Five, 10, 25 years: the three ages of a restaurant
What is the secret to longevity in the tough world of running a restaurant?
Denis Cotter of Paradiso, Washington Street, Cork. “I’ve got the cushiest job in the world.” Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Birthdays, deaths, weddings, divorces, new jobs, lost jobs . . . favourite neighbourhood restaurants often play host to some of life’s defining moments. And very often the teams of dedicated people who run them also mark each passing year, perhaps with grateful thanks for having made it through another 12 months.
So, what is it that makes some restaurants survive, and thrive, when so many others fall by the wayside? What is the secret to longevity in the Irish restaurant scene? Does having a point of difference – serving a vegetarian menu, fostering a sense of community among customers, or cultivating a kitchen garden – help?
The people behind three Irish restaurants that have been through recession, floods, fraud and marriage break-up, tell us how they do it, as they celebrate 25, 10 and five years of survival in perhaps the most fickle business of all.
Paradiso, Cork (25 years)
“I’ve got the cushiest job in the world – I’ve turned into an executive chef, with my own restaurant,” says Denis Cotter, joint owner of Paradiso in Cork, which has been making magic with aubergines, transforming greens and championing Irish farmhouse cheeses for a quarter of a century.
Cotter no longer cooks in the restaurant on Lancaster Quay in the city centre, concentrating instead on menu development. “I do a bit of prep now and again, but once I’d weaned myself out of service, it’s hard to force my way back in. Frankly, they’re better than me,” he says of the kitchen team now headed by Spanish chef Eneko Lopez.
The restaurant has undergone a subtle name change too. “We’ve been gradually shifting away from Cafe Paradiso to Paradiso. Then in 2016 we got a new website using the shorter name, and changed the name over the door the same year,” Cotter says.
“It was all to do with changing our public profile to something that better represents what we do. What was once a day time casual cafe that also served dinner has been, for some time now, an evening-only restaurant, and a fairly grown-up one at that. The name change helps identify that.”
The Macroom-born chef, who trained at the trailblazing Cranks wholefood restaurants in London in the mid-1980s and also worked in New Zealand, spent four years at Quay Co-Op vegetarian restaurant on his return to Cork, before opening Paradiso with his then wife, Bridget Healy, in 1993.
We had to learn how to run a business – up till then we’d just been having fun. We shrank the team, worked people a little harder, to be honest, tightened up everything and dropped the prices
“I was very frustrated with where vegetarian food was – it wasn’t how I ate, so I wanted to open a place where I could cook how I ate,” says the self-described perfectionist.
From the outset, Cafe Paradiso raised the bar on vegetarian food in Ireland. “There were things we couldn’t do. There was no brown rice, no lentils, no beans ... even if we wanted to, we couldn’t use them,” Cotter says, pointing out that from the outset he wanted to “nail down the distinction” between what served as wholefood, at that time, and the new level to which he took vegetables.
Now, he is keen to play down the vegetarian angle. “We dropped the word vegetarian from over the door, the website and branding, because we don’t sell ourselves as vegetarian, or try to attract an exclusively vegetarian audience. Paradiso always wanted to be a mainstream, non-ghettoised restaurant and that’s how we try to present ourselves.”
Joint owner and general manager Geraldine O’Toole estimates that as many as 90 per cent of Paradiso’s clients are not vegetarian, though she also notes that the number of vegans dining in the restaurant is increasing.
O’Toole managed Cooke’s Cafe in Dublin before retraining as a chef at Paradiso, and has been part of the team there for 15 years, a decade of those working in management. “I became part of the business in a small way after about five years, and then eventually as time went on I became, I suppose, more important to the business and that’s when we decided it would be a partnership.”
They’re a loyal bunch at Paradiso. Floor manager and sommelier Dave O’Mahony has been on staff for 16 years, starting out ironing napkins for 10p each when he was 12. “Two former head chefs, Glory Mongin and Rocio Romero, still work part-time to fit in around small kids, one as pastry chef, the other as prep chef,” Cotter says.
The friends first ethos extends to suppliers too. Cotter talks of have a rule only to use cheeses that are “local, really good and made by people we really like”, and this also applies to his vegetable suppliers, collaborators and close friends Ultan Walsh and Lucy Stewart of Gort-Na-Nain Farm, near Nohoval.
“Back in January I would have sat down with Ultan and Lucy and Eneko and gone through last year – what worked, what didn’t work, what we want a little more of, or a little less of. ‘Why didn’t you buy all my aubergines’ can be a huge issue.”
Walsh is a former academic with a PhD in microbiology, who now splits his time between running the vegetable business and hand-crafting bouzoukis, mandolas and mandolins. He is a brother of the playwright Enda Walsh, and has been growing veg commercially for 15 years.
Walsh says he grows things he likes to eat, and his somewhat exotic appetite sits well with Cotter’s elevated vegetarian cuisine. Globe artichokes, asparagus, sea kale, cima di rapa and gai lan (Chinese broccoli) are his favourites.
“Well, yea, of course, it’s huge,” Walsh says of Paradiso’s effect on his business. In return, it is much more a collaboration than a contract to supply, from the restaurant’s perspective. “A constant conversation” is how Cotter describes it, with what they grow, when it is ready to use and how long it lasts exerting a constant pull on the menu.
A current customer favourite on the dinner-only offering (€33 for two courses, €40 for three) is the starter of sprouting broccoli, coriander panelle, almond satay, crisped shallots, pickled orange, dillisk powder.
“That sells really well and that is really gratifying because I ate it a couple of weeks ago and thought, if I were to define Paradiso food, that’s it. It’s hot, it’s spicy, it’s green stuff and it’s just really exciting – which is what we’ve always gone after with flavour.”
DENIS COTTER ON . . .
The secret of Paradiso’s longevity:
I think we are very focused on being good at what we do and we get better all the time.
What makes the restaurant a success:
We’re here 25 years, but we still a novelty to a lot of people. That’s always been a huge part of what we do – surprising people. That’s an amazing thing to have in your armoury.
Trading through recession:
We had to learn how to run a business – up till then we’d just been having fun. We shrank the team, worked people a little harder, to be honest, tightened up everything and dropped the prices.
The flood of 2009:
We redid the room, but the kitchen was still in a terrible condition and we couldn’t afford to fix it. Six months after we did that, the place flooded and we got to redo the whole thing. Brand new kitchen, and a new floor which was much better than the first version.
Jeni Glasgow and Reuven Diaz
Eastern Seaboard (10 years)
“The restaurant opened Thanksgiving eve, November 2008, as the global recession took hold ...” It doesn’t sound like an auspicious start, but you can hold the gloomy music and instead insert a drum roll here, because the restaurant in question – Eastern Seaboard – is about to celebrate 10 years in business.
Jeni Glasgow and Reuven Diaz’s response to the challenges they – food enthusiasts but not restaurateurs – faced when opening a “New York-style, neighbourhood restaurant” on a small commercial strip in suburban Drogheda was to pour all of their creativity, time and tenacity into it, with Glasgow front of house and Diaz in the kitchen.
The restaurant thrived, and was joined, a few doors down, by the couple’s Brown Hound Bakery and they are not finished yet. Their next adventure is a collaboration, still being negotiated, with the people behind the Chocolate Factory in Dublin 1 and three other co-working and creative community spaces in the capital. They are opening an offshoot in Drogheda this summer, in a 150-year-old, 32,000sq ft former mill, and Glasgow and Diaz will be involved in some way.
“There’s never a bad time for a good idea,” Diaz commented a decade ago in an interview with a local radio station that was following up on the story of the colourful couple, who met and married in New York in the 1990s, opening a giant, 120-seat restaurant and bar in recession-hit Drogheda.
Reaction to menu
There’s never a good time to find €30,000 missing from the takings either, but that’s what happened to the couple late last year. The theft, which is the subject of an ongoing Garda investigation, followed quickly on the heels of adverse customer reaction to their decision to allow dogs on the premises, and a lukewarm reception from locals to the new menu they introduced in November.
“They would arrive into the restaurant, look at the menu, throw it down on the table, and say ‘right, there’s nothing here I want’”
“It has truly been harrowing. As 2017 drew to a close we faced such backlash to our menu change, and such fallout because we welcomed dogs [after the change in legislation], and then to discover the extent and severity of the fraud ...” Glasgow says.
“There were times when all of the hours and all of the effort just seemed too much. But, we have fought too long and too hard for this place to give up – so on we go, with a ‘pull-up-your-socks-and box-on’ attitude.”
Apart from its considerable size and its distinctive style – bold and individual, but comfortable at the same time – what sets the tone at Eastern Seaboard is the prominence given to local suppliers, 23 of whom are listed on the menu. It was a desire to further explore the bounties available to them in their locality in the northeast that prompted them to review their menu in November.
“We are not who we were when we opened the restaurant and our menu has started to reflect that,” Glasgow says. “But we got into really deep water because we changed it. We’d had a similar menu on the go for the last nine years and I’d say for four of those years, if not longer, we had talked between ourselves about really wanting to change it.
“We felt that we wanted be able to focus more on our local suppliers – that felt right for us.” But not with the customers? “They were quite vocal,” Diaz says about the reaction. “They would arrive into the restaurant, look at the menu, throw it down on the table, and say ‘right, there’s nothing here I want’,” Glasgow adds.
Salmon head, split and grilled, and collar, a cut from the back of the head and gills of the same fish, proved to be hard sells. “I think it was great for it to appear on the menu,” Diaz says. “It’s part of the process of finding out how to share things that we enjoy and see if our customers will enjoy them too.”
Compromise ensued, and the menu is now a mixture of what they describe as snacks, small plates, large plates, and sandwich and burger options. But the focus on local and artisan suppliers remains. And the weekly specials give them free rein to express their creativity.
However rising costs, in terms of labour and ingredients, are forcing the couple to have a hard think about their direction, a decade in. “We’ve always been a casual dining place and yet we’re buying the same products that they’re using in Chapter One,” Glasgow says. While Diaz says they are at a crossroads.
One thing they agree on is that their 65-hour working weeks cannot continue. Perhaps their sons Finlay (13) and Saul (15) will some day share the workload? “I hope not,” Glasgow says determinedly. “They’ve been here, washing pots and helping in the business ... but do I want them to go into the restaurant business? No way, not ever.”
Diaz, who studied architecture and is a self-taught cook, sees collaborations with others, such as the Chocolate Factory project and their annual summer solstice event with Boyne Brewhouse, as being a big part of their future direction. Glasgow is sure about one thing: “We need to figure out how to make this work for us now – we’ve worked for it for 10 years.”
GLASGOW AND DIAZ ON . . .
What is important to them in business:
“I think that our focus on sharing is a big part of why this place is so great .. it’s not just a dialogue about the food, it’s a dialogue of people coming together.” (Diaz)
The challenges of running a neighbourhood restaurant:
“The kind of food that we produce is very hands-on, so it’s very labour intensive, and yet staff costs are rising all the time. It takes an army to do what we do, and restaurant margins are supertight. (Glasgow)
The secret of their success:
This is our life. This is not a project or a business, or just two people thinking let’s open a restaurant, that’s a great idea – it really is our life. It means so much to us. (Glasgow)
Joe and Mags Bohan
Dela, Galway (five years)
“At peak-growing season, our greens and eggs have a plot-to-plate time of minutes.” Joe Bohan is justifiably proud of the point of difference that the hard work he and his wife and business partner Mags put into their commercial-sized polytunnel (3,000sq ft) brings to the meals served at Dela, the Galway city restaurant they opened in 2013, and which turns five next month.
He believes customers of the 50-seater, which is known for its seven days a week brunch, as well as a seasonally changing dinner menu, recognise the difference in the freshness and quality of the veg on their plates. To make sure that the 17 staff at the restaurant know exactly what goes into producing it, and are able to convey the story to diners, they are each rostered to spend a half a day a week at the kitchen garden in Moycullen.
“They’re very proud of it,” Bohan says. “This year we are trying to make the veg the hero on the plate.” The real heroes are the couple themselves, who plan to run educational events in the polytunnel, sharing their experience with schoolchildren, chefs and anyone keen to grow their own.
“My parents and Margaret’s parents – I find it hard to call her Mags though she prefers it – they grew their own. It’s not rocket science, it’s surprisingly easy, if you have the time.” Kitchen garden expert Dermot Carey visits once a month to keep the plot on track.
Restaurants having their own kitchen gardens are a recurring theme throughout Europe, and Dela’s owners were inspired by Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage HQ in the UK and by Donal Doherty’s restaurant garden in Inishowen.
“We use everything we grow – and we grow a significant amount,” Bohan says, adding that surpluses are shared with a couple of other restaurants. “We were harvesting our own tomatoes Christmas week, squash up until mid-November and cucumbers until mid-October.”
He declines to put an estimate on how much of the restaurant’s total veg requirements the garden supplies and says it varies over the year. “Our veg-use changes with what we have available to us. It’s always going to be a pretty high percentage. We don’t buy organic purple sprouting broccoli, because it’s too expensive, but when we have it we’ll use it.”
The couple put hours of work into the garden, for the benefit of their customers, and also for the significant savings it brings. “Up until the growing season we’ll be spending about €200 a week on organic leaves – when our own are available, that’s eliminated. We buy enough seed for all our veg for the whole year for €350.”