Cork cafe is at the heart of the community

In a new series ‘Cork’s Café Culture’ KATE RYAN talks to some of the city and county's newest café owners and discovers creating a sense of community is just as important as serving up good food.
Cork cafe is at the heart of the community

NEW BEGINNINGS: Barbara Nealon and her husband John outside St Francis Provisions in Kinsale .

ON Short Quay in Kinsale is a café inspired by the creativity of San Francisco.

St Francis Provisions is the endeavour of Barbara Nealon, a native of Co Clare, and her husband John, hailing from Northamptonshire in the UK.

Ostensibly, it is a place to go for a plate of delicious food made from the best of what is around them, a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. For all the world, a café.

But in Barbara and John’s hands, it is much more than that. It is the start of a community — where food and openness is the magnetising force bringing and keeping it all together.

Sitting down with Barbara on the high stools at the counter, Fleetwood Mac is playing on the record player in the corner, and the sun is streaming through the open windows. Kinsale is buzzing with summer crowds, and even though I have arrived towards the end of service, there is still an ebb and flow of people popping in: for a cup of tea, or just to say ‘Hi’.

The team behind the counter, even after a long and busy shift, are still beaming from ear to ear and seem genuinely delighted to be working there. There is no pretence, no stuffiness, just a place that welcomes you in and allows you to just sit and be, or chat and animate.

St Francis, a direct translation of San Francisco, is where Barbara and John lived for eight and 12 years respectively, had three children, now aged nine, six and four years old, and set up a sausage making business (more on that later!). Eventually, the clarion call to head back home came.

“We wanted to move back to Ireland, but I knew I didn’t want to move back to Dublin after living there for 10 years previously,” said Barbara. “I thought we should go somewhere that would be new to both of us, and starting thinking about Cork city.

“Initially, we thought John needed a city for his work (a project manager for commercial construction projects) and I was attracted to Cork because I knew about the food scene. That and I always really loved anyone I’d ever met from Cork!”

That was just over a year ago.

“When we moved to Kinsale, we had no plan. I thought I would take a year off to get the lay of the land and decide what to do; even turning down a couple of things because I wanted to take time. I was enjoying life.

“In the middle of it all, my mum got very sick and she passed away. I was looking after her pretty much from the moment we got back. She was in hospital in Limerick and was diagnosed with dementia. Eventually, I brought her to Kinsale to live with us at the end of September, and she passed away in November. She went into crisis, I think she felt that she knew I was back and she could just go.”

During this time, while taking care of her mum and learning to cope with the cruelty of dementia — and adapting to being in a new place in a new country with three young children — Barbara noticed a handwritten sign in a window: ‘Café for Let’.

“I took a picture of the sign and did nothing. Then a few days later, I came across it on my phone and sent it to John. He said I should email them. I did but got an email back saying someone else had already taken on the lease.

“I was fine with it — I’ve always believed what’s for you won’t pass you. Three weeks later they got in touch and said that lease had fallen through and were we still interested. So we came to see it, and kinda knew, that gut feeling came back to us. In that three weeks, John had realised his job didn’t translate as easily back here as he had hoped. He was being offered work, but he would have to spend a lot of time travelling and be in Dublin, and that wasn’t why we moved — we moved for a better quality of life. So he said, ‘I’ll do it with you, we’ll renovate it together and I’ll be what you need’.

“After running my business in San Francisco, I knew I absolutely would never go into business again on my own. I need someone who’s good at the things I’m not good at. Because the things you’re not good at will take all your energy, and then you don’t get to focus on the things you excel at, give you joy and motivate you to keep going.”

St Francis Provisions, on Short Quay, Kinsale.
St Francis Provisions, on Short Quay, Kinsale.

Barbara attended Art School in Dublin, but always found herself working in food. From the age of 16, she worked part time jobs in anything she could with food: restaurants and farmers’ markets. But it was a stint working with a food stylist where the connection between food and creativity really began to flourish. “I just ended up really falling in love with food — more so the people. I was still working as an artist and in restaurants and I decided, I’m just gonna for it, a career in food. It’s the people, the energy, the heart and soul the realness of it that I just love.

“The farmers’ markets really opened my eyes. It was so different to working in restaurants. I was meeting the makers and producers, and that’s a different thing to chefs and restaurateurs. It’s where our motto ‘Hand Made with Guts’ comes from — there’s a magic in the kind of person who creates something out of the grass or the soil, who raises something up out of the ground. That’s what producers do. It’s the growers and cheese makers and bakers, even the people who mill the flour, they’re the people who just are magical. They have courage — it takes a lot of courage to do what they do.”

The respect Barbara has for producers is palpable. It was this hunt for the magical makers of San Francisco that shaped her future path back to Kinsale and St Francis Provisions.

“The neighbourhood we lived in was full of wineries and breweries and it was the real guts of the city, where everything was made. People were afraid to go there, but actually that was where all the interesting things were happening, and there was this great sense of community and camaraderie — and cross pollination of ideas and creativity.

“In San Francisco, I worked for a company called Bi Rite and their motto was ‘Creating Community Through Food’, I just think that’s bang on: food creates community and brings people together who normally might not come together.”

Barbara is a walking, talking melting pot of inspirations and creativity; and a natural advocate for the alternative way of doing things. Her strong ethos of her café being the heart of a community — a conduit for connectivity, constantly refers back to the communities of makers, producers and creative people she has immersed herself in.

On a more fundamental level, she can speak from personal experience how something so simple as a cup of coffee and a kind word can be life-saving and life-affirming.

“When I moved to a new neighbourhood in San Francisco, I was pregnant with my second baby, my first child was in pre-school and I didn’t know anyone. My one thing that I did was visit this tiny hole in the wall, very cool coffee shop, called Trouble. I used to go there every day and have my coffee with one shot and cinnamon toast, and it really saved me some days because I had no-one to talk to, I didn’t know that many people and it was my conversation.

“I got to know the baristas, they had a record player and I’d bring them down some vinyl and we’d chat and get to know them. It meant I always knew that I could get out of the house and have a place to go to. That’s what I think places like St Francis Provisions are.

“We will always give people the time of day — we don’t just serve you and you go, that’s not how we do it here. For some people, coming in here and ordering a coffee might be the only conversation that person will have, and you need to make eye contact and engage with people, say ‘Hi’, ask them how their day is going, are they doing anything nice later.

“If they don’t wanna talk, they don’t wanna talk, but if they do then they have someone they can chat to. It could be a lifeline to them.”

As well as Handmade with Guts being a reference to Barbara’s respect for the courageousness and magician-like qualities of the makers, it also has an alliterative meaning. While in San Francisco, she started a sausage making factory!

“The whole sausage thing came about because, honestly, I really missed sausages! A proper Cumberland pork sausage with white pepper and sage. I started developing a recipe, learning about sausage making and teaching myself, but it took me ages to get consistency and to really learn the science of making sausage. It ran for about two years: a year underground and in earnest properly for a year.

“I knew someone who made wine in her garage, she opened a wine bar and got me to come and do pop up events. Another friend had a brewery, so I used to go and make sausage there and cook it. There was a lot of breweries and street fairs and pop ups, and I also had a number of private customers too. It was wonderful, a totally different product for people and they loved it!

“Handmade with Guts came about one day while I was cleaning out intestines. I remember thinking how they were so beautiful — when cleaned they look so silky and lovely. I was thinking about gut feelings and trusting your gut; eventually I came to Handmade with Guts, and I thought, that’s it! And I’ve always kept it because I’ve always felt that there’s something about the makers that takes a lot of guts to do what they do.”

Barbara describes St Francis Provisions as a café that draws on the community around it as the inspiration for its menu: driven by produce and feelings, food that has heart and soul in it.

“It’s simple food, it’s not complicated: grilled cheese sandwiches and soup, but it has great produce in it.”

Soon, Darren Kennedy, a chef returning home to Ireland after a stint working in London, will be taking the helm in the kitchen at which point St Francis Provisions will open, three nights a week as well as their usual café hours during the week and weekend brunch offering.

“Opening evenings is where I feel our wine programme will come into play,” says Barbara. “We are working with La Caveau wine merchants, and we’ll be offering a small plates menu with a focus on Irish charcuterie. There is definitely a meeting of minds between Darren and I where food is concerned, and I’m really excited about him joining us.

“This whole project is huge for me, and the fact that people come in and eat our food and enjoy it is just amazing. It’s an absolute privilege to be able to cook for people, and that they want to participate in this thing that we’re doing!

“Kinsale is a very inspiring and supportive community. No-one questions why you’re doing something — everyone’s like ‘Right on, go for it, awesome idea! Why wouldn’t you do it?’ It’s a very Californian attitude!

“In San Francisco, the people I met had this amazing sense of what’s possible, even in a tiny space you can create a magical experience for someone. Like that little coffee shop I went to every day — it changed my life.”

Spaces and people and energy and joy — that’s what St Francis Provisions is all about.

Open six days a week Tuesday to Sunday. Find them on Facebook and Instagram.

Next week: Wilde & Co, Clonakilty.

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