by Vietnamese food business Páng, a Poulet Bon Femme chicken rotisserie counter, and a cobble-your-own healthy breakfast buffet.
In an eccentric twist, the space also contains a huge silver mosaic tile-covered oven, which looks like a massive disco ball that occasionally spits out freshly-cooked pizzas. Think margheritas to the tune of Stayin' Alive. O'Neill is also keen to highlight Avoca's new Hello & Go convenience section.
For those of you who care about such things, the design is lavish, the floor is Italian marble, and the wallpaper is Hall of Hackney. In short, they’ve poshed the place up, good and proper.
Yet Avoca, which don’t forget is now in the ownership of a New York Stock Exchange-listed multinational, is still a business, with more than 1,000 staff and sales estimated above €60 million. O’Neill’s job is not simply to open interesting food venues or mull over the decor. She is on board to help evolve strategy.
“Aramark has had it for nigh three years now, and in a way they are still devising the strategy. But in aspiration it isn’t vastly different to the one that Simon [Pratt] was talking about at around the time the business was sold.”
When Pratt handed over the MD reins to O’Neill towards the end of 2017, he didn’t exit stage left entirely. He had signed a three-year contract with the new owners to help transition the business, and has since been available to O’Neill in a sort of advisory, elder statesman-like strategic role.
His three years is up shortly. But previously, he had spoke about the possibility of expanding the mostly Leinster-focused business into other cities in Ireland, and also taking the brand to the United Kingdom within a couple of years.
The absolute urgency appears to have gone out of that strategy in recent times – there is no firm plan detectable for entering the UK – but O’Neill is adamant that the brand would work in Britain.
“It just doesn’t lend itself to a high street sort of setting, but we are always being approached to set up in British department stores. It is all about trying to find the right sites, and that is not easy.”
O’Neill also seems to want to rethink, and renose, Avoca’s textile retail business, which is part of the heritage of the brand. She has plans to develop and expand its mill and textile operation in the Wicklow town of Avoca.
“We would like to elevate the mill product. I’m also not averse to expanding the retail side of the business, but some of the existing operations are off-brand slightly. I want to update them. It is important to get the identity right. I think we can do better.”
She also will seek capital from Aramark to revamp some for the existing estate: “Other retailers moving towards the experiential end of things. We have to innovate to keep our spaces ahead of the game. I would hate to one day end up with an estate of 12 tired Avocas that look the same now as some of the other retailers who have tried to do the same [as us].”
For now, the focus will be on making the new Ballsbridge foodie venture a success. For the Avoca brand’s future, however, it sounds like O’Neill may intend to serve up a slice of proactive renewal.