“The Ploughing” Comes Home

The dust has settled this weekend on a tumultuous week in Irish farming.

It was a week of extraordinary weather conditions (by Irish standards for this time of year) with clear blue skies and warm temperatures. The beef price crisis escalated with farmers growing increasingly militant in their protests about the prices received at factory gates. And record numbers of almost 300,000 descended on Carlow in the south east of Ireland for the annual agricultural love-in that is the National Ploughing Championships.

This year I too made the pilgrimage, keen to experience this unique event in a location just a couple of miles from where I grew up.

I must confess that the appeal of “the Ploughing” has been slow to unfold itself to me. I grew up on a farm and, while there was no shortage of agricultural events to attend, the most memorable of these was the Spring Show, which took place in the RDS venue in Ballsbridge, one of Dublin’s leafiest suburbs.

Our entire family travelled to the city for this annual day out, gawking at the latest tractors and machinery, eating sliced white bread sandwiches in the canteen (it might seem bizarre but it was a major treat for us to get a break from home made bread back then) and enjoying a catch up with whatever neighbours we happened to bump into.

And then suddenly, in the early 90’s, it was gone. There was some consideration given to reviving the show a few years ago, but a feasibility study carried out by the RDS showed that there was little demand for an urban based agricultural show.

In truth, at this stage, the Ploughing Championships had gone from strength to strength, adding more features and attractions and positioning the festival as a means for a diverse range of brands, businesses and media channels to connect with and sell to rural Ireland.

Visiting on the first day of the show, I allowed some extra time for my journey from the capital – normally an easy 70 minute drive – however I wasn’t quite prepared for the extensive traffic management plan in place. Two and a half hours later, I found myself still traversing the hilly back roads of Carlow before eventually arriving at the very scenic site – its slight elevation affording tremendous views of the countryside.

It’s a festival with something for everyone. From fashion (one for the ladies, as we were breathlessly told over the tannoy) to food and everything in between. It is honest and open and uncomplicated. There is simply nothing to not like here. And I can’t quite get out of my head the sight of grown men gazing longingly at brand new tractors which they can only dream of affording.

More seriously, farm incomes in Ireland are a significant issue with recent figures from agri-finance specialists IFAC showing that 38% of beef farmers are unsure if they will still be farming in five years – with the average beef farm loss excluding EU subsidies amounting to €116 a hectare. Many farm families require off-farm income to support their households; a trend that is steadily growing year on year. It’s a complex situation which has evolved over many years and has no quick solutions.

I have to admit to being a little biased here, but Carlow looked simply sumptuous this week, with a glorious view to Mount Leinster and beyond from the ploughing fields. I felt an inordinate sense of pride that my small county (the second smallest in Ireland – a fact which was drummed into us from age 5 in school) was hosting this enormous event with great style and substance.

While the location for 2020 hasn’t been confirmed yet, this will be a tough act to follow.


More information on http://www.npa.ie.






Ireland – A Land of Saints and … Coffee?

Is Ireland “over-coffee-ed”?

I pondered this question recently (over a coffee).

Urban Coffee Culture

Coffee culture has well and truly taken hold in Ireland over the past decade. The capital city Dublin has a vast selection of cafés, from chains (both international and home grown), to independents (this including a broad spectrum of trendy to more traditional). It’s hard to imagine a part of the city where you can’t get good coffee. The rather amazing success of the beautifully located – and very busy – ‘Happy Out’ in Bull Island just off the eastern seaboard is a case in point.

But is the city saturated with bean culture? Drowning in cappuccinos? Overwhelmed by coffee granules? Dublin City Council seems to think so, advising a property investor earlier in the year that it would be difficult to justify opening another café in a property near St Stephen’s Green. Planners noted at the time that there was an over proliferation of places to have a coffee in this area. It’s not just expansion by chains like Costa and Starbucks either, with many independent coffee shops joining the fray.

Rural Pub Closures

This is playing out while pub closures in Ireland continue, albeit with a marked rural/urban divide. The latest figures from Drinks Industry Group of Ireland (DIGI) show that 71 rural pubs closed in 2018. There are now 1,535 fewer pubs in rural Ireland than in 2005. DIGI analysis also shows that nearly 20% of rural pubs closed between 2005 and 2018, compared to just 1% in Dublin.

So will café society replace pub culture in a changing Ireland?

It’s an unlikely prospect actually, as the Irish psyche is naturally drawn towards the conviviality of a pub. Also, many pubs have reinvented themselves to meet changing market demands by incorporating a food offer such as a food truck, while others have focused on atmosphere and niche entertainment.

New Trends

The Virgin Mary on Dublin’s Capel Street, opened a few months ago, is Ireland’s first completely non-alcoholic pub while the new 1661 pub around the corner specialises in the once illegal white spirit poitin. Many pubs also now serve barista-style coffee.

The ones that are thriving – both urban and rural – have adapted their offer and work a little harder and smarter to attract clientele.

In the UK pubs have been increasingly café-like for quite a number of years, a trend which began mainly for commercial reasons, as pubs sought to attract customers throughout the day.

Follow Me Up To …

And so a few weeks ago I found myself in my home county of Carlow, in Ireland’s south east, checking out the new café developments with great interest.

I recall bringing my elderly parents for a pub lunch in our local town a few years ago. My father marveled at the newly introduced coffee “menu” on our table and slowly read the description of each type of coffee with some incredulity and amusement. A far cry from being asked if you had a preference for strong or weak as the publican switched on the electric kettle!

Picking up some tourist brochures I am reminded of Carlow’s impressive spiritual footprint. There are at least twenty two early saints associated with Carlow and some such as Columbanus and Laserian embarked from the county on great missionary endeavours in Europe.

But back to coffee. In no particular order my three café “picks” from county Carlow are as follows:

The Townie Trendsetter: Thrive Café, Market Square, Tullow, Co Carlow


This is a gorgeous café in the centre of the market town Tullow, open since early 2018, which focuses on providing healthy food & drink. It’s a much needed addition to the town’s food/beverage offer. Tullow has a quaint feel to it and some wonderfully traditional shops like Johnson’s Tailors and Duffy’s Drapers all of which seem (and I am assured are) unchanged since my youth. The café offers a choice of unprocessed, sugar-free and nutrient dense breakfasts, snacks, smoothies and lunches.

The Social Local: Café de Mode, Church Street, Ballon, Co Carlow


I was particularly keen to visit this café in my home village of Ballon. Located a little way up Ballon’s famous hill in a building which used to house the post office, it seems fitting that it is now one of the village’s main social hubs. Initially converted to a takeaway, the current owners took over the property in 2016 and have delivered a smart yet friendly and award winning neighbourhood café.

The Rural Retreat: Sugar and Spice Cafe, Altamont Gardens, Kilbride, Co Carlow


This is perhaps my favourite. The gardens at Altamont are stunning and recognised as one of the most beautiful in Ireland. The estate gains much of its character from the rare trees, huge stone outcrops, beautiful woodlands and exotic specimens throughout the gardens. As a child I lived nearby and often visited the gardens – now expertly managed by the OPW – with schoolfriends. I remember the kindness of Corona North the former owner who cheerfully allowed us to roam freely.  The open air Sugar and Spice café is an absolute delight and sitting here during a rainy day I couldn’t think of a nicer place to be.

I relish the positive changes and new life that these cafes have brought to this ordinary yet not so ordinary part of my home county. And I foresee a peaceful co-existence of pubs and cafes in a changing, forward-thinking and multi-cultural Ireland.

Eat Your Way to France

As an island nation, it takes a little more effort to exit (and indeed enter) Ireland. Not too surprisingly, the vast majority of people transit in and out of the country by plane. Since airline travel became affordable, and then cheap, it seemed a clear cut choice and people’s appetite for quick and inexpensive holidays overseas has increased exponentially. According to Failte Ireland statistics, over 90% of visitors to Ireland in 2018 arrived by air.

But. There is the small matter of a climate crisis. And flying is the single most climate-polluting activity an ordinary person can do with even a single flight dramatically increasing your carbon footprint. Unless we see some major technological breakthroughs, people will ultimately have to fly less to reduce carbon emissions.

It’s not always possible to avoid flying but what are the alternatives?

We first dipped our toe into travelling by ferry a couple of years ago, making the short (3 hour) trip from Dublin to Holyhead and onwards to a well known theme park in the UK. It had been quite a number of years since I had last travelled by ferry, and for some reason I expected major differences in the experience. Apart from the quality of the coffee, however, nothing much had changed at all.

• Roll on
• Find somewhere – preferably beside a window – to plonk a swaying self (and family)
• Roll off

(Tip: don’t spend the time queuing to get onto the boat draining the car battery and then having to sheepishly ask port officials for a jump start. Happens to the best of us.)

The food offer? Rather forgettable. Overall though, a really pleasant experience, and a way of travelling that is actually very satisfying. Slow travel, perhaps?

Our second trip by ferry was somewhat further afield as we ventured to the continent on the comfortable Oscar Wilde vessel via Rosslare last year. Now this was fun; exploring the ship, enjoying getting lost and figuring out how our compact cabin worked (took about 5 minutes).

I recalled how way back, a college friend and I had met the late Michael and Jane O’Callaghan of Longueville House, Cork on the same crossing. Sensing our impoverished student status, Michael kindly bought us drinks and told us to visit sometime. A few years later I was able to return the favour when I brought a group of customers from the UK to the southwest and we overnighted and dined in the rather wonderful Longueville.

WB Yeats ferry

Another year on, and the luxurious WB Yeats ship has finally entered into service, following the debacle of cancelled services and huge traveller frustrations in 2018. Departures ex Dublin port offer up huge convenience (well for us city dwellers, anyway).

This well designed €144 million “cruise ferry” is a treat. The décor is muted and calming. Everything is fresh and new. Quotes from the many wonderful poems of WB Yeats are dotted around the ship – “Poetry in Motion”.

We travelled on the first weekend of the school holidays, on what was probably one of the busiest sailings of the year. But we and our fellow passengers were all handled efficiently and our car was smoothly shepherded into its place within the 3km of car deck.

And so to the all important on-board dining experience.

What is most notable is the changed tiering of the food offer. On the Oscar Wilde this included Casual Dining (Pizza, Self Service), a Mid Market offer (Steak House) and Fine Dining. The WB Yeats has just two tiers however – Casual Dining (Boylans’ Brasserie, Café Lafayette) and Fine Dining (Lady Gregory).

Not everyone is a fan of these changes, as the price for a 3 course meal in the Lady Gregory is a rather eye watering €59 (before drinks & gratuities), putting it beyond many budgets. Breakfast is more affordable at €20 and features some healthy options (I opted for the light omelette). I’m afraid to say that I audibly shuddered when the waiter presented me with a pot of Yoplait yoghurt to accompany a plate of impeccably cut fruit pieces. No offense to Yoplait (we buy it regularly), but fine dining it isn’t.

Lady Gregory Restaurant, WB Yeats (Irish Ferries website)

Boylans Brasserie serves fairly standard buffet food. The bigger challenge here is managing to queue and pay for your food before it has gone stone cold. Timing is crucial! A staff member shared with me the differences between French and Irish passengers, noting that the Irish tend to favour heavier meat based dishes such as ribs and pies, while the French prefer pasta dishes and fish.

There is also a small ice cream station under the “Glenowen” brand (serving ice cream made in Cork), which is a nice touch and a big hit with the kids.

And, somewhat of a surprise, there is a self service Mexican restaurant tucked away in a less visited corner of the ship. This was actually my favourite option with a hot main and soft drink priced at €15 which is decent enough value.

I left the WB Yeats feeling well fed and thoroughly rested so it’s a win from me. There is something hugely appealing about this slow, considered, method of travel. A welcome change from the frenetic pace of modern airports. And eco-friendly to boot.

Passenger travel by sea has declined by about 20% over the past 20 years particularly between Ireland and the UK but will this now change as people seek travel options that are kinder to the environment? Will the nature of travelling itself change? And our perceptions of holidays? Will restrictions be placed on personal travel?

Only time will tell …

(As a complete aside, since my return from France, I have been prompted to revisit a couple of my favourite poetry books.)





“Life is like an ice cream cone, you have to lick it one day at a time” (Charles M Schulz)

With a heat wave coming (already here in fact) and temperature records being broken at an alarming rate across Europe, most people’s thoughts are turning to the task of staying cool and hydrated.

And ice cream.

Ice cream is eaten all year round (only wet weather dampens demand), but comes into its own in the summer months. An important part of a day out and a treat for the children that, somehow, doesn’t seem as “bad” as crisps, sweets or chocolate.

In the past few years ice cream lovers have become more sophisticated in their tastes and the newest offers have been positioned around a super-indulgent experience, with exotic flavours, descriptors and, sometimes, a touch of nostalgia.

In the US in 2018 the winning flavours in the annual What’s Hot in Ice Cream competition (run by the International Dairy Association) were the Signature Reserve Brazilian Guava Cheesecake ice cream, Spicy Mango Raspberry Fiesta ice cream and a Pomegranate and Sweet Potato Medley Bar. A mishmash of flavours that work together – just.

Which brings me to Three Twenty, a new ice cream parlour or “Ice cream Lab” located on Dublin’s Drury Street, which has an unusual manufacturing technique using liquid nitrogen. This enables rapid freezing of the ice cream at a low temperature which results in smaller ice crystals being formed with less air than is found in traditional ice cream. And a richer, creamier, denser ice cream that doesn’t require stabilisers and fillers.

The flavours are interesting and more reminiscent of desserts than ice cream.


I opted for the Red Velvet during my recent visit. The ice cream itself has an almost stretchy texture and is extremely dense in taste – the organoleptic qualities alone are worth the rather expensive outlay of €5 per tub (€6 for a large). It’s not the best option if you are in a hurry – each ice cream is made to order using individual mixers and takes several minutes to prepare.

20190629_150120Verdict: An acquired taste which may be a little on the pricey side for many. I do plan to return however to try out another flavour (may even bring the kids next time!).

Five facts about Ice Cream which might surprise

(1) The first ice cream cone was produced over a century ago in 1896 by Italo Marchiony, an Italian emigrant, in New York City. He was granted a patent in December 1903. Although Marchiony is credited with the invention of the cone, a similar creation was independently introduced at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair when an ice cream vendor ran out of cups and asked a nearby waffle vendor to roll up his waffles to hold the ice cream.

(2) Contrary to popular belief, Häagen-Dazs is actually an American ice cream brand, established by Reuben and Rose Mattus in Brooklyn, New York in 1961. They liked the name as it was “Danish-sounding,” and felt that Denmark was known for its dairy products and had a positive image in the United States.

(3) According to World Atlas statistics, New Zealand leads the world in ice cream consumption with a per capita intake of 28.4 litres per year, followed by the US and Australia. Ireland lies 8th at 8.4 litres.

(4) An ugly turf war known as The Ice Cream Wars took place in Glasgow in the 1980s between rival criminal organisations using ice cream vans as a front for selling drugs and stolen goods. Van operators were frequently involved in violence and intimidation tactics and even murders, which led to a lengthy court battle and, eventually, exonerations for the accused.

(5) In 1984, President Ronald Reagan designated July as National Ice Cream Month and the third Sunday of every July as National Ice Cream Day (in the US). In the proclamation, President Reagan called for people to observe these events with “appropriate ceremonies and activities.”

“Without ice cream, there would be darkness and chaos.”
Don Kardong, Runner and Author







7 Unique Dining Experiences

This article was inspired by our recent family holiday in the Swiss Alps, where I came across a unique dining concept (more on this later).

As the adage goes, people want experiences, not “things”. Creating memories and unforgettable experiences is the watchword of our time. In food, this can be a venue, a theme, a style of cooking (or fusion of styles), a type of food, a campaign that “cuts through”. Something unique – at least for a while.

I have been to a New York bar where the wait staff were all twins; a restaurant in Philadelphia where the courses were bookended by opera singers in full flow; a Swedish restaurant in London where everything, yes everything, on the menu was flavoured with liquorice (much loved in Scandinavia); and a revolving bar in New Orleans featuring an actual merry-go-round which has been revolving since 1949.

Quirky themes can come (and often) go, particularly some of the more out-there ones. Novelty will only get you so far; the food, beverage and service offer has to deliver and the business model has to be profitable. As a case in point, Dublin’s first cat café in Smithfield (a cat lounge with coffee and real cats) while fabulously original recently had to close its doors due to significant running costs.

The last two decades has also seen plenty of new and interesting venues in Ireland and beyond with banks being converted into bars, double decker buses put into service as casual restaurants and deconsecrated churches turned into upscale eateries.

It’s fun, it’s different, it appeals.

7 Unique Dining Experiences to Try Before you Die

(1) In the Mountains

Fondue is synonymous with all things Swiss. And in the Saas-Fee ski resort in the Swiss Alps during the winter months a quite unique fondue experience is offered on board your very own gondola (cable car) which slowly traverses the mountains while you dunk your bread and down Valais wine. Sublime!

Offered once every few weeks during the season about 30 gondolas are in action for this ride with a difference.


(2) In the Water

There are a few undersea restaurants – mostly in the Maldives – however the Conrad owned Ithaa was the world’s first and is perhaps the most impressive. Ithaa Undersea Restaurant allows you to dine luxuriously five metres below the surface of the Indian ocean, in an “aquatic wonderland” with amazing 360° views of reef and marine life.


(3) In the Trees

The Treehouse Restaurant in Alnwick Gardens, Northumberland features wooden walkways, twinkling lights and a very unique dining experience.

Alnwick Gardens are one of northern England’s most beautiful attractions, rejuvenated and reimagined by Jane Percy, the current Duchess of Northumberland who took the gardens on as a project when her husband inherited the estate in the mid 90’s. Uniquely there is also a Poison Garden, which features 100 lethal plants and is used for drug education.


(4) In a Cave

Grotta Palazzese is an exclusive restaurant created inside a natural cave. Located in Puglia, Italy the restaurant takes its name from the cave and has been used for parties and banquets since 1700, as evidenced by a 1783 watercolor by Jean Louis Desprez.


(5) In a Tram

Although not strictly unique as there are similar cafes in other cities, The Tram Cafe in Dublin has made this list because of its fascinating history.

Originally built in the US city of Philadelphia in 1902, it started life as a horse drawn tram, then spending most of its working life in Lisbon as a refitted electric tram from the 1920’s to the late 1970’s. It was then moved to a tram museum in Wales and finally ended up in a field in Co Cavan where it was discovered by its current owner, refurbished and installed as a full café in 2016 on Wolfetone Square, Central Dublin.


(6) In the Ice

The Ice Restaurant is the world’s only ice restaurant located precisely on the Arctic Circle in Finland’s Snowman Winter Resort. The Ice Restaurant features incredibly beautiful ice sculptures and a menu created from local ingredients.


(7) In the Air

The brainchild of Hakuna Matata, an agency specialising in gourmet pleasures, and The Fun Group, which has expertise in amusement park installations deploying cranes, Dinner in the Sky is a flying dinner table which first took to the skies in 2006. Since then, the concept has criss-crossed the skies of 45 countries in Europe, Australia, Japan, India, the Middle East, South Africa, South America and North America, and even China.


Not just featuring exclusive dinners, the events for up to 30 (carefully strapped-in) guests have experienced unique themes such as a Beach Bar, Opera and Poker Matches and some of the world’s best chefs including Heston Blumenthall. And, if you are so inclined, you can also exchange vows or host a business meeting in a highly original location at an altitude of 50 metres.

So no, the sky is not the limit…





What is Your “Mont Blanc”?

Mont Blanc, France

This question arose during a recent family holiday in the smart alpine town of Chamonix in the French Alps.

The town sports a number of high end shops specialising in outdoor wear, equipment and accessories. With its proximity to the Mont Blanc Massif it’s a natural mecca for climbers, winter sports enthusiasts and lovers of the outdoors. Almost every hotel promises an amazing view of the mountains and when you get there you understand why. The Massif towers over the town providing a jaw dropping spectacle which feels almost too close to be real.

Also in Chamonix is a small chain of confectioners Aux Petits Gourmands which makes the most of its adjacency to Europe’s highest mountain. The menu for the sit-in café features a selection of Summit Chocolates dedicated to the famous peaks nearby, all with heights over 4,000m. There is also a retail range of chocolates branded 4810 (the height of Mont Blanc) which are in the shape of mini-mountains and impress in their detail, memorability and uniqueness.

Chocolate Summit Menu, Aux Petit Gourmands, Chamonix

It got me thinking.

Could this work for a topographical or cultural heritage site in Ireland (or any other country for that matter)? Is there an opportunity for one or more of Ireland’s unique and ancient features to be fashioned into a commercially viable food product that people (particularly visitors) would like to buy?

Some years ago while working in food exports I was approached by someone who mooted the idea of developing a soda bread baked in the shape of the island of Ireland. Which could be served at ambassador receptions and gatherings of the Irish diaspora around the world. At the time it was difficult to think beyond the practicalities of devising a suitable loaf tin that would be able to effectively carve out Ireland’s craggy coastline in all its glory. The core idea, though, of using Ireland’s distinctiveness as a key selling point and a basis for product development, was pretty valid.

A number of food and beverage companies have used their connections with mountains and the outdoors to convey brand credentials, a point of difference and sometimes health cues. Toblerone and the Swiss Mountains. Alpen and the French Alps. Coors Light and the Rocky Mountains. All brands with longevity.

Perhaps one of the most famous foodstuffs to be associated with high altitude is Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake which Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay ate at the summit of Mount Everest during their successful ascent in 1953. The “cake” is still popular with mountaineers and is widely believed to be the world’s first energy bar.


Some Irish chocolate companies do make good use of Ireland’s landscape and cityscapes in their branding and packaging designs. Skelligs Chocolates branding reflects the famous Skellig islands; Butlers Chocolates has a range of Dublin (and other cities) branded chocolate boxes and tins; and Clare based Hazel Mountain Chocolates has recently launched a new Burren Truffle Collection gift box, with the brand design highlighting aspects of the Burren landscape.

But what is Ireland’s Mont Blanc? My thoughts below, and please feel free to add your own suggestions …




Social Media: Addiction, Affliction or Assumption

Perhaps an ironic title, given that this post will itself be shared online and on social media platforms. But is social media the greatest boon of our times? Or a necessary evil? Most of us can relate to having uneasy and at times mixed feelings about the dominance of social media in our lives.

We love it (Addiction).
We loath it (Affliction).
We need it and can’t live without it (Assumption).

My Sponsored Life

I spent a couple of hours this week watching Vogue William’s new documentaries currently airing on RTE which offer an intriguing insight into the world of social media. In the second episode called My Sponsored Life, she considers the role of the social influencer, a job which barely existed 5 years ago.

Vogue is no slouch herself in the social media department, with 584,000 followers on Instagram (her husband Spencer Matthews has 743,000). She readily admits to having an uncomfortable relationship with her influencer status and dislikes the term.

It’s not difficult to see why influencers have become all-pervasive. In an era of information overload, people tend to reduce their news sources to a manageable number and like to receive this information through the lens of people they trust, can relate to and seek to emulate.

It might seem like an easy, fun and seductive way to earn a living. According to PR guru Lynne Hunter on the programme, “You can build a business from your phone. That’s genius.”

Or is it?

Vogue acknowledges the self-validation aspect of being an influencer. Posting something. Trial by “likes”. Constant checking. Obsessing over algorithms and how to make them work for you. It’s clear that influencing as a career may be short-lived and it’s perhaps best viewed as a platform for developing other longer term business interests.

As an aside, one of the more bizarre influencers featured on the programme is an impossibly cute 3lb dog called Norbert living in California with his own You Tube channel, a huge Instagram following and a full range of merchandise. Norbert’s owner puts his appeal down to the fact that he simply makes people happy. It is an uncomplicated and endearing proposition in a jaded world.

Cats on You Tube will have to sharpen their claws and find a new competitive advantage.


White Moose Cafe

Perhaps one of the most interesting interviews on the programme is with Paul Stenson of The Charleville Hotel and White Moose Café, on Dublin’s north side. Over the years, Stenson has waged Twitter warfare on vegans, pensioners, breastfeeding mothers, coeliacs and even an entire nation (Brazil), all in the interests of free publicity.

A couple of years ago while on a business trip to the US, I was surprised when an American trade contact had not just heard of the White Moose but declared himself a huge fan of Stenson’s tweets. As the café is located no more than a stone’s throw from where I live, I sent him the featured photo on my return (he was very tickled …).

Stenson achieved near infamy in early 2018 after he inadvertently exposed a UK blogger who was looking for a free stay in exchange for coverage. In conversation with Vogue, Stenson defends his social media strategy as merely a very effective and free marketing tool. Arguably, he is an influencer himself who sets out to poke fun and make “divilment”, as he puts it, while self-promoting. In other words, stir things up.

Food, beverage and hospitality businesses do lend themselves particularly well to social media. It’s a great leveler. No one is too interested in the size of a business if the information flow is entertaining, authentic and informative. Some home-grown food brands have been built very successfully in this way. It does help if you are telegenic and on-trend (think Happy Pear twins).

Social media can also enable a direct line of communication. Who remembers the Co Clare guesthouse owner who posted a 3 page riposte to a negative review on Trip Advisor, pointing out calmly and eloquently the guests failings and unreasonable behaviour? A firm way of taking back control.

I think we can all say aye to that.

My Sponsored Life is currently on RTE Player.

From Boston to Berlin: A Consumer of Two Halves

Avoca’s newest food store in Ballsbridge, one of Dublin’s most affluent suburbs, has been carefully designed to meet the needs of an increasingly quixotic consumer. Someone who seeks out and is willing to pay premium prices for food, but who also happily rummages around the middle aisles of the discount stores in search of products they didn’t realise they needed.

This new Avoca – just 6 weeks old – is the retailing and epicurean group’s 13th outlet. It’s the ultimate concept store aiming to provide a multitude of food solutions through different “stations” and also meeting a top up grocery shopping need.

The layout and atmosphere of this relatively small 7,000sq ft space – which includes a huge silver mosaic tile-covered pizza oven at its centre – is very similar to the upmarket deli-meets-convenience store formats of New York’s Citarella, Dean & Deluca and the newer Le District; gourmet markets which feature culinary-specific zones and have spearheaded new ways of shopping, eating, and playing, all in one place.

All of this against the backdrop of rapidly changing shopping habits. This is borne out by the latest figures from market analysts Kantar which show that the more mainstream Dunnes Stores – which is also embracing the concept store format in its remodeled locations – is the firm market leader in terms of share in Ireland.

Dunnes now commands 23% of the fiercely competitive Irish market and has been edging away from competitors for the last few reporting periods, largely due to its strategy to move upmarket and aggressively pursue what David McWilliams describes rather brilliantly in a recent article as the Cheese-Eating Unsqueezed Middle“.

Discounters have been growing strongly too, with Aldi and Lidl both accounting for 11% of the market in Ireland. Any lingering consumer mistrust in the offer has long gone and the newer format stores are pleasant places to shop. Lidl’s Kick Start programme has been a welcome – albeit short-term – initiative to bring smaller artisan suppliers into store.

With Fallon & Byrne planning to open a flagship food hall running to 10,000sq ft in Dundrum Shopping Centre, and the smaller Donnybrook Fair also in expansionary mode, the “artisanisation” of Irish retail shows no signs of abating.

Avoca Food Store, Ballsbridge, Dublin



Tell me What you Want, What you really really Want

Tech companies – and not just the giants – have gained an impressive reputation for offering perks to employees that can range from the seriously sublime (Microsoft rewards staff with a hand sculptured work of art for every 5 years of service) to the faintly ridiculous (AirBnB’s Dublin office allows staff to bring their pets to work).

Free Food

Feeding staff well has always been a huge part of the package. The food on offer in many of these companies has achieved near legendary status with Google one of the first companies to offer free food to their employees. Facebook’s Menlo Park Headquarters in California has been designed to mimic a downtown urban environment, including numerous food choices.

These kinds of perks also entice staff to stay onsite for longer and encourage informal collaborations with fellow workers while moving around the campus so have a number of productivity benefits as well.

Do Perks Matter?

But do all these perks really matter, in the intense battle to attract and retain talent in the global marketplace? Not according to a recent study by LinkedIn, which found that what employees actually care about the most are core benefits such as time off and flexibility. 44% of employees rated health coverage, paid time off and parental leave as the factors most likely to keep them at their companies. By contrast, only 19% said they would stay for in-office perks such as food, gyms, and games rooms.

Flexibility is particularly important at certain life stages and for the largest demographic within the workforce – parents – who can face an intense juggling of career and family responsibilities.

More Irish employees than ever want to avail of flexible working conditions. They don’t always get the chance, however. Although practices are changing slowly, Irish companies have been notoriously reluctant to introduce measures to enable staff to work outside of the office, mostly due to fears around loss of control.

Commuting in Dublin

Cutting out the commute seems like a no-brainer.

Shortly after I moved back to Dublin from living in London, I took a taxi to the city centre. The driver and I engaged in idle chit chat about the heavy traffic (probably not even so bad that particular day) and he commented that the city’s biggest problem was that everyone living in the north side seemed to work on the south side and vice versa. After spending 15 years crisscrossing the city on a daily basis and experiencing some spectacular traffic jams, I can only concur.

A recent report ranked Dublin’s traffic congestion as among the worst in Europe. Inrix, a global company that specialises in transportation analytics, reported that Dublin drivers spent a staggering 246 hours in traffic in 2018.

According to the report’s ‘Hours Lost in Congestion’ metric, which compares the total number of hours lost in congestion during peak commute periods compared to ‘free-flow’ conditions, Dublin was the third-worst city (200 cities from 38 countries were analysed). The other European cities where drivers spend the most time in their cars were Rome (254 hours), Paris (237 hours) and London (227 hours). Dublin also has the  slowest city centre in all of Europe, an extraordinary statistic.

Employee Engagement

AON, a global HR consultancy firm, identifies Employee Engagement as an organization’s great differentiator in their 2018 Trends report, which surveyed 8m employees in 1,000 companies globally. Engagement is especially important during times of change and instability. Engaged employees are advocates for their companies, plan to stay long term and strive to give their employers their best efforts. A key driver of engagement is “Enabling Infrastructure”. Essentially empowering employees to do their jobs and do them well.

So while playing ping pong with your colleagues might be a fun thing to do, and free food is always welcome, employees are mostly interested in using their time well and efficiently and having the autonomy to do their jobs in the most effective way possible.

“The trouble is, you think you have time.” Buddha

Pop-Ups vs Permanents; The “Uberisation” of Retail

Pop-ups have become a ubiquitous presence in the retail environment in the past few years. As a retail concept it has evolved from the temporary shop or smaller brand’s travelling roadshow (think festivals and markets, rustic rather than smart) to catnip for major corporations who see an opportunity to promote, collect data and appear cool to millennials through PR stunts and events.

Providing the ultimate in location flexibility, a pop-up can generate value from (or “uberise”) an under utilised asset – the physical location – and enable a peripatetic brand experience.

There are a number of factors in play here.

  • Brands need new ways of reaching their customers and creating connections
  • Developers and retailers need to be creative about giving shoppers reasons to visit bricks and mortar stores
  • The “experience hungry” millennial craves all things new, tactile and different

Pop-ups can provide an opportunity for a traditional retailer to test the waters and are often the most practical way to explore a new location. Perhaps most important is the feeling customers have when they have “discovered” a limited-period brand experience and can share something newsworthy and different with their own networks.

For mainstream brands it can provide buzz around their brands and an opportunity to connect directly with customers and generate sharable moments, something that is normally relinquished to the retailer.

In high rent locations such as London and New York, pop-ups are abundant. London Pop Ups lists all of the pop up restaurants, bars, shops, galleries and gigs on any given week in the city as well as a handy back catalogue.

Pasta company La Ramiglia Rana recently ran An Italian Grocery pop-up in London’s upmarket Marylebone. Over a 5 week period in late 2018, the brand promised a “feast for the senses” in a part grocery, part workshop and part photo studio where shoppers were actively assisted in their photo taking against a backdrop of greenery, fresh flowers and marble. The pop-up even featured masterclasses in photography and Instagram from well known influencers Food Feels and Giulia Mule.

For a temporary pop-up to be really successful, harnessing the power of the visual is essential, a tactic regularly used by luxury brands. For brands such as Gucci, Dior, Burberry, Armani and Ralph Lauren, food and beverages increasingly form an integral part of the overall experience and pop ups can help to fine tune the offer or provide a limited-time experience.

Chanel’s exclusive 12 day pop up café in Shanghai a couple of years ago aimed to promote a new range of beauty products – Rouge Coco Gloss – and resulted in three hour long queues, some frantic selfie taking by the select few who made it in for the exclusive desserts and coffee and of course bucket loads of conversation and sharing on WeChat. A marketers dream.

Combining hard to get products with limited durations, pop-up stores are a textbook example of “hunger” marketing, which is particularly effective in a country like China. Queues here generate excitement, rather than a sense of inconvenience. Pop-up retailing has grown by over 100 percent since 2015 in China and it’s estimated that by 2020 there will be over 3,000 pop-up stores in the market.

Food pop-ups are particularly stretchy, and include supper clubs and food trucks as well as the more traditional shopping centre format. Mexican grocery shop Picado on Dublin’s Richmond Street hosts an intimate themed Supper Club for a small number of customers one Saturday a month. The appeal lies in the authentic experience and nomadic-like flexibility on offer.

Cultural immersion with great food. Check. Something different. Check. (Relatively) good value. Check.

Some food pop-ups are just plain preposterous. The Misunderstood Heron – a funky food truck located on the shores of the beautiful Killary Harbour – serves locally sourced food against the stunning backdrop of the Wild Atlantic Way during the summer months. A few weeks ago it made it onto Lonely Planet’s list of the Top 10 Coolest Food Trucks in the World. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

Are pop-ups the future of retailing? With all kinds of online/offline permutations possible, pop-ups will be limited only by people’s imagination.


(1) Cakes

Baked With Love
Baked with Love, Marshes Shopping Centre, Dundalk, Co Louth

(2) Chocolates

Butlers Chocolate Cafes
Butlers Chocolate Café Kiosk, Upper Concourse, Blanchardstown Shopping Centre, Dublin

(3) Cookies

Dublin Cookie Company
The Dublin Cookie Company, Arnotts, Henry Street, Dublin