'It's not the same as it was': Trade is back but Cork businesses face tests

Cork has been injected with life again, with bustling restaurants, busy nightclubs, sold-out gigs and shoppers supporting local. Breda Graham chats to business owners following two years of uncertain prospects.
'It's not the same as it was': Trade is back but Cork businesses face tests

Wyon Stansfeld, of Pinocchio's Toys and Gifts, open with traditional board games etc., during current crisis, at Pinocchio's Toys and Gifts, Paul Street, Cork. Picture: Jim Coughlan

BUSINESS owners, retailers, restaurateurs, publicans, and musicians have enjoyed a return to normality after two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, and while life has certainly returned to the city centre, some say it will be months before they fully recover.

Wyon Stansfeld, co-owner of Pinocchio’s Toys and Gifts alongside his wife Christel, said they have definitely noticed an increase in sales since the lifting of restrictions.

He said that online sales have slowed but that they are “still ticking away” and overall sales are up.

“Last year, the stay-at-home tourists were fantastic for many businesses as they have no luggage limits and so many businesses including ourselves found themselves with new customers who had not come across them before. We also had a lot of people who had bought online visiting us for the first time which was lovely.

“People are really happy to be able to shop in person, particularly in a shop like ours where we are defined by the service we give and although we try to offer as good a service online as possible it can never be the same.

Wyon Stansfeld, co-owner, Pinocchios Toys & Gifts, Paul St., Cork, with a traditional spinning top which is one of the long term favourite toys. Picture Denis Minihane.
Wyon Stansfeld, co-owner, Pinocchios Toys & Gifts, Paul St., Cork, with a traditional spinning top which is one of the long term favourite toys. Picture Denis Minihane.

“For one thing, we have about 1,200 different items online, we have approximately 2,000 in the shop. Again this makes the online shoppers who have not been in the shop before really happy to be here,” he said.

Mr Stansfeld said that he also notices an increase in people supporting local since the pandemic.

“I think people are generally trying hard to support smaller local businesses, Brexit has helped this, it’s the only positive of it. For us I think people have realised what an important part of the city small independent retail is, we are unique to Cork.

“The city centre still struggles because of the perception that it’s difficult to park, it’s expensive to park, traffic and so on. Sometimes, City Council fails to recognise that customers coming to the city are not within cycling distance and not on bus routes, a car is for three-quarters of our customers particularly, the only way of visiting the city.

“There’s a lot of emphasis on the new offices but they are of no relevance, they come to work, they go home. New places to live is what the city needs,” he said.

He said that the recent warm weather has made “an enormous difference to people’s happiness” and that in Cork’s case the outdoor dining has added hugely to the buzz.

Owner of The Castle Inn in Cork city Michael O’Donovan said that it has been “a mixed bag” in terms of recovery following the pandemic.

“Those who have invested in their outdoor offering have seen an increase in their customers with the fine weather but some that don’t have it lose out on that.

Michael O'Donovan with the fireside feature in The Castle Inn on South Main street. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Michael O'Donovan with the fireside feature in The Castle Inn on South Main street. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

“The first couple of months we were open there was a huge uptake and pent-up demand but the worrying aspect is since we’ve been open the Covid level is rising again and especially the older population they are still very nervous so business in the last three or four weeks has taken a dip.

“Some companies are probably telling people if they’re going out to be careful and some people are thinking about the Covid levels rising and they don’t want to be out of work so there has been a bit of levelling off,” he said.

He said that people under the age of 30 seem to be going out and enjoying themselves whereas people over the age of 30 still have a certain amount of nervousness about it, which he said has a knock-on effect on the hospitality sector.

Steven Hackett of Nana’s on Douglas Street agreed that some people are still nervous about going out.

“Some people are still nervous and that’s their own personal choice. You still have people wearing masks around the place who might have health conditions and need to mind themselves for example but it’s good to see people getting on with life.

“It’s different, it’s not the same as it was. People are more cautious, people are drinking differently too and at different times and people have changed their ways. Covid certainly changed a lot,” he said.

He said that he and his staff love being back to work and back to normal but said that the worst thing about reopening was the bills that came with it.

“The worst thing about it when you reopen was all the bills that start coming in straight away but bills have to be paid and you pay them.”

He said that the Government supports definitely helped them through and that without it there would have been a lot of establishments closed.

“Everything is going up, including electrical, suppliers, and we have to go with it. I didn’t put up my prices but when the time comes I will have to put them up accordingly because you have to keep your margins, otherwise you’re running a business at a loss and inevitably you end up closing down. My priority is paying the bills, paying the staff, and keeping the doors open as long as we can,” he said.

Joan Lucey, of Vibes and Scribes, said that since reopening, the bookstore has been quite busy with tourists in particular and the craft shop has seen many through the doors on Bridge Street and many making orders online.

“We’re definitely still selling a good bit more online so the shops are quieter than they used to be in 2019 but it’s hard to judge yet because now with the summer and the weather is fine, it’s very hard to make a judgement of how it’s going to be for the autumn. For instance, when the sun is gone the shop is full of people.

Joan Lucey Vibes and Scribes
Joan Lucey Vibes and Scribes

“There’s no doubt that customers are happy to be back. We see that in the craft shop. Some crafters have learned to buy online too and we’re quite happy with that. So there definitely is a change but we’re not totally back to normal either. We used to do a lot of demonstrations and workshops so we haven’t started those yet but we will start them again in September but again, if Covid goes rampant again we won’t be able to.”

Ms Lucey said that some customers are still wearing masks, as are some staff members, but she said people are more relaxed and, with the fine weather, people are in better form and more buoyant.

“Our products, our business is really leisure for people. People aren’t coming to the bookshop because they have to buy a book or they’re not coming to the craft shop because they have to buy a ball of wool or a paintbrush, they come in because it’s their interest. People want to come to us, it is their break and we love seeing people coming back in the door,” she said.

Owner of the SpitJack restaurant, Richard Gavin said that there was a huge pent-up demand coming out of the first lockdown to the point where they would not always be able to keep up with the demand due to the staffing issues in the sector.

He said that now it is hard to know what the footfall is like but that the demand “is huge”.

“If you try to get a table for dinner in Cork at the minute any night of the week, it’s not easy and again it’s going back to the staff crisis situation, there’s a lot of our competitors who have not reopened to their full trading hours.

“As a whole, I think there was a huge pent-up demand initially. Travel restrictions meant that a lot of people were staying in the country so now that travel has freed up we can see business reduce slightly especially with the next challenge in terms of the inflation rate and rising costs.

“Going to a restaurant like the SpitJack — If your disposable income is being eaten away at dinner on a Friday or Saturday night is probably going to be the first thing you’re going to have to sacrifice.

“We’re certainly going to see things drop down but right now, tourism is back in the country and we’re certainly seeing a very strong recovery in Cork and business in Cork is really strong.

“I think as a whole we’re going to see footfall and demand for dining out reduce because of inflation but then there’s going to be less operators and less trading hours in the industry. I think those who stay trading probably won’t see a huge drop off but winter will be a challenge because everyone is going to be cautious with the price of energy rising as well.”

Mr Gavin said the price of energy has “absolutely skyrocketed” and that there needs to be some control put on the cost of living situation in order to survive.

“If it keeps going in the way that it’s going it’s going to put huge pressure on businesses. Restaurants tend to be big energy users in terms of all the kitchen equipment, all the fridges, and in the front of house, the air conditioning and heating in winter. We need energy and if it doesn’t start to at least plateau it’s going to put a huge strain on the industry.”

Noreen Gannon of Gallaghers said that while they’ve been busy, there is a difference in the number of tourists compared to 2018 and 2019.

“There are tourists and it’s great to have them back again but it’s not at the same level at all I find.

“The locals are back out dining again but their habits have changed in that people don’t tend to stay out late anymore.

 Noreen Gannon. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Noreen Gannon. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

“People are booking for dinner earlier and finishing and going home earlier and some people are still a bit cautious and rightly so but it’s great to be open, it’s fantastic to be back.”

She said that there is “another six to eight months recovering” to get back to where they were before the pandemic, with Gallaghers currently going through a rebrand which she said will hopefully attract new customers.

The rebrand, which has been planned for the last number of months, will include the launch of a new menu, including cocktails, and more outdoor and indoor seating.

“We found that people were out enjoying themselves and we saw people wanting nice food and cocktails so we have a very good cocktail business now as a result of our experience from Covid.

“Food trends are changing too and we’ll be launching a new menu in the next few weeks as well. Our poor head chef, every time we tried to do it we got locked down so he never got his chance to put his own stamp completely on it.”

Speaking about the return of live gigs, singer-songwriter Roy Buckley, who frequents Costigan’s and Murphy’s Rock, said that a huge weight has been lifted for many of the entertainers of Ireland since restrictions were lifted.

“Cork has a very eclectic music scene, full of gifted musicians and singers covering all genres of music. It’s really something special.

Roy Buckley Cork singer
Roy Buckley Cork singer

“I’ve been around many of the great live music venues over the past few months both playing and watching gigs by super talented Cork artists and it has reinforced and reassured me that nothing beats the atmosphere created between the music lovers in attendance and the performers on stage. It’s just magic.

“It’s like it has made everybody realise what we were all missing. Ireland has always been known for its incredible music, great atmosphere and having the craic… the pubs, clubs, theatres and stadiums have been rocking in recent times.”

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