Meet the Cork café owner who says hospitality is in his genes...

In this series on ‘Cork’s Café Culture’, KATE RYAN talks to some of the city and county’s newest café owners. Today she chats to the owner of Wilde & Co, Clonakilty
Meet the Cork café owner who says hospitality is in his genes...
Wilde & Co, Clonakilty.

WE all know a blow-in or two, or three; but a blow-back? Maybe not so many. And yet this is exactly the case for Michael O’Donovan, proprietor of Wilde & Co, a beautifully put together café in the heart of Clonakilty where farm to fork is central to the offering, along with a darn fine cup of coffee too!

It turns out that Michael is a returning son of Clonakilty, having departed its colourful streets some 30 years ago to suburban Cork with his parents and their portfolio of Cork-based hospitality businesses.

But those familial roots stretch back even further, laying the bedrock of what are now two of Clonakilty’s best loved long-established boutique family-run hotels.

Meanwhile, back to the future, and Wilde & Co threw open its doors in May. Housed inside a former pub, of which there is no trace remaining, the café’s trendy interior quickly established itself as a popular spot to meet for lunch with friends.

In July, just as the summer started to make an erstwhile appearance, a facelift of the courtyard garden, complete with a mural painted by artist Shane O’Driscoll, was finished, creating a little secret haven of tranquillity away from Clonakilty’s main thoroughfare — perfectly family friendly.

“There’s a whole other area in between the front café and the garden which used to be a former nightclub, but we haven’t decided what to do with that yet! It is a large premises, but we can section it off, so in the winter it can be lovely and cosy with the stove lighting in the front, but if we need the space it’s there ready to expand into it.”

Michael’s easygoing nature speaks to his years of experience in the hospitality industry.

Wilde & Co, Clonakilty
Wilde & Co, Clonakilty

“I’m fourth generation of my family to work in the hotel and catering trade,” he explains.

“My great grandmother established Dunmore House and my grandparents The Emmet Hotel, both in Clonakilty. My parents took over running The Emmet Hotel, and had a few businesses in the city.

“I grew up living on Kent Street in Clonakilty until we all moved to the city when I was 13. But I always felt as though I was from Clonakilty, and always felt close to it. Coming back to Clonakilty after 30 years away I think counts me more as a blow-back than a blow-in, but I’m loving it here!”

There is a pleasing trend for new food business to choose a location to open up that isn’t in and amongst the sprawl of the city, but at the same time it feels counter-intuitive — surely there is more footfall and opportunity for a café in the city?

But for Michael, Clonakilty was a better fit.

“I always loved Clonakilty and admired the sense of community it has. There has been a noticeable increase in the population of the town over the last number of years, so the possibility for an all year round business is a real prospect, rather than just a summer seasonal business. It feels like a good town to establish a business in — that’s the vision anyway!”

In 1948, a small farmhouse called Dunmore House, perched atop a hill overlooking the Atlantic Ocean five minutes from Clonakilty town, opened its doors for the first time as a hotel. At the helm were Michael’s great grandmother and father who had purchased the house and started a small guest house.

“My great grandmother started off a small guesthouse on the farm — she was a fantastic woman! My great grandfather worked the farm, he had fought in the Irish Civil War and War of Independence. He died young, so my grandfather moved back into Clonakilty where he became the Postmaster of Clonakilty post office, and along with my grandmother, established The Emmet Hotel with my father. My parents eventually took it over in the early 1970’s.

Local ingredients are key at Wilde & Co, Clonakilty. Here's one of their sandwiches with Spiced Beef from O'Neills butchers.
Local ingredients are key at Wilde & Co, Clonakilty. Here's one of their sandwiches with Spiced Beef from O'Neills butchers.

“Some of my best memories was as a kid helping my dad around The Emmet Hotel. Dad looked after front of house, mum looked after back of house and front, even doing some of the cooking. Even to this day there are people coming into the café, and telling me they had their wedding breakfast at The Emmet Hotel thirty/forty years ago and how my parents were so good to them. My family roots run very deep in the town!

“I always knew I wanted to go into hospitality and catering, ever since I was a young child and those days helping my dad out. I worked through summers and many opportunities as I could to work in our bar.

“Eventually, I left to study Hotel Management at GMIT, but I didn’t complete it; my parents opened a nightclub in Cork in the ’90s so I was called back to help with that — all hands on deck!”

Although Michael insists that the name for the café, Wilde & Co, was inspired by Oscar Wilde because of his often cited food quotes, when Michael starts talking about the food offering it seems to me he has missed an obvious trick: it’s the stories of the makers of the food used on their menu that has him beguiled.

“Seasonal Food and Barista Coffee is what we do,” says Michael.

“Our aim is to provide a great cup of coffee with beautiful homemade cakes and everything about our food, as much as we can, is local and has a provenance, a story behind it: whether it’s the organic produce from Devoy’s Farm in Rosscarbery, or that our meats come from O’Neill’s Craft Butchers across the road from us.

“O’Neill’s make our sausage rolls, and every day they walk the 100 yards from their shop to our café with a foot long sausage all packaged up, and they hold it out to us with both hands — like an offering! It’s because they don’t want to bend the sausage, but you won’t get an international company waking 100 yards from their shop and offering up their sausage rolls like that, I can tell you! It’s lovely, denotes the care and everything that’s good about the place — a lovely family that run it, the money is being spent locally, the meat is from here and supports local jobs in the town. It’s a wonderful story for us to tell our customers.”

The food offering at Wilde &Co is simple, where provenance and freshness is everything.

“All our ingredients are as natural as we possibly can make them, so we’re not adding anything over-processed: only good healthy food, but still delicious and indulgent.

“We get our milk from Gloun Cross Dairy near Macroom — it’s the best milk I can find to use in our coffee. They deliver to us twice a week in the old fashioned way: delivering in person to their customers, unprocessed in returnable glass bottles, the money going direct to a farmer and no ten touches on it, you know? I genuinely appreciate the importance of farm to fork, that it’s about retaining as much of the natural goodness of the food that is otherwise lost in over-processing.”

Wilde & Co’s chef is Michelle Bertoni, originally from Brazil and living in Ireland for 10 years. Michelle understands how life affirming a great sandwich can be, having cut her teeth working with the best of Irish produce with great Cork delis such as Toons Bridge and The Sandwich Stall in the English Market.

“Michelle wanted to do the exact same things I wanted: lovely salads and great sandwiches —her experience was exactly what I needed. A sandwich is humble, but it can be really special and that’s all down to the quality of the ingredients you use; the quality of the bread, where the leaves come from; the chicken, ham and falafel are all cooked in-house.”

It’s clear that these community connections between the entire staff at Wilde &Co and their producers is really important to them.

“It’s the freshness and the passion that these people have for their foods, you can’t help but be inspired by it and it adds so much to every dish!” he adds.

Michael’s earliest memory of coffee is watching his mum sip a Rombouts from the original one-cup filters, and he’s been a fan ever since.

“I was lucky to travel with my parents through France and Italy when I was kid —great coffee-loving nations. In the last six years, I’ve become an enthusiastic follower of Ireland’s newly acquired Café Culture, watching coffee become trendy — it’s having its time in Ireland now like wine did.”

The coffee served in house is sourced from 3FE in Dublin, a small coffee roastery that supports ethical coffee trade, sourcing direct from coffee growers and paying way above even the Fairtrade premium, securing the harvest and encouraging farmers to stay on their plantations because it becomes economically viable for them to do so.

“Again, it’s the importance of being able to tell the story of where our coffee comes from and be confident telling people that. It’s very important in this day and age that we work ethically; there is increased awareness and we have a choice.”

There are two 3FE coffee options on the hopper in Wilde & Co.

“’Malarkey’ is a blend of coffees from three different continents for a perfectly balance and special every day coffee. Then every week we have a different single origin coffee, something that appeals to the individual taste for our coffee connoisseurs.”

So when stopping into Wilde & Co for a sandwich, a slice of cake and perfectly crafted cup of coffee, you can be reminded of all the industry behind it: communities benefitting communities, whether they are across the road from each other, or on the opposite sides of the world. Sitting down to eat is a new form of activism!

Summer Opening: six days a week: Tuesday to Saturday for lunch, Sundays for coffee and cake.

Find on Facebook and Instagram: wildeandcoclonakilty.

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