20 years on, I can’t believe I’m still here... with all that has happened

In this month’s WoW! Bites column, KATE RYAN talks to Shannen Butler-Keane who marks a milestone in business this year
20 years on, I can’t believe I’m still here... with all that has happened

Shannen Butler-Keane at the Diva Bakery in Ballinspittle, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan 

SHANNEN Butler-Keane, founder of Diva, a place of pilgrimage for butter-laden puff pastry, and cake-y flights of fancy, is celebrating two decades in business. Her priority has always been to make people happy with her delicious bakes, healthful breads, and savoury treats.

Shannen’s Diva journey began in Kinsale in 2002 before moving to Ballinspittle four years later, establishing the deli-turned-café. A dedicated bakery across the village square followed in 2011, and in 2019, Leafling Mercantile completed the triumvirate.

Many small businesses spend an inordinate amount of time practicing their best swan-like demeanour.

Shannen Butler-Keane and Clarie Hurley at the Diva Bakery in Ballinspittle, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Shannen Butler-Keane and Clarie Hurley at the Diva Bakery in Ballinspittle, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

 Above the water line, everything is graceful and tickety-boo while just under the surface, fast a-paddling feet are putting out small fires everywhere.

Shannen and her Diva empire hit peak swan between 2015 and 2020. It began with the café decimated by fire in 2015, followed by power outages for days during Storm Ophelia in 2017, and roadworks during 2018-2019 effectively shut off the village, sending Shannen to the financial brink.

By autumn, 2019, she was out the other side of a very successful summer season. Finally, things were looking up…

“We were open and trading for eight days in 2020 when Covid happened,” Shannen recalls.

“It was a bit like when the fire happened; the difference this time was everybody got support.

“I took social distancing literally to two meters, but only had eight tables in the café anyway so it was really hard.”

As soon as Shannen heard about the pandemic, a takeaway hatch was installed at the bakery across the road.

But as restrictions began to bite, the financials weren’t stacking up.

Shannen Butler-Keane at the Diva Bakery in Ballinspittle, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
Shannen Butler-Keane at the Diva Bakery in Ballinspittle, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

“I was paying rent on two buildings across the road from each other doing pretty much the same thing – takeaway. Trade was so up and down.

“I was forced to really look at the business and realised maybe I wasn’t doing as well as I thought I was. I just did the math and figured out that, really, we were just being busy fools.”

And so, in July, 2020, Shannen took the decision to close Diva Boutique Café after 14 years as a much-loved part of Ballinspittle village. After everything, it was a global pandemic that took the Diva down.

Emerging from a catalogue of disasters and a litany of hard decisions, there is a new lightness in Shannen’s outlook – not just for the business, but for what she wants for herself, too.

“Having just the bakery means I have a smaller staff so we’re super efficient. I’m working full time in the bakery, and just stripped everything right back. I even stopped doing wholesale.

“I would have loved someone to have taken [the café] over, for someone to carry on what we were doing. 

"I’ll be 54 this year, I don’t wanna be doing this when I’m 60 - it’s a lot of hard work! And, you know, it’s great: I have a great crew, I love the customers, we have great banter, and it’s fun, but when you’ve been doing the same thing for twenty 20 it’s just…”

For a moment, the businesswoman gives way to the person.

When a business like Diva has been built from nothing, with much time and hard work invested; when every stop has been pulled out to overcome yet another challenge and obstacle, it’s impossible for the person who has given all of that to be cold and divested from any of it.

“You have so much responsibility, and even though I really enjoy it, at some point I gotta stop. So, for me, it would be that someone would be able to take over and run the business. I’ve simplified my life,” she says.

“I have less staff to worry about, I’m in the bakery every day, and our opening hours are shorter now, too.”

The time-out that the Covid years gifted enabled Shannen to re-engage with a life she loves and hopes to have more time for in the future.

"The past few years was just crazy; snowstorms, Ophelia, fire, roadworks, plague... At some point I thought, what am I fighting?"

One safe harbour for Shannen is her refill grocery store, Leafling Mercantile. The store was established with a business partner after the village butcher, Lordan’s, closed their shop. With one less reason for people to come into Ballinspittle, Leafling Mercantile created a new reason for people to stop by and keep the village alive. Leafling specialises in being Irish forward, no plastic, higher welfare meats, and utilising the network of chemical-free vegetable growers nearby.

“Leafling is great! During the pandemic, and because I gave up the café, it meant I was able to buy my business partner out of Leafling.” Other opportunities began to present themselves to Shannen too, and without a café to run, she was able to embrace them. Shannen was Hollywood bound – in a way!

“I was offered the opportunity to work on [the Apple TV series] Foundation in 2020 as a food stylist. In 2021, I did some catering for a film called Sparrow that filmed in Baltimore for five weeks. I wouldn’t have been able to do either of those things if I was still running the café.

Shannen Butler-Keane at the Diva Bakery in Ballinspittle, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan 
Shannen Butler-Keane at the Diva Bakery in Ballinspittle, Cork. Picture Dan Linehan 

“Those two things were really good, and the food styling gig was incredible! I’d never done anything like it before on that level, and I look at food scenes in film in a whole different way now! It could take 20 takes to get something right and you must have the food the same exactly each time. It was interesting and something I’d love to do more of.”

Back in Ballinspittle, away from the surreal world of science fiction and movie making, Shannen is looking forward to a new – and complete – season ahead.

“This year will be our first time open with our new regular times since 2019,” she says.

“The bakery is now one big bakery space, and as well as our breads, all our favourite Diva sandwiches, sausage rolls, veggie rolls, chicken pot pie, pizza are available too – anything we could do within our small team that’s fast and can be taken away is on the menu!

“It’s so rewarding creating your own space and having people who love what you do, making them happy. 

"I’d rather make something really tasty for someone to eat than give them a parking ticket! I’m enjoying it more,” Shannen says.

“Leafling is a lovely little space, and I would happily work in Leafling - if someone ever wants to take over the bakery.”

It’s not a coincidence that Shannen keeps conjuring the idea of a next generation owner for Diva. She has plans that include filling time with things that feed her soul.

“I’m building a house: a self-build, mortgage-free. I have an acre and would love to do classes, have people stay, do Airbnb in the future, something like that. A studio for creatives, yoga, natural dying of fabric – I’m really into that; gardening, baking. But that’s down the road.

“I’m an extrovert: I like interacting with people, chatting with and meeting new people, so I don’t think I could ever not work with people or host. Sharing stories and travelling - that’s what I’d like to do. I just need to get the house built!”

All things considered, 2022 has gotten off to a good start. What’s more, Shannen’s ready to party.

“We’ve had a great start to the year, and we’re going to have a party on Sunday, May 8, at the bakery in Ballinspittle to celebrate 20 Years! It’ll be like a little street party. There will be bubbles, cocktails – and of course cake – hopefully some music, too. It’ll be open to everybody – anyone who’s in the neighbourhood or driving by.

“I have to do something - 20 years is a big milestone. I can’t believe I’m still here with all the stuff that’s happened.”

It’s been biblical, I say.

“It’s been great!” she says.

Diva Bakery opening times:

9am - 3pm, Thursday – Saturday,

11am – 3pm, Sunday.

Find Diva on Instagram: @divabakes

Leafling Mercantile opening times 10:30am – 5:30pm Monday - Saturday, Sunday 12 – 5pm

Instagram: @leaflingmercantile

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