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Cork Lives
All of the O'Brien siblings, from left, Declan, David, JohnBrien, head baker Catriona Wholihan and Aiden. 
All of the O'Brien siblings, from left, Declan, David, JohnBrien, head baker Catriona Wholihan and Aiden. 

Quirkiness is our cafe selling point

WHEN the O’Brien family set their hearts on opening a coffee shop, they had an unusual aim.

“We wanted to open the quirkiest place in Cork,” recalls Dave, who owns and runs The Workshop in Ballygarvan with Aiden, his big brother.

They certainly achieved that aim!

The brothers decided to convert their father Ray’s old carpentry workshop into something new and the coffee shop and tea room in a beautiful setting opened five years ago. Each nook and cranny has a treasure trove of idiosyncratic, unusual and vintage artefacts.

“We recycled everything we could,” says Aiden, who has over 20 years experience with antique auctions. “And we restored a lot of the old furniture.

“Dad, who passed away three years ago, semi-retired when he got cancer,” adds Aiden.

“He was a builder, a fine, big strong man who loved to drive a combine harvester during his holidays.

“He gave us a great help in getting the cafe up and running and he’d be very proud today to see the success we have made of it, thanks to all our patrons, many of whom have become our good friends.”

The business is a real family affair. Their mum, Teresa, lives next door, where she was born, and their sister, Catríona, bakes the cakes fresh every day.

Plane spotters who gather at Lios Cross to enjoy their hobby and stop by for a tea or a coffee are amazed to see the bi-plane model aeroplane used for re-shoots for the 1966 movie, The Blue Max, starring George Peppard.

There is also an original sweet counter from a sweet-shop on the Kinsale Road. The weighing scales that measured out the mixtures of sweets sits proudly atop it.

“We have the old telegraph pole used by dad’s double All-Ireland winning tug of war team that they used for practice sessions,” says Aidan. “And the pram parked at the front door raised all five of us siblings.”

Where did the idea of opening such a quirky cafe originate?

“We wanted to open something very different,” says Dave, who is 15 years younger than his brother Aiden. “Something more than a coffee shop. And we didn’t want a garden centre with a coffee shop. “

Dave is creative like his dad and his older brother.

“I helped dad restore old furniture to sell,” says Dave. “The workshop building had potential and when I did a business course with Enterprise Ireland, covering all elements like accounts, building up contacts, etc, and then got great advice about social media; we were good to go.

“We soon had 12,000 followers on Facebook. Our regular customers increased.”

It was a career change for both Aiden and Dave.

“I had worked in sales and recruitment in Toronto,” says Dave. “It was time for a change. Dad helped us out with the physical work. We did everything on a shoe-string. The rest of the family and our relatives rowed in too.

“John and Declan, our brothers, were a great help in getting us up and running. Our cousins, Edie and Pat, who both work full time, volunteered to help us. They cleaned and tidied.”

And other people?

“Other people thought we were nuts!” says Dave.

“Our idea was to mix the nostalgic with something new.”

There is a huge collection of china in the cafe.

“When we serve afternoon tea in the parlour, we only use china,” says Dave. “We want to make it as nice as possible. Lot of people donated china, which was lovely.”

Soothing music lulls you back in time, reminding you of blasts from the past. “We encourage our customers to bring in their own favourite LPs,” says Aidan. “We play them on the record-player, again, it is all about the whole experience of The Workshop.”

Large regency double doors that lead into the parlour-cum-curiosity shop came from an old bank building in O’Connell Street, Dublin. The glass and harp handles came from a renowned antique collector in Fermoy. If you visit the smallest room in the house, you’ll see one of the first cisterns and a Transylvanian Gothic mirror.

Like a curiosity shop that’s been around for decades, the odds and ends adorning the cafe often defy categorisation, but each piece has its own story to tell.

“The table and chairs we are seated at here are 100 years old,” says Dave, pointing out the carved inlay on the head-rests. “They last forever.”

Did brotherly love last throughout the duration of the project?

Aidan and Dave exchange knowing looks and laugh.

“We adapted together,” says Aidan. “When Dave was five, I used to bring him to auctions. The Workshop Cafe is the common denominator between us.”

What does their mother think?

“She was fascinated by it all,” says Aiden. “At first she couldn’t understand the concept. The day we opened, she was amazed, wondering where it all came from and how it came together. She loves having a coffee here — a one shot latte.”

The Workshop customers are a cosmopolitan bunch.

“We had a lady come in from Mumbai. She heard about us on Facebook,” says Aiden. “A honeymoon couple got off their plane and came straight here. You can spot our galvanised roof from the air if you fly in from London. Word of mouth spreads the good news.”

The good includes the delicious home-baked goodies, home-made brownies, brown bread, as well as the delicious wholesome soup and crunchy salads.

“Our customers told others about the cafe and business is brisk. It’s great,” adds Aiden.

“We love getting to know our customers and their families, offering them a friendly place to come and relax, browse and enjoy a coffee or lunch.”

Is there anything the brothers don’t like about their business?

“The long hours!” they say in unison.

But they love it.

“Dad was obsessed with this place,” says Aiden. “He was glad we made an unusual use out of it. He was an entrepreneur himself, so was our grandfather, a farmer.

“I love the garden and creating ambience and good energy flow in the lovely space and surroundings that we have.”

Another quirky aspect of the venue is the prize-winning chickens out the back.

“They are a great novelty, especially for the children,” says Aidan. “The rosettes you see around the cafe adorning various objects were won by them at shows.”

The chickens are primed and preened to be paraded

“All washed and blow-dried!” says Aidan, laughing, who then adds: ““Pat is our chicken whisperer. He gets them ready for the shows, looking their best.”

There are other potential entrepreneurs in the talented family.

“Our nephew, Eoin, made a toy farm for his Transition Year project,” says Dave. “It is in the garden and the kids who come here love playing with it. They love the outdoors here and the freedom of it.”

Aiden adds: “We love the cosmopolitan and inclusive trend. People come here to relax, to read their books, to meet friends, or even just for a browse. They always enjoy the experience.”

And the gooey, most chocolaty brownie I ever tasted? They must be very popular?

“They sure are,” says Dave as he goes off to feed his prize-winning coiffured chickens.

The Workshop Cafe is open Tuesday-Sunday until 5.30pm