West Cork business women find silver linings in a difficult year

Network Ireland West Cork put the spotlight on innovative women at their recent annual awards. We caught up with some of the winners and heard their stories
West Cork business women find silver linings in a difficult year

The Network Ireland West Cork Business Women of the Year Award Winners and Highly Commended Contestants at Bantry House for the Awards Reception. Picture: Anne Minihane

Tara Copplestone, Foxglove Cocktails, received the Emerging Business Award

WHEN Tara Copplestone left her New York apartment in March, 2020, for a visit to her native Cork she left behind food in her fridge — that’s how convinced she was that she’d be back after two weeks.

The pandemic was beginning to hit hard in the U.S city, businesses were closing, and as a bar manager, she figured she’d avail of the chance to get home and see her family.

Never in a million years did she plan to stay here and set up her own business, but that’s exactly what she did during lockdown, when she started making cocktail mixers from her kitchen table.

She’s now about to mark the first anniversary of Foxglove Cocktails, and for someone who never had a plan and admits she was just taking a punt, it’s worked out pretty well!

The 32-year-old grew up in Cork city, studied law in UCC, then did a masters in Public Relations in DIT.

Tara was actually born in New York City and has family ties to the city so heading back there aged 25 was a natural move.

“I lived my best life ever there. It’s a city where you work hard and you play hard. Monday to Thursday you keep your head down but on Friday you live the high life which you’ve worked for. Nothing is handed to you on a plate there,” she said.

Tara spent four great years working with Pernod Ricard as a marking manager sales rep, and another two years managing a bar in Manhattan, which is what she was doing when Covid hit.

Tara Copplestone of Foxglove Cocktails, winner of the Network Ireland West Cork Business Woman of the Year Emerging New Business Award.
Tara Copplestone of Foxglove Cocktails, winner of the Network Ireland West Cork Business Woman of the Year Emerging New Business Award.

“I remember the weekend in March when everything was shutting down. It was a Saturday night and normally we’d be crowded until 4am, but not one soul came through the door after 11.30pm and that’s when we knew it was the start of something scary.”

Within 12 hours of shutting the bar, she left to come home, and when she landed in Cork her dad told her straight out to forget any thoughts of it being a two-week visit.

“But pretty soon I realised I was exactly where I wanted to be,” she said. 

That was Baltimore, where her parents had a second home and where she spent lockdown with one of her two younger brothers, 23-year-old Rory, who studies hotel management in Shannon.

Tara admits after the first six weeks she struggled a bit with doing nothing.

“I started looking at some empty shop fronts and thought about opening a coffee shop. Then I realised I had no experience and had no idea where to start.

“At the same time, Rory and I were making cocktails for ourselves, and friends and people said they were surprised how good they were and sid we should consider selling them. I knew bars in New York were selling cocktails ‘to go’ but we figured if we just sold the mixtures, without alcohol we could sell them anywhere.”

So this time last year they tested the waters and started selling their additive and preservative free mixers in Skibbereen market.

“We only got the go ahead the day before to sell there, and I remember texting friends that night at 11pm looking for lemons as we had run out! I was a basket of nerves as we didn’t know what to expect but we sold out by 11am.”

Tara has a lot of bar experience, having worked in Electric, Sober Lane as well as Scoozis in the city centre. Her job as bar manager in New York also required her to bartender.

“My comfort zone is behind a bar,” she said, and with Rory’s talent for flavours the pair were a perfect match, devising unique combinations such as vanilla and passion fruit, grapefruit and rosemary, and blackberry and ginger.

They strive to use as many locally sourced West Cork ingredients as possible, and also grow their own seasonal ingredients like mint rhubarb, rosemary, basil and lavender.

They had a really busy summer, and when September came, the siblings, who have a strong friendship despite the age gap, found themselves at a bit of a crossroads.

“We could have packed it in but we went for it,” said Tara, and they worked to develop other markets, and their website. As well as Skibbereen, they now sell at MahonPoint and Schull markets, supply NeighbourFoods, and will soon be in six SuperValu outlets. They sell online and provide a click and collect service on Lancaster Quay and deliver within 10km of Cork city. While they’re still a super tight team of two, they have graduated from their kitchen table to a commercial kitchen in Baltimore.

Tara said she’s been blown away by the support from Network West Cork.

“After being in the states where that sense of community can be lacking, it’s been great.”

Working in New York teaches people a strong work ethic, but running her own business has released a level of energy and dedication Tara never knew she had. “The kind that pulls you from your bed on a Sunday morning at 7am to attend a market!” she said.

“The business was never in my head when I came home, and I had no intention to stay here, but I got on to a good thing and the silver lining of the past year has been Foxglove coming into my life. It’s been so good to be able to create what I love doing, in a place I love, with a person I love. There’s nothing greater.

“This has been a hard year for everyone, and I think Foxglove puts a smile on people’s faces, I’m just glad to help spread some happiness.”

Nollaig Hurley of Jelly Fish Surf Shop, winner of the Established Business Owner Award, with Network Ireland West Cork President Katherine 0'Sullivan, Vice President and Awards Co-Ordinator Marie Wiseman, Sheila McCarthy, AIB - Official Partner of Network Ireland, Keynote Speaker Louise O'Neill at Bantry House for the 2021 Network Ireland West Cork Business Women of the Year Awards Reception. Picture: Anne Minihane
Nollaig Hurley of Jelly Fish Surf Shop, winner of the Established Business Owner Award, with Network Ireland West Cork President Katherine 0'Sullivan, Vice President and Awards Co-Ordinator Marie Wiseman, Sheila McCarthy, AIB - Official Partner of Network Ireland, Keynote Speaker Louise O'Neill at Bantry House for the 2021 Network Ireland West Cork Business Women of the Year Awards Reception. Picture: Anne Minihane

Nollaig Hurley, Jelly Fish Surf Shop, Established Business Award

THREE floods, just one of which she was insured for, a recession, then a global pandemic ... Nollaig Hurley has had to ride out many a storm during her 19 years in business.

But far from just surviving, her surf shop is thriving and she’s currently working hard to keep up with demand after so many people discovered, or rediscovered, their love of the sea during lockdowns.

Nollaig has always had an affinity with the ocean, but it was more her desire to be self-employed that saw her open Jelly Fish in Spillers Lane, Clonakilty, in 2003.

She studied hospitality in GMIT and worked her way up the ranks in the Celtic Ross Hotel, Rosscarbery to general manager.

She had always imagined herself opening her own restaurant, or something in that area.

“But over pints one night in a local pub with my surf buddies, when they were bemoaning how you couldn’t even buy board wax locally, I had my light bulb moment,” she said.

Nollaig figured if she could run a multi-faceted business like a hotel, she could run a shop!

Just a few months later, having found a premises, the right brands and finance, as well as getting a fair few funny looks and being told she was crazy, she had opened the doors of Jelly Fish.

Over the coming years, Nollaig, originally from near Castlehaven but living in Clonakilty for 20 years, weathered three major floods in the shop, and the recession of 2008 , all of which she pulled through thanks to her determination and strong focus on customer service. But it wasn’t all plain sailing.

“I thought my business wouldn’t make it through the recession, but I was so far in I didn’t really have a choice. It was a case of owe money or keep going using personal savings, which is what I did, and thankfully that was the right decision to make. It was a very stressful time though and I didn’t take a wage for a whole year. There were definitely lots of sleepless nights,” she admits.

There were similar fears when it came to reopening after the first lockdown.

Jelly Fish already had a strong presence online, so Nollaig was able to continue trading behind closed doors, but she feared after being shut for so long the physical shop might be a casualty. Incredibly, she usually shuts for just five days a year — Christmas Day, St Stephen’s Day, New Year’s Day, St Patrick’s Day and the annual staff day out.

But with many people taking to sea swimming and other water pursuits, and with customers from all over the country recognising her quality stock and expertise, she can’t keep up with demand for things like wetsuits, surf boards, paddle boards, etc.

“We’re one of the few businesses which have benefited from the pandemic — although that has brought its own stresses trying to keep up with demand, and Brexit hasn’t helped with delays in stock,” she said.

“But I think it’s really great that so many people now finally appreciate what a fabulous resource we have on our doorstep and are going for a swim or a surf to recharge and reset.

“Sure, your problems will still be the same afterwards, but you are just better able to handle them.”

Currently time-poor, Nollaig’s not able to get in the water as often as she’d like, but she loves nothing better than going a swim, surf, kayak or paddle board as often as she can.

She found the nation’s obsession with DryRobes during lockdown funny, and she sells their own branded changing robes at more pocket friendly prices.

She also sells Jelly Fish branded t-shirts, hoodies, and poncho towels.

“Customers were looking for them and it was a great marketing opportunity,” she said.

Nollaig has been a member of Network West Cork for the past few years and finds it a great support, and resource.

She’s also full of praise for her team, who she said work every bit as hard as she does.

“Customer focus is central to our success. We work as a team so I never feel like it’s all on me,” she said.

But being self-employed, she said, you need to have faith in your own decisions and to be self- reliant.

“There were days when I was standing in three feet of water in the shop and I just had to roll up my sleeves and sort it out. There was no point crying about it.”

Future plans for the shop, which will turn 19 next month?

“There’s always room for growth, but we’ll just see where things take us.

“The past 12 months haven’t been easy for anyone and I feel grateful to have been busy and very lucky to have not just survived but thrived,” she said.

HEADING TO NATIONAL FINALS

Four other West Cork women were lauded for their success at the fourth annual awards ceremony, which was held virtually, and will go on to compete in the national finals in October.

Yvonne Cahalane, Fine Gael Cork South West winner of the Power Within Champion Award.
Yvonne Cahalane, Fine Gael Cork South West winner of the Power Within Champion Award.

Yvonne Cahalane, constituency secretary for Fine Gael Cork South West, avid volunteer and founder of a new a startup business received the Power Within Award.

Jacinta Collins of Argideen Communications, winner of the STEM Award.
Jacinta Collins of Argideen Communications, winner of the STEM Award.

STEM award recipient was Jacinta Collins, Argideen Communications, who has been championing science for 25 years using her communications training to help scientists and science-led companies bring their research and innovation to life.

Maura O'Connell of West Cork Casting Studio, winner of the Creative Professional Award.
Maura O'Connell of West Cork Casting Studio, winner of the Creative Professional Award.

The Creative Professional award went to Maura O’Connell of West Cork Casting Studio, who specialises in honouring and preserving family memories by creating bespoke life-cast pieces and personal fingerprint and handprint jewellery.

Louise Bunyan of VMware winner of the Employee - Shining Star Award.
Louise Bunyan of VMware winner of the Employee - Shining Star Award.

Marketing expert with VMware Louise Bunyan took the Employee Shining Star award, for her role as a talent marketing specialist with experience across communications, online marketing, recruitment marketing and employer branding.

The winners now progress to the national Businesswoman of the Year Awards on October 8 in WIT Arena, Waterford.

Network Ireland West Cork President, Katherine O’Sullivan said: “With all that has happened in the last year and a half, achieving business success has been trying, yet these women are proof that we can still triumph to overcome all obstacles. From established businesses finding new ways to do business to new start-ups, and employees meeting new challenges in their workplace, our finalists went through it all.

“The variety of women from a broad spectrum of backgrounds is proof that West Cork is a thriving place to work and run a business from.

“Each woman has shown us that it is possible to make great things happen regardless of external factors. When you believe and have a solid network of support around you like that of Network Ireland West Cork, then anything is possible.”

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