We’re embracing change post-Covid, say Cork cafe owners

In a two-part WOW! series, Kate Ryan talks to Cork cafe owners, who have decided to change the direction of their business, having reassessed life during the pandemic
We’re embracing change post-Covid, say Cork cafe owners
Tessa Perry, of Glebe Gardens, The East Village, Baltimore, Co Cork. Picture: Emma Jervis Photography

PRE-COVID, life was a million miles an hour for us all. Lockdown pressed a collective pause button, creating the luxury of time and headspace to take stock of life.

It enabled us to bravely question whether, when life eventually returns to normal, we just simply pick up where we left of, or is this a time to embrace significant and fundamental change?

For the Perry Sisters, who built and ran the hugely popular Glebe Gardens and Café in Baltimore, West Cork, alongside their parents, Jean and Peter, the lockdown provided an opportunity to reassess their love for the café, and discover a new-found appreciation for their market garden.

The result was a joint family announcement that Glebe Café would not reopen, and the focus shifted to growing food for their local community — something that was always at the heart of what Glebe was all about.

“We were thinking of downsizing anyway,” Tessa says, as we sit, socially distanced, and following an elbow bump as a poor replacement for a hug. We’re sipping strong coffee in the courtyard under a blazing hot sun, and I am reminded of all the times I have done this before, enjoying this space and the warm hospitality that exudes from the Perry family.

“We were open weekends prior to the lockdown and expecting to continue doing weekends rather than a full week that would have been our summer norm. We weren’t too sure how to do it, and knew we would be met with resistance because we have this beautiful space so why wouldn’t we be open all of the time?

“But people don’t understand, unless you have worked in this industry, how relentless it is.

“We were just getting our heads around doing weekends and maybe a couple of nights, solely for the purpose of keeping staff costs down, and something that possibly myself and my sister, Kez who runs front of house, could have done. But then Covid hit and we knew this was going to be a game-changer.

“For the first few weeks we were just trying to keep the family safe, rolling with the punches; and then the sun shone for a long time and I was taking the kids to the beach, I had my first ever Easter and Mother’s Day with my kids, got breakfast in bed on a Sunday — the first Sunday I’ve had with my family forever and ever. It was huge for me.

“It was forced upon us that we had to take this time off, but then I realised: what the hell are we doing? My kids are four and seven, Kez has an eight and six year old; we just got time to relax and really reflect on what we could be doing, what we should be doing and what we were missing out on the whole time.”

In 2018, the sisters took over the old Good Things premises in Skibbereen in the hope that it would provide the year-round business they needed to take pressure off the hyper-seasonality of the Baltimore trade. The venture lasted a year, they were unable to deliver the impact they were hoping for, and refocused back on Baltimore café in 2019. But the stress and strain of the business on the whole family, and the influx of visitors into what is, essentially, the family home, was beginning to show.

“Skibbereen not working out was a bit of a kick in the teeth. We were trying so hard to make everything work as a business and a family home.

“In the summer, we have an additional 20 more people, other than the family, to run it because of the gigs we host and the sheer quantity of people that come through the gates.

The Perry Sisters of Glebe Gardens, Baltimore, West Cork.
The Perry Sisters of Glebe Gardens, Baltimore, West Cork.

“But I found that quantity wasn’t really equating to quality, so we were losing the whole nut of the idea that we started with and moving further and further away from it.

“The reason we opened in the first place was to make it somewhere the community could come, and it just became a monster. I’d work 16 hour days just to ensure we weren’t demanding too much of our staff, and then at the end of three months’ work I’m paying holiday pay to everyone but can’t afford to go on holiday myself.

“Aside from this, mum and dad are getting older and the garden is such an integral part of what we do. It was part of the reason why we went to a three-day week because I have to learn all of this vast gardening knowledge they have if we’re to keep what we think is the most essential part of this business going.”

On Mother’s Day in March, at the tip of the lockdown period, Tessa posted a heartfelt message about her mum, Jean, head gardener and keeper of the Glebe’s horticultural ethos. What Tessa realised was, “when something apocalyptic happens, like Covid, you understand how so very important all of that knowledge is.”

Being able to grow and produce your own food is the surest way possible to not only survive but thrive.

“When it comes to fine dining, we all love a treat and appreciate it, but no-one needs fine dining!

“Our family created Glebe on a shoestring; we’ve never had copious amounts of money, we just got by and that has always been enough for us.

“But we got on the restaurant treadmill and thought we just had to get bigger and more and more to keep up with, what... I don’t even know, we just thought we had to keep getting bigger, and just lost track of ourselves a bit.

“That was part of the shift: going back to our original market gardening roots.

“Covid really ripped the rug out from under us for a while, but it allowed us to realise the important things about this place, and how lucky we are to have these choices.

“We are still desperate to share Glebe in some way, but in the past few years we’ve taken it all for granted.

“Now, we will grow and sell our seasonal produce to local people through food boxes, along with a small selection of fresh bread and pastries from the bakery.

“We have chickens too, so we can supply eggs and we’ll get back into keeping goats for milk. We want to make it sustainable for our family, and then whatever else we can sell to the community.”

After 15 years as a place of hospitality, Glebe is going right back to its roots, as a beacon for the local community. The gardens will be open a few days a week, and if the coffee machine is on when you visit, that signature welcome will be on hand with a stimulating cup of caffeination as ever before.

But instead, the family are keen to reposition Glebe Gardens as a venue: as a market garden, for hosting gardening and cookery classes; as a boutique wedding specialist and, as the mood may take them, the occasional supper club for a small group of 20 diners, creating menus inspired only and directly from the seasonal bounty of the gardens: picked, washed and put on the plate.

“We’re so lucky for the foresight of my parents who bought Glebe in the first place and taking extraordinary risks, moving here when they were in their forties and buying a field with nothing on it, just some cows. It was a really bold move.

“I’m determined to keep the garden productive year-round and sell as locally as possible. I’m aware I’m talking from a place of such ridiculous privilege: we’re not forced to open the café again just for getting bums on seats, we have the luxury of a bit of space and time and our needs are small, thank god.”

The bigger picture hope for Tessa is two-fold. Firstly, a desire to see small businesses better supported and recognised for their contribution, not just as a business, but as a gravitating force for good in small communities the length and breadth of the country.

“Secondly, that the prevailing culture of economics can change.

“As a rural business, we can’t rely on a high level of consistent footfall; and the daytime café business runs on miniscule margins, custom is unpredictable, the season is short and a large staff needed to run it all.

“It’s a young person’s game. Kez and I both have young families and we’re juggling at the best of times. Yet every year it just keeps getting harder and harder.

“We knew these drastic changes had to happen, then Covid came along and we were forced to call it. After the first two weeks of being closed, we knew it would be so hard to get back up and start doing it all over again.

“I know we don’t need much, but the philosophy of unending growth just doesn’t work, especially for a small business. We could feel the cracks and couldn’t push any harder than we were pushing, so it’s like a dam giving way and just a release of pressure.”

The problem with a place like the Café at Glebe closing is that, because it specialises in a particular type of welcome that makes you feel instantly at home and part of the Perry family, it is difficult to say goodbye.

“People were sad to hear we were closing, and there is a sadness because I love sharing this place with people.

“Eventually, we will find a way to do that again in some way, but in a way that doesn’t impact us so physically and emotionally, and I just hope people will understand it will just have to do for a while. Glebe on our own terms, which is just a joy.”

To keep up on Glebe’s adventures in the weeks and months ahead, see www.glebegardens.com

Next week, Kate talks to Rachel and Hannah Dare of Organico in Bantry about closing their café and refocusing on their retail business.

I had my first ever Easter and Mother’s Day with my kids, got breakfast in bed on a Sunday — the first Sunday I’ve had with my family forever and ever. It was huge for me.

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