Carry on trading: The businesses working hard to keep us fed, and workers paid

It’s a month to the day since the first case of coronavirus, also know as Covid-19, was diagnosed in Ireland. On February 28th, Michelle and Damien Madden, the husband-and-wife team behind Evergreen on Wexford Street in Dublin – a local greengrocer with a loyal and diverse clientele – started to think about how it might affect their customers, family and shop.

“We’ve six kids,” says Michelle. “I was worried that we’d lose our business overnight and I didn’t know how we would feed them.”

Then came the announcement of school closures. “We spoke to our customers about home delivery, particularly so vulnerable people could be looked after,” Michelle says. “This includes people who are self-isolating, as well as our customers who are on low incomes and, with children not in school, are finding that their food budget doesn’t stretch. We’re working with local volunteer groups to monitor the situation among our more vulnerable customers.”

Evergreen is now running a home-delivery service in the local area, with customers calling through their orders and paying over the phone.

Michelle and Damien Madden in their Evergreen shop on Wexford Street in Dublin.

They’re one of hundreds of small businesses across Ireland that, over the past fortnight, have swiftly changed how they work in order to minimise human contact and keep within tightening Government restrictions. 

Grocers, butchers, bakers, florists, fishmongers, pubs and off-licenses, bookshops, cafes and restaurants closed their doors, taking phone or online orders for collection or delivery, or implementing social distancing measures in shops that were allowed to stay open.

All non-essential retail outlets were instructed to close their doors to customers completely on Wednesday. But such retailers were allowed to continue to operate by phone or online, if they can ensure safe social distancing for employees.

At first, it wasn’t clear how small businesses would survive, but many have risen to the challenge. Here, we take a look at some those who are finding ways to stay trading and keep people in work.        

Further restrictions were introduced at midnight on Friday, when the Taoiseach instructed people to stay at home in virtually all circumstances for a two week period. Note that some of these businesses featured here may have had to further limit their services, or cease operations temporarily in light of these new rules. A list of so-called “essential retail outlets” that will be allowed to stay open during the coronavirus outbreak can be found here.

The greengrocer

Garden Goodness, Cork

Michael O'Sullivan, owner of Garden Goodness in Cork. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Michael O'Sullivan, owner of Garden Goodness in Cork. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

“We’re a small family business and have been open for about 35 years, since I left school at the age of 16,” says Michael O’Sullivan, owner of the Garden Goodness fruit and vegetable shops in Cork.

“We have a branch in Wilton Shopping Centre and another in Douglas Court. Our branch in Douglas Village burnt down in a fire last August.

“For a few years, we’ve run office fruit deliveries under the name of Fruit Direct. It was going well but 99 per cent of the business has been cancelled.

“We’re lucky that we have been able to hang onto our eight full-time and one part-time staff. This is despite footfall being decimated. We quickly moved to home delivery, advertising it locally with posters.

“Logistically, we’re not short of people or vehicles for the deliveries. Meanwhile, we’re keeping strict controls on how many people we let into the shop, and everyone sanitises their hands on entry.

“As a retailer, it is stressful to monitor social distancing, keep an eye on the till and take orders. The last thing we want to do is bring the virus home, but we have to keep the business open for our employees and so customers can be fed.

“Spanish oranges, mandarins and lemons are particularly popular, as are plums, pears and avocados. Potatoes are selling well too.”

fruitdirect.ie Tel: (021) 436 2282

The restaurant

Michael’s of Mount Merrion, Dublin

18/03/2020 - NEWS - Pictured is Gaz Smith, Michael’s of Mount Merrion on Deerpark Road. Has now become Mike’s Takeaway – sold 220 meals in four hours last night on first night of operation. Photograph Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times
Gaz Smith of Michael’s of Mount Merrion sold 220 meals in four hours on the first night operating as a takeaway. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

“I left school early, worked as a kitchen porter and then made my way through the restaurant ranks. About

three years ago, I bought Michael’s; we had no money so couldn’t afford to change the signage, which is why the name stayed,” says Gaz Smith, owner of Michael’s restaurant in Mount Merrion in Dublin 4.

“It’s been a great success, and we’re known for our fish and seafood. Business was booming and we opened up Little Mike’s – a more casual alternative – three doors down.

“About a month ago, I was reading about the virus on Reddit, thinking it won’t affect us. Then, we were overcome. There was a major shift in public mood on the first day the schools were off, and we felt we couldn’t provide a safe workspace in a 40-seat restaurant with 120 customers a day. So we pulled the plug of our own accord.

“Then, after two days at home, down in the dumps, we spoke with our staff about doing takeaway only. We had only three staff in at a time, rotating shifts, a small menu, all payments over the phone by card, and nobody allowed inside. Staff cooked with masks and gloves and observed strict handwashing. We asked people to stay in their car; we popped the food in the boot and wiped down the handle.

“We focused on food that travels well, and we had a great response from customers. We went above and beyond Government guidance, but when we saw a backlash against some restaurants that hadn’t managed queuing properly, we decided to stop – for now at least. Still, we think that how we ran the place as takeaway-only could be a model for other restaurants during this crisis.

“I’m so proud of how our team pulled together. We’re getting a lot of support from the public and our customers, who know we had major safeguards. We will keep assessing and reassessing this: I won’t rule out reopening again but we will be guided by Government advice, regulation and the public mood.

“Recessions spark creativity: I think, in the long-run, this will motivate the food truck and street food movement because people with little to no money will have a chance to get into business.”

Michaels.ie Tel: 089 601 2079

The local convenience shop

Keane’s Costcutter, Drumlish, Longford
“My family have run this business for over 30 years, and we’re a part of a community that has seen a lot of young people come home from the closed colleges in the last few weeks,” says Leanna Keane, whose father, Seamus, is the owner of Keane’s Costcutter in Drumlish, Co Longford.

‘This is a small town with a lot of estates but a growing population and a lot of young families. We’ve had a baby boom in recent years.

“GAA is a massive part of life here. Father Manning’s Gaels – the local men’s team – won the Longford Intermediate Championship last year. They’ve pulled together with St Helen’s, the women’s team, and together the club’s volunteers are organising deliveries for people who are isolating or vulnerable.

“I’m studying politics and law in DCU but that’s over for now. I miss my friends but my course has moved mostly online. When I came home, there was a huge delivery in the shop and those deliveries are still coming.

“People are still coming in, and we’ve put down markers in the shop asking people to keep their distance; customers are complying on the whole but they’re not necessarily used to it.

“We’ve always done phone orders, especially for older people, but now we’re advertising it for people who don’t want to leave the house.”

Tel: 043-3324359

The pub

The Headline Bar, Dublin 8

“Geoff and I had worked in hospitality for years and always wanted to own our own business. The Headline was a perfect, landmark building and we opened six years ago, focusing on microbrewery, Irish whiskey and gin and food,” says Máire Ní Mhaolie, who owns The Headline Bar on Leonard’s Corner in Dublin 8 with her husband Geoff Carty.

“We’re a local pub and all our customers are regulars that we’ve come to know. It has been a lot of fun.

“Covid-19 came onto our radar in the last few months, but we’ve been shocked at the speed of the spread. It got real for us on the day of the announcement of school closures. We put in hand sanitisers and moved tables out of the building to adhere to physical distancing measures, but it quickly became clear that people were afraid.

“On the Saturday, we decided that, although we were doing the best we could, some bars were not, and we didn’t want to be tarred with the same brush. We were among the first to make that decision. We closed at 7pm that day because nothing is more important than human life.

“And we were flooded with messages of support. I know people will come back and support us when we reopen. We’re hoping that the Licensed Vintners Association and Restaurants Association might put pressure on the insurance companies.

“Over St Patrick’s weekend, we had a lot of stock and decided to move to home delivery of beers and wines. We’ve been flat out and we’re shifting the stock. Our own beer is brewed by the talented crew at Third Barrel. It won’t replace our lost business but it has helped.”

57TheHeadline.com

The bookshop

Charlie Byrne’s, Galway

Charlie Byrne's Bookshop manager Vinny Byrne packing books for delivery at the shop in The Cornstore, Middle Street, Galway city. Photograph: Joe O'Shaughnessy
Charlie Byrne's Bookshop manager Vinny Byrne packing books for delivery at the shop in The Cornstore, Middle Street, Galway city. Photograph: Joe O'Shaughnessy

“Last year, we celebrated 30 years in business with a 30 per cent sale. It was a busy, buzzy day – and now it seems like a very different time,” says Vinny Browne, who has worked in Charlie Byrne’s bookshop in Galway for more than 20 years.

“We sell new, second-hand and discounted books, and all our discounted books are hand-curated. Our children’s book section has grown in popularity over the last decade. We can’t compete with the Amazon behemoth but we can provide an experience. We hold several book clubs every year, we have regular book launches and reading events, and have worked hard to make sure the bookshop is a social and cultural place.

“The past weeks are wholly new to us. We’ve never needed a big online presence because people have always come in and browsed our shop. But even before the announcement of school closures, we started to see this was a cataclysmic event. The last crash unfolded slowly, over a few years; this happened in a few days.

“We closed on St Patrick’s Day as normal, but we didn’t reopen. It just didn’t seem right or safe for staff or customers. We’re still here, answering the phone, putting up posts on Facebook and our website. People can phone in their book order and we will deliver. We were particularly busy in the run up to Mother’s Day.

Photograph for Magazine: Sorting and preparing books for delivery at Charlie Byrne's Bookshop in The Cornstore at Middle Street in Galway city. Photograph: Joe O'Shaughnessy. 23/3/2020
Preparing books for delivery at Charlie Byrne's Bookshop in Galway city. Photograph: Joe O'Shaughnessy.

“People want a chink of light and books can bring that to them. There are four of us working getting all the orders out and we will post nationwide.

“Now is the chance to tackle more challenging but rewarding works: Ulysses, The Count of Monte Cristo or the collected works of Gael Garcia Marquez. People often read Ulysses in their 20s and find it a struggle but, in their 40s, they can relate better to Leopold Bloom.”

charliebyrne.ie Tel: 091561766

The miller

Ballymore Organics, Kildare
“Until a few weeks ago, 99 per cent of my stone-ground plain and wholemeal organic flours, as well as my semolina, went to the trade. I was selling 22kg sacks of flour,” says James Kelly, founder and owner of Ballymore Organics, which is based in Ballymore Eustace in Co Kildare.

“In more recent months, I’d set up a small online shop and a few people were buying the flour to make bread at home. Around March 14th, the trade orders collapsed and the home orders started to flow in. The phone was hopping with orders from people who wanted to bake bread at home.

“I also had a few ‘preppers’ – these are people who have long since been preparing for the apocalypse – and they were buying grain off me that they could mill themselves at home. They’re all stocked up. For many preppers, it’s a hobby, a way of life. Some of them are milling flour for friends and neighbours. One woman said that everyone used to laugh at her and thought she was mad. ‘But who’s laughing now?’ she said.

“I mill and dispatch my flour so it arrives by courier the next day. The wholemeal is great for soda bread and the plain is great for cakes, cookies, bread and baguettes.

“I was born and raised on a farm in Ballymore and have farmed organically since 2011; I also keep sheep and cattle. This crisis has witnessed a devastating human and social toll, but the fall in nitrous oxide emissions over Europe and China has thrown down the gauntlet: we need to think about our planet and think local.

“You can make pasta at home with my semolina. Put 400g of semolina in a bowl, make a well, crack in four eggs, mix well, knead and let rest for half an hour. Then roll into sheets and cut into strips for tagliatelle or lasagna. A pizza cutter will do the job well, and it’s an activity the whole family can get involved in. You don’t need a pasta-maker.”

BallymoreOrganics.ie

Some of the many shops offering delivery and collection

Clare: The Cheese Press, Ennistymon. Cafe open for collection. Tel: 085-2849864

Donegal: The Counter Deli, Letterkenny. Off-license – online or call shop for deliveries, pick up, drop to boot. Tel: 074-9120075.

Dublin: The Village Butcher, Ranelagh. One customer at a time, phone orders in ahead, pay over phone. No cash. Tel: 01-4066966/TheVillageButcher.ie

Dublin: Home deliveries Boyne Valley produce, including fish, meat, eggs, dairy, and even hand sanitiser. Also Louth, Meath, Wicklow, Kildare. Tel: 087 140 9627; greatnorthernlarder.com

Dublin South: George’s Fish Shop. Fresh and frozen fish and seafood, delicatessen, organic chickens. Text 089 4362399 or call any of the stores directly; georgesfishshop.com/contact/

Galway: Kenny’s bookshop, Galway City. Free online delivery. Kennys.ie

Kerry: Daly’s seafood, multiple locations. 24hr notice on orders with collection from Cahirciveen, Abbeyfeale, Castleisland, Neagh, Portlaoise and Thurles. Tel: 066-9472082/ dalyseafoods.com

Kildare: Ely Wine Store, Maynooth. Still open as wine shop and artisan groceries available for delivery or collection. Tel: 01-2805664/ElyWineBar.ie

Kilkenny: Ring’s Farm. Delivery of eggs to Dublin, Kilkenny, Carlow and Kildare. Tel: 083-1161774

ElyWineBar.ie, Dundalk. Door-to-door meal delivery. Tel: 042-9388279/ RootsandGreen.com

Mayo: Cafe Rua, Castlebar. Baked goods and pre-made meals for collection. Tel: 094-9286072

Meath: Forever Amber, Ratoath: Will deliver books/crafts in the locality. Tel: 01-8256777

Sligo: Murson Farm, Grange. Baked goods and eggs for collection from farm. Tel: 087-8218080/ MursonFarm.ie

Waterford: Ardkeen Quality Food Store, Dunmore Road. Contact-free pick up, order and pay by phone. Tel: 051-874620/ Ardkeen.com

Wicklow: Carrignamuc Cottage, Knockananna. Home deliveries of fruit and veg. Tel: 083-1071252; carraignamuccottage.ie