THIRTÉEN years ago, Shannen Keane opened Diva Boutique Café & Bakery in Ballinspittle — a place in the hearts of many for its statue of the Virgin Mary that miraculously ‘moved’ in 1985.
It’s not the obvious place for a flamboyant, glamourous American to pitch up with her almost indecent adoration of butter, cake and the best food from the heartlands of Americana cuisine. A miracle in and of itself, perhaps?
It didn’t take long for Diva to become a must-go-to place for everything from cakes and coffee to the Reuben sandwich (my personal favourite and simply unbeatable, in my humble opinion) to the vegan tacos and everything in between. Success blossomed, breathing new life into the village.
But in 2015, disaster struck — triggering a period testing enough to throw everything that Shannen and her team had worked and built into doubt.
“The fire happened three days after we opened at the beginning of the season, but we were totally done. We were closed for the whole year,” says Shannen.
A faulty gas bottle, brand new and completely full, ignited, ricocheting off the wall and shooting back into the kitchen. The leaking gas from the bottle, being heavier than air, fell to the floor and exploded.
“It was full gas bottle so it was like a torch going for hours. The Fire Department doesn’t put out gas fires, they just contain them, so we just had to wait for it to empty.
“The café was full when it happened, it was first thing in the morning and people were having their coffees and teas, our chef was making breakfast and then he just ran, closed the fire door and got everybody out.
“Luckily we had insurance, so I knew we’d be fine, but I just didn’t think it would take as long as it did to reopen. I kept people on and that cost me a lot of money. Had I known it was going to take until the end of October to reopen, I would have cut my losses.
“We only had the bakery open across the road. I was trying to hold onto the café staff, giving them jobs, so that really ate into my reserves. Insurance companies give you the money, but they don’t care where it goes, but that’s all you’re getting. So if you decide, I’m gonna keep my staff on, and decide to take some of that pot to keep them going, then something else has gotta be sacrificed or it comes out of your earnings. It was… interesting!”
While the café was closed, Shannen often looked at the Diva Bakery & Deli across the road as a saving grace. She opened the bakery in 2011, when the kitchen space in the café was too small to cover the needs of the café and the bakery business any longer.
“We were making everything, we weren’t buying anything in. My landlord had a vacant premises that had been sitting empty for a year, so I thought I’d take a chance and move the bakery across the way and just see what would happen. It worked out really well, and funnily enough, even though we always sold bread in the café, the second we opened the bakery we sold tonnes more!
“While the café was closed, the bakery was able to sustain our wholesale business and we kept our foot in the area to keep people coming back. And that’s big; it’s one thing to close for two months in the winter when nobody wants to go out in any case; but to be closed for seven months, you kinda get out of people’s radar.
“People were really good to come and support us, and I was glad of that. I might not have otherwise, and if I was smart, I probably would have been like ‘Hey, brand new café for sale, brand new kitchen fully open and ready to go’, but I didn’t do that.”
As anyone in business knows, it’s hard enough to claw back on track from one slow month, so to do it after seven months was a monumental task. But Shannen and her team were relentless in their determination to keep going and had two good summers, despite the best efforts of Storm Ophelia.
And then, 2018 happened…
“Things were going good after reopening, but then came the roadworks in Ballinspittle. I remember calling the bakery the first day to find out how it was going. They didn’t want to tell me because it was too bad. I was like, ‘Oh, come on it can’t be that bad?’ Our takings were just €20 in the bakery, and something like €75 in the café.
“We just had to convince ourselves that it couldn’t get any worse than that. And it did get better, and by March this year they were all done. The village does look amazing now, but I think I’m still in shock!
“At least, in 2019, I can say that we’re still doing OK. We’ve slowly climbed our way back and we’re still here: 13 years in business this November in Ballinspittle, and I felt like I needed to look forward to the next step, whatever that may be.”
That next step came in an off the cuff discussion with customer turned friend, and eventual business partner, Tim O’Kennedy.
“Our local butcher’s shop, Lordan’s, closed after 48 years. They were done with the retail, still doing a bit of wholesale, but with them closed there was even less of a reason to come to the village. Tim had asked what did I think Ballinspittle needed, and I said, what about a refill shop?”
Leafling Mercantile opened its doors on April 29, 2019, initially with the idea to stock non-perishable food items for refill. But with Lordan’s butchers shop gone, there was an opportunity begging.
“Tim said we needed to get people to come back into the village for Lordan’s Meats. Since Donal was still doing wholesale, we approached him and he agreed. Our meat selection is limited but it’s all on compostable packaging and all higher welfare.
“Our pork is always free range, we use East Ferry Free Range Chicken, our eggs are organic and free range from Devoys.
“We’ve found people are coming in for Lordan’s meat, and now they are doing their refills and it is changing the way people shop. I felt we needed something else in the village because I could see people weren’t coming in anymore.”
Leafling Mercantile only stock foods that are loose or not wrapped in plastic: higher welfare and either organic or chemical-free working with small, local growers such as Food for Humans and Timoleague Vegetables.
Leafling Mercantile is a means to an end, and that end is to keep people shopping in Ballinspittle.
“The idea is that you should be able to shop in Ballinspittle for almost everything. And we are taking requests, so if there is something we are missing, we will get it in.
“We have more than 300 products in Leafling Mercantile including detergents, dried goods, fresh fruit, veggies and some meats, eggs, loose tea and coffee, vinegars, olive oils and spices. People are getting in the habit, and the more shops like this the merrier, because it will start to change the way people shop.”
Back in the bustling Diva Boutique Café, being mindful about the impact the foods served on our environment has seen Shannen indulge more and more her love of vegetables.
“We’ve always been veg-forward in the café. We have veggie options all the time and we can easily accommodate vegans, but in the past couple of years we’ve been moving towards having even more alternatives.
“Our ethos has always been to make everything we can make, so we’ve always made our own kraut, our own bread, cakes and sauces, but it’s still really important is to go with what your customers want.
“Once, we made a smoothie bowl using nut milks we made ourselves, but it just didn’t fly. Another time, we made these beautiful crab cakes and served them up as a crab cake eggs benedict. We made the aioli, the hollandaise, the bread... everything. I sold one, to the priest!
“But in terms of plant-based options, there is always something on the menu and a range of options on specials too. We cater for Gluten Free and Egg Free too with our cakes.
“You just can’t ignore people who have dietary issues, but I find plant-based food exciting, and if we can make something that people don’t know is vegan it’s nice to do that. But we need more people to come in and ask for those options, and then we can cater to them even more on the menu.
“Plant-based food definitely has to be flavoursome if you’re going to convince your average meat eater to have the vegan burger! And if you’re making an aioli without egg, it has to taste like aioli.
“We could never go fully vegan — we use too much butter — but there is a nice balance that can be achieved, and knowing your food source and where food is coming from is just as important.”
Speaking of butter, if there is one reason alone to take the dusty road to Ballinspittle, it’s to experience one of the best tastes of West Cork. Let’s talk about those croissants…
“The croissants are definitely a labour of love — each one is rolled by hand! This year we started doing pain au chocolate, Cinnabuns and Danish Pastries using Buffalo ricotta from West Cork. People love them, they’re really good, buttery and yummy. The croissants have become a part of our identity now, people come specifically for them on weekends, especially.
“Because we make our croissants by hand, we’ll never be able to make enough to wholesale them out to other places, so you have to come to us to taste them. But we do make breads and cakes for a number of cafes and restaurants around Kinsale and the City: baguettes for The Black Pig, Sourdough to St Francis Provisions, Brioche for OHK, bread and cake for Poets Corner all in Kinsale; some cakes for Soma and ABC in the City.”
After 13 years with the café, Shannen definitely feels Ballinspittle is growing again, with a new restaurant, Wild, opening earlier this year too to decent reviews.
Its proximity to Garretstown Beach, a beautiful woodland walk and The Old Head of Kinsale make it a year round draw. With so much positivity in the air, it seems only fitting that Shannen plans to resurrect her much loved Thanksgiving Dinner this year.
“I took a two year hiatus. The last Thanksgiving dinner we did in 2017 I had a table of 10 cancel at the last minute and I just kinda threw the towel in at that point.
“But I enjoy doing Thanksgiving, especially for ex-pats. Customers who have been living in Ireland for a long time, and have had a Thanksgiving dinner in other places, always say that ours in the one that tasted like Thanksgiving at home!”
This year, the Diva Thanksgiving Dinner (which is open to everyone, not just expats!), is taking place on Friday, November 29. There will be two sittings: 6pm-8pm and 8:30-10:30pm. Book by phone, and expect to pay a small deposit to secure your spot. Enjoy a welcome aperitif, starter, a traditional Thanksgiving dinner with turkey, stuffing, gravy, pumpkin, apple, cranberry chutney and plenty of veg, a selection of those incredible desserts, coffee and tea. Praise Be!
Meanwhile on November 9, to mark the 13th anniversary, the café will be serving a special menu and bubbles.
For more call, 087 233 9434. or see www.divaboutiquebakery.com