FOUR decades in business is a significant milestone for any enterprise — and especially one so embedded in Cork’s social history. Down through the years, the Quay Co-op has been at the forefront of social justice campaigns, locally and nationally, since its doors opened, campaigning for gay rights, women’s rights, and on environmental issues.
Its history has mirrored social and legislative progress in Ireland while offering information, resources, and support to those who sought to organise for equality and against prejudice.
“The Quay Co-op was created to be a base for those who had none, a place for interest groups to meet, to discuss the issues of the time, and to plan action,” says Simon Tiptaft, general manager of Quay Co-op.
Today, the Quay Co-op employs 50 people across its vegetarian deli, bakery, wholefoods store, and restaurant on O’Sullivan’s Quay, in addition to its vegetarian food-production facility on Cove Street and satellite stores in Carrigaline and Ballincollig.
“The Quay Co-op has pushed boundaries since its doors first opened and has brought together groups and individuals for 40 years,” Simon explains. “It gave a voice to people who may not have been heard otherwise and was a movement for change.”
A member of the team for 15 years, Simon says social justice issues remain at the heart of the business: “The same-sex Marriage Referendum in 2015 was a huge moment, we paid the wages of several of our team members to allow them to work full-time for the campaign. Our focus now is on food politics and sustainability and continuing to be the leaders in the provision of organic vegetarian and vegan whole food for Cork and beyond.”
Initially established as a collective effort of feminist, lesbian and gay, environmental, and other alternative groups and individuals, the ambitious project began during a time of rapidly rising unemployment in Cork.
Over time, the group transformed a neglected former pawnbrokers shop on O’Sullivan’s Quay into a thriving hub — a working collective geared to take on the challenge of a renovation project that became the foundation of today‘s thriving business.
Opening its doors in May 1982, it quickly became the home of a vegetarian restaurant and cafe, food co-op, bookshop, women’s centre, and creche. Co-founder Arthur Leahy recalled how the marriage of honest toil and idealism gave birth to an enterprise that continues to expand in 2022: “Reaching this milestone anniversary is down to hard work, dedication and also that spark of alternative creativity that we see in every day in the people that work here, come here and shop here. Our radical roots inform what we do to this day; they make us proud of where we work and of what we’ve stood for 40 years. Today we face new challenges, none more so than ensuring that our future generations may respectfully enjoy this beautiful planet in peace.”
The Co-op has expanded over the years and it now has three buildings on O’Sullivan’s Quay, number 24, and the premises on either side, one of which was previously the Cork Fire Brigade headquarters. The Co-op’s wholefood stores in Carrigaline, Ballincollig, and O’Sullivans Quay offer a range of organic foods, and health, and well-being products.
The O’Sullivan’s Quay store also has a bakery that specialises in spelt and gluten-free products, in addition to its ground floor deli-cafe and upstairs restaurant. In recent years, the Co-op has added its own range of foods, including dahls, curries, soups, and vegan dishes - all produced at the industrial kitchen in Cove Street.
The co-operative ethos that initially built the business continues to inform its creative and commercial initiatives to this day: “The members still run the business, with a continual process of reinvestment being the order of the day. No profit is taken out of the business, that is the way it’s always been for 40 years and has served us well.
“The idea that money spent in our stores goes back into improving the business appeals very much to our customers, and certainly ever more so in recent years when the reality of climate change and sustainability have become such major issues.”
Simon’s own 15-year period working in the Co-op is similar to many others who’ve been part of the business for equally extended time frames: “Hundreds of people have worked here over the past 40 years, many with a far longer tenure than I — and all of whom have brought that collective dedication which has contributed to our success.”
The Quay Co-op’s customers have proven equally loyal, he says “who continually spur us on to be better, to do more for the causes that will make a better future for us all”.
As part of its 40th celebrations, the Co-op has recently restored the former pawnbroker’s office on the third floor — used over the years as a headquarters for women’s groups, CND, and the LGBTQ community campaigns. “We are delighted to be able to offer this very special private space for business and social groups, private dining, meetings, and reception-style events.”
Sustainability has always underpinned the ethos of the business — right back to promoting the availability of refills across the range of seeds, fruits, coffees, and teas. “Many packaged products that come to us from the UK and Europe are now organically delivered in big units which are then put into refills. Customers were very quick to come in and fill up their own containers.”
The Quay Co-op has recently opened an online shop — an aspect of the business expected to grow, both in terms of the products available and the wider reach to potential customers around Ireland and beyond. “It is an area that we do plan to focus on more, especially in marketing and advertising. While the Quay Co-op is well established here in Cork, its potential through online trading could be enormous and is one of the areas we expect to see substantial growth in the years to come.”