Brian Drinan and Paul Coffey, the couple behind Perry Street Market Café and a growing number of sister outlets, believe high standards and a friendly welcome have helped their business thrive.
With the opening of their latest café in Little Island yesterday, their workforce has grown to more than 40. Not bad for two people who previously worked in entirely different careers.
“I trained as a chef and did professional cookery years ago but worked in insurance and mortgages for around 15 years,” Mr Drinan told the Evening Echo. “Then when the downturn came I decided to return to first passion, which was food."
“Paul worked in retail, managing Ted Baker outlets in Brown Thomas stores around Munster.
It was always a dream to have our own place, we used to write a column on food for a magazine. We both had an interest in food and with Paul’s experience in retail, it grew into really wanting to open our own place.”
When they opened their doors on their first café in 2013, it was in a city still feeling the effects of the recession, and friends feared for their future.
“People thought we were crazy to open in the city and crazy to open on Perry St, just off Drawbridge St. But we knew we had a fantastic space, and were working alongside a fantastic landlord who himself was in business and really understood and knew what needed to be done to make the business succeed."
"And in turn, it has really helped that area, there are a lot of new shops around there now and huge footfall. Perry St, for the first year, was the type of place that if somebody was in town they may visit, but now find we have become a destination. We have built up quite a loyal fan base that we’re absolutely delighted with.”
They are proud that that fan base includes young families who can sometimes feel in the way elsewhere: “We are very welcoming of buggies and they have room to manoeuvre. Some days it can be like a creche! I don’t want to sound like Mary Poppins but it’s a fantastic buzz.”
Like other businesses, they have dealt with challenges to trading over the years.
“There is always going to be problems, we just have to overcome them,” Mr Drinan said. “We had a very positive summer but there was a few things that could have gone against us.
“During the fine weather in June, people did not come to the city. Then the roadworks happened, but we were delighted because we had been pushing for it to happen. We got signs made and directed people to Perry St. And on a few occasions our water went and we had to close because of burst pipes. Those things will always happen, they are problems that you need to deal with. But overall we have very happy and coming into a busy season now with the Jazz weekend and obviously Christmas.”
While he acknowledged the issues, he said their policy has always been to accept that problems are a part of life.
“Cork is an amazing city to do business in and spend time in, I’m tired of people giving out all the time,” he said.
“Of course there will be issues around things like parking but again, we can’t have it all. I do agree that parking should be made cheaper at certain times, to encourage people to come in, but you are always going to have parking charges in a city.”
One thing he refuses to see as a problem is the growth in cafe chains. I asked his opinion on the growing number of Starbucks outlets and recent decision not to grant planning permission to Caffè Nero on Patrick St.
“I’m really not interested in any of those,” he answered. “If you ensure your product is good, there is a customer for everything. You’re not going to get all the customers, it is just not going to happen. You have to ensure you build your customer base and you mind them and keep them interested.”
He pointed out that independent businesses like theirs can react to customer need in a way that franchises cannot.
“An independent cafe has room to be creative and to change things, whereas chains like Starbucks don’t have that. If something isn't working for us we can change it overnight, they can’t.” Which is not to say they underestimate the importance of marketing their ventures.
“Social media is massively important. Probably one-third of our customers are not on social media but you’re looking into the future and getting the young people who will eventually be your customers to see the Perry St brand and what we do.”
Their approach is working. The city centre café was soon followed by branches in Northpoint Business Park in Blackpool and Citygate in Mahon.
They are proud of their food made from scratch and with Cork ingredients where possible. “We don’t have deep-fat fryers,” Mr Drinan said. “People are very conscious of that nowadays and of where their food has come from. We use as much local produce as we can and everything is made fresh on the day. We make everything from scratch, all our cakes and salads, we cook all our own meats. That has helped.
“Our head chef starts every morning at between 4.30am and 5am. All those cakes that you see, and the bread, were in the oven in the morning.”
Mr Drinan also believes their offering differentiates them from other cafes in the city. “Even though we trade during the day, customer can pop in for a glass of wine and a light bite like some bruschetta. Someone else might want a sandwich, or a main course. Whether it is coffee and cake or chowder, we cater for everybody.”
Yesterday, the fourth Perry St café opened its doors, with their menu on sale at half price for the day to tempt customers through the doors. They saw Little Island as the logical next spot for them to open and hope to replicate their success elsewhere. Their café has plenty of parking to tempt the workers in the many nearby businesses.
“We thought long and hard about it, we have a production kitchen there anyway,” Mr Drinan said. “We want to become a destination in Little Island.”