The restaurants opening mid-pandemic – and making it work
An entrepreneurial spirit prevails as new food businesses take on the Covid challenge
Peter Burke (left) and Jules Mak, owners of Hush in Rathmines.
The Covid-19 crisis has presented restaurant and cafe owners with immense challenges, with shuttered shopfronts an increasingly common sight and closed for business notices springing up across the country. But some operators are bucking the trend, entrepreneurial spirit has prevailed and they have opened new food businesses, even as others around them have struggled and many have failed.
This week, a new burger bar and sandwich shop called Hush opened its doors in Rathmines, Dublin 6.
The Old Couch Café in Waterford city, a business that was forced to close just weeks after it initially launched in February, has reopened with a new, more ambitious menu that is proving so popular it has had to extend its opening hours.
A landmark cafe, bakery, grocery, cookery school and guesthouse called Firehouse is due to open in Kildare town in two weeks’ time.
In Drogheda, Co Louth, Oliver Dunne earlier this month launched his seventh restaurant, Bryanstown Social, in the former Eastern Seaboard premises, and he says business is booming there.
Hush, a daytime sandwich shop and night-time burger bar, was born out of a lockdown experiment that chef Jules Mak ran out of Mak at D6, his other restaurant in Ranelagh, Dublin 6.
“We were doing takeaway and started Test Kitchen Tuesdays, where we did a new cuisine every week. The first week, we did burgers, and sold 180 burgers pre-ordered through our Instagram. They were the most popular by a long shot. We were doing 280 burgers on a Tuesday, just madness, out of a Chinese restaurant,” Mak says.
We didn’t take any wage subsidies, our sales didn’t drop too much. We were in a pretty strong position
Having switched early on to takeaway rather than sit-in, Mak’s Ranelagh restaurant came through lockdown in a healthy financial position, unlike many others. “We didn’t take any wage subsidies, our sales didn’t drop too much. We were in a pretty strong position, so my plan was and still is, to keep opening more restaurants. I try to remain positive and keep going; people still need to eat.”
Mak had viewed the Rathmines premises before the Covid-19 crisis struck, but walked away from it as he thought the rent was too high. However, he and his business partner in Hush, his school friend Peter Burke, owner of CrossFit353, negotiated a reduced rent and signed the lease in June.
They are now open for sandwiches and drinks during the day, and hope to launch their night-time burger menu in about two weeks. They also have plans for a wine bar and a dining area serving tasting menus with paired wines. “We have this plan that you walk through this funky, quirky, cool burger joint and then you go into this slick little wine bar. We have great space here, so we are trying to utilise it as much as we can.”
But why burgers? Does Dublin really need another burger bar? “There are plenty of burger bars out there, some are great, some are not so great. Something as simple as a burger and a sandwich are probably the easiest things to get wrong.”
The Hush beef burger is based on how Mak likes to make them for himself. “I like two thin patties, cheese on each layer, grilled onions, our special sauce which is just mayonnaise, ketchup, pickles and red onion. And we steam our bun, which is an absolute game changer, so you get this really soft bun with lovely melted cheese on the burgers.”
Burgers are also on the menu at Bryanstown Social, Oliver Dunne’s latest opening, in the former Eastern Seaboard premises in Drogheda, Co Louth. The restaurant, Dunne’s seventh, opened on August 10th, serving dinner seven nights a week and lunch or brunch, Friday to Sunday. It’s a mid-market, crowd-pleasing venture, and with 110 socially distanced seats to fill, its broad appeal will be essential to its survival.
It has been a much easier opening than any other restaurant I’ve opened, because I could bring in loads of skilled staff who have worked with us for years, from the other restaurants in town that are quiet
However, business is brisk. “It has been really, really well received, It’s busy, busier than I expected it to be. It is doing more customers than our city centre places,” Dunne says. “We are probably going to open seven days a week for lunch. Suburban restaurants are busy because people are at home rather than in town.”
Dunne’s restaurants in Malahide, Co Dublin – Bon Appetit and Ribeye Steakhouse – are experiencing similar boosts in trade. “We are there 14 years and we are busier there midweek than we have ever been.”
Dunne says that at Bryanstown Social, inevitable comparisons have been made with the restaurant that formerly occupied the sizeable premises on the outskirts of the town.
“If you like a restaurant, you don’t want it to change, and Eastern Seaboard was very well liked. There’s a bit of a mourning process, it has happened a couple of times when I’ve taken over restaurants, where people are a little bit upset that there’s a new restaurant in their old restaurant’s place. But, in general, everyone is delighted that it’s open again after lying idle for eight or nine months.”
Opening a new restaurant during a pandemic has brought challenges, Dunne says, but there has also been an unexpected upside. “It has been a much easier opening than any other restaurant I’ve opened, because I could bring in loads of skilled staff who have worked with us for years, from the other restaurants in town that are quiet. For opening night, we had five head chefs in the kitchen, and four managers on the floor. You’ve got to take any positives you can these days.”
In Waterford city, Damira Levacic and her partner, Przemyslaw Muszynski, are also channelling positive thoughts as they reposition their business, The Old Couch Café, as a 10-seater restaurant rather than a 36-seat cafe. The couple, who are from Croatia and Poland respectively, are both chefs and met while working at The Lodge at Ashford Castle.
In February, they opened their cafe on O’Connell Street in the city centre, having done all of the renovation work on the premises themselves. But within weeks, the pandemic forced them to close.
“I am a very positive person, so I didn’t look at it as a difficulty. I just accepted it,” says Levacic. The couple used the lockdown period to change their business model completely. “When we first came to Waterford, we were told that breakfast might work for our cafe, but we never really liked doing that. Lockdown gave us a chance to rethink, restart, and we are now doing something that we both like.”
Now, instead of being a casual, all-day cafe, the Old Couch serves lunch and dinner, five days a week, and is gaining a reputation for the quality and individuality of its owners’ cooking. “We use a lot of foraged ingredients and we like to include produce from Ireland that is not very well known and is not seen on other menus. We do dishes that our parents or grandparents would cook, but we do them in a modern version.”
The current menu features a starter of “lardo and sage spread on Guinness and walnut bread with fermented cucumbers, apple jam and a side salad”. Main courses include “panfried duck breast, carrot and Parmesan orzotto, roasted carrots and carrot crisps, roasted hazelnuts”.
Desserts are Levacic’s territory and once a week, on Saturday afternoons, she gets to showcase the pastry skills she honed while working at Hayfield Manor in Cork, when the cafe serves afternoon tea.
The couple are happy with the changes to their business model. “It feels more comfortable to people and it’s more comfortable for us, we’re not getting over our heads with it. We treat every person as if it could be the last time they eat out before a new lockdown, and try to make every dinner and every lunch special for everybody.”
In Kildare town, Paul Lenehan is putting the final touches to an ambitious development comprising a 65-seat cafe, bakery, grocery shop, cooking school and 10-bedroom guesthouse, due to open next month.
Firecastle is a project that Lenehan and his brother-in-law and business partner, Ronan Kinsella, have been working on for six years, since buying the building that had lain derelict for decades, despite its prime position on the town’s Market Square. The duo also run Harte’s Bar & Grill, which is adjacent to the new business, as well as gastropubs the Dew Drop in Kill and Ashton’s in Clonskeagh.
Lenehan describes the project as “a hybrid of a multitude of things”, with influences from Avoca, Donnybrook Fair and Fallon & Byrne. The design team was led by Ros Walshe, previously a key member of the Avoca staff when it was owned by the Pratt family. The cookery school and guesthouse was inspired by Neven Maguire’s MacNean House and Restaurant in Cavan, Lenehan says.
“It’s a good year behind schedule at this stage,” says Lenehan. “We were supposed to get it open by the end of June, but Covid put all our construction guys off the site. We are hoping to get it open in the next two weeks, but the Kildare lockdown didn’t help us either.”