Upstairs, in the bright, airy vaulted room that was a favourite haunt for nourishing and delicious food or to maybe enjoy a talk, an art exhibition or a mother and baby group, is now put to the new uses of office, staff and store room.
Rachel, Hannah and I are sat on the comfortable sofas next to a large window, framed by happy, large and unkempt looking houseplants.
Organico was created by their father, Alan, since passed, who visualised it as more of a social enterprise than a business in the traditional sense. After arriving to West Cork from Brighton, a shop was opened along with a Café 16 years ago. Since then, this space has hosted the funeral after-gathering for their mother, milestone birthday parties, engagement parties and many more celebrations for friends, family and community; and the loyal patrons, seasonal and year-round, who felt at home here.
These walls drip with memories, so many of them personal, that the decision to close Organico Café was a battle between the pragmatic head and the emotional heart.
While some small businesses were floored by the onset of Covid-19, Rachel and Hannah dusted themselves off, soldiered on and found the gifts of opportunity out of the ashes of the pandemic.
Rachel said: “It’s the weekend before we were told to close the café that really sticks out in my mind, when schools closed and the reality hit, (half our staff have kids).
“We were trying to make rosters work and spent the weekend trying to plan how we were going to communicate what we were going to do. But as the days unfolded, we couldn’t decide what to say because we couldn’t decide what we were doing and then suddenly it was taken out of our hands when we were told we had to close.”
Hannah said: “We knew it didn’t feel right to stay open. There was a Saturday where staff were too anxious, customers were too anxious and nobody was happy; nobody was enjoying the experience of being where they were, so we knew we needed to close the café. Almost immediately, we realised we needed the café space in order to keep the shop open, and we were very keen that we would because we realised that a lot of people would need us.
“We hit a stop in the café and then it was like a full-tilt Christmas week. It was overwhelming — we have never experienced anything like it. Shelves were being stripped — it was completely hectic.”
In the vacuum of information that existed in those early days, the sisters felt unsure whether they were over-reacting. There was a strong feeling of not wanting to let their staff down and wanting to support them as much as possible.
Rachel said: “One person was anxious about their grandparents, and another person was anxious about paying their rent. How do we deal with that?”
Hannah added: “There was no Covid payment at that stage either, so it was like kicking people onto the dole essentially. It was somewhat of a relief to have that decision taken out of our hands, really.”
The downstairs café space was immediately converted in a Goods Inwards section. Demand was huge: deliveries arrived at 6am with quantities of stock still be waiting to be processed by opening time.
Hannah said: “Our business literally switched overnight. We are fortunate to have a very good website and our online business went mad. Rachel went from rostering café staff to packing boxes to fulfil online orders. We had to restructure our whole system to cope with that.”
Rachel added: “Looking at Organico’s microcosm, we couldn’t know what was going to have a repercussion for something else — we didn’t know we would need the space until we needed the space, or if there was going to be supply issues with certain things: nobody would have guessed that flour was going to be the thing we would run out of!”
They say necessity is the mother of invention, and certainly for Hannah and Rachel, the early days of lockdown represented an opportunity to step back and reassess what it means to be an employer in a rural town.
Hannah said: “We restructured the working day, so we have an hour to set up in the morning and an hour to pack away in the evening. We close for an hour at lunchtime now too, we all sit together (socially distanced), and have lunch. It’s really lovely and a great support mechanism for our staff; we have more time to check in with people in the morning and eat together. The upper floor of the café has now in effect become our staff room.”
The sisters never doubted that they would close the shop — their perspective was that they were an essential service that should stay open. It was a move than meant job losses were kept to a minimum, from a height of 33 on the day the café closed, to 25 today.
Hannah said: “Many of the health food shops didn’t stay open, but we said: we’re essential, we’re staying open, tell us if you’re not happy coming to work and we’ll figure it out and make it as safe as we can. The extra business from online sales meant we were able to grasp things a lot firmer and run with them sooner than we might have done were it not for that.”
Staying open, even in the height of the pandemic, Organico remained at the centre of their community: reliable, responsive and ready to serve. The result is that the shop business has become more robust and resilient, which ultimately fuelled the decision not to reopen the café.
Rachel said: “We’ve had a super café for 16 years — we never dreamt of having a two-floor café. We had some great years: crazy summers and winters where we could catch our breath a little bit; but there was always that desire to change the system, and that’s what did in January.”
Organico was famed for its fresh salads and easy breezy counter service, making everything relaxed and informal. Rachel’s plan was to create more of a bistro vibe with dishes cooked to order and time taken over plating and presentation.
Rachel said: “It was always something I imagined would change things and re-engage me again; 16 years is a long time, and especially with a family business. We didn’t really ever go out to open a café, it was our dad’s thing and he just roped me in. From the very beginning it was a shared idea rather than my goal. We took it, ran with it and loved the buzz and demand grew.”
In January, the sisters launched their new café model. “People loved it,” says Rachel.
“We got to do new dishes on the menu and plate up beautifully; but, when I look back now, there was an element that got lost. We’d always been about visual vibrancy and suddenly everything is happening hidden away in the kitchen.”
Behind the scenes, the financial viability of the café was the elephant in the room. Rachel hoped changing things up at the café might be the panacea wanted, and needed, but the reality was that business was highly seasonal, the space was too big, and financially, it wasn’t making sense anymore. Covid gave a sense of perspective they never had before.
Rachel said: “I realised that it’s not about the number of hours you do in a job that takes the headspace, but for once I had this ridiculous amount of time that I wasn’t thinking about all the things associated with the café. It needs to be different — life is far too precious. Around the third week of lockdown, my husband said: “You’re here with me!” In the middle of all of this, I was able to connect with him. It was just so huge.
“You could say we would never have made this decision if it weren’t for Covid, but what is important is that we got to say: if it wasn’t working well as a business model when things were going well and we had no issues, to halve the customers, increase staff and do table service, it just wouldn’t have worked.
“When that entered my head, I saw the bigger picture and got a bit of perspective. I feel very strongly, and I hope, that everyone has done that for themselves too. If this kind of situation doesn’t make you step back, you’re mad! Just to look at it and say: yes I want it, grab it by both horns and run with it, or to say, this wasn’t what I wanted and I’m OK to let it go.”
Hannah said: “I do feel as though cafes are expendable: they come and go, and no-one really seems to care. A lot of café owners have put the business down for a while and realised that they don’t want to pick it back up again — that it was really heavy.”
For now, Hannah and Rachel have decided the café is too heavy to pick back up, but Organico will remain a pillar of the Bantry community through the shop and Zero Waste refill market. Their bakery will continue to make bread and, after joining the Neighbourfood revolution just ahead of lockdown, continue for as long as demand remains. Effort will be directed to the newly found success of their online shop and initiatives such as their Working From Home care kits. On the personal side, both sisters are looking forward to having more time to spend with their families, enjoying West Cork this summer and relishing the prospect of a sparse looking diary.
Rachel said: “There have been a solid 16 years of history-making at Organico. I don’t feel like we’ve let it go — it’s more like it’s evolving. Our priorities now are to not overstretch ourselves; do what we do really well, support our staff, support our customers and get it all right.”