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Restaurateur Interview Series: Deirdre and Tony of Cornucopia

Cornucopia Wholefood Vegetarian Restaurant
19 Wicklow Street
Dublin, Ireland

Owners: Deirdre McCafferty: Proprietor
Tony Keogh: Head Chef

Is this your first restaurant? Yes

What have been your greatest professional success and your biggest setback?
Our greatest professional success has been being open here on Wicklow Street, Dublin for 25 years – we are celebrating our 25th birthday this year. It is also the fact that we succeeded in acquiring the beautiful Georgian building beside us and have been able to expand into these new premises with additional seating and we now have the excitement of plans for further expansion.

Our biggest setback has been the financial crisis that Ireland and the world economy have recently suffered. This has caused shock waves throughout the banking system, and therefore restricted loans for capital investment etc. Many people in Ireland have taken wage cuts, have lost their jobs and now find themselves perhaps facing into increased mortgage interest rates. As each month passes people have less disposable income. Cornucopia has weathered this storm by being part of a world-wide growth market – health and well-being. We also are a casual dining restaurant where the average spend is around €11/€12 and as people wish to invest in good quality and good value food for themselves and their health we remain very popular and very busy. We have a great location, and offer lots of discounts and specials for people working in local businesses, student, older people etc.

What’s your favourite dish on the menu? My favourite dish on the menu at the moment is the seitan, cauliflower and roast pepper filo torte. Recently we have started to prepare our own seitan from vital gluten flour here on the premises and it has been a great success.

What’s the most popular appetizer on the menu? As we are a casual dining restaurant we don’t serve appetizers in the usual manner. Customers queue with a tray and choose their meals from our hot plate and display counters. We prepare soup and salads which can be treated as appetizers. These change daily and we are constantly re-inventing these. At this time of year any soup with roast squash or roast peppers present will be very popular. A very popular soup at the moment is our raw/living carrot and avocado soup. In terms of salads anything vibrant and colourful is always a success. Living/raw sprouted lentil salads; beetroot salads; soaked barley and our daikon radish based salads are certainly our most popular.

Most popular entrée? This will vary season to season and even week to week. At the moment our “sun dried tomato and leek polenta cake with walnut salsa and pea sauce” is the most popular choice

Most popular dessert? At the moment, our most popular dessert is our raw chocolate torte developed by our vegan /raw chef James Burke

How often do you change your menu items? Do you have daily or weekly specials? How do you choose those specials?

We change our menu daily; the menus are written the week prior and are based largely on what is in season. Our dry goods, such as our beans, nuts and seeds do not vary greatly throughout the year. The vegetables and fruits in our dishes vary seasonally. We produce more ‘comfort’ food in the autumn and winter using root vegetables, and lighter more ‘above ground’ vegetable based dishes in the spring and summer. However all year round we have an abundance of leafy greens and fresh herbs included in and garnishing all of our dishes. There is a greater demand for salads in the spring and summer, but with the Irish summers being often wet and cloudy there is a demand for warm food all year round! We plan to develop a menu of Irish traditional dishes such as Irish stew and colcannon – the vegan versions.

We offer some good value discounts and specials all year round. At the moment we have a daily lunch special for €7.95, which includes, soup, homemade bread, salad and pâté. We also prepare a pasta special for the evening for €7.95 and €11.95 with a glass of organic wine. We also have a very good deal with our filled wraps. We have in place a breakfast loyalty card system and we have Student and Senior discounts between certain hours. Also in keeping with the Irish governments lowering of VAT from 13.5% to 9% we have introduced a number of price reductions on certain items.

Our specials are set but the ingredients will vary, depending on what is available in the kitchen on a daily basis.

Do you have gluten-free, soy-free, and sugar-free options on your menu? What are a few of those?

Gluten-free: About 75% of what we prepare in the restaurant is gluten free. An example of a main course would be our Pavé of potato, squash, leek and fennel with caramelised onion and tofu. This is also a very popular vegan option. A dessert option would be our orange syrup and almond gateaux. Another dessert option which is very popular and also gluten free is our chocolate hazelnut brownie made with rice flour.

Soy-free: About 75% of what we prepare here in the restaurant is soy-free. A soy- free main course option which I really like is our sweet potato and cauliflower makhani. We now offer rice milk (as an alternative to soy milk and dairy milk) with our breakfast options and throughout the day.

Sugar-free: All of our main courses, soups and salads are sugar free. We also prepare a selection of sugar free desserts. An example which I am particularly fond of at the moment is our apricot and ginger slice with agave coconut caramel. This is also vegan.

Do you use eco-friendly packaging? What else do you do to reduce your environmental impact?

Yes, all of our take-away cutlery is biodegradable and not plastic. All of our pails for soups and salads are biodegradable. For our serviettes in the restaurant and for hand towels in the bathrooms we use a ‘just-one system’ to help prevent large amounts of unnecessary paper being used. We now have low energy light bulbs throughout the restaurant. called e-lights which are low energy usage. For our paper bags we choose a stamp saying Cornucopia rather than a printed bag and the bags are stamped by us here in the restaurant. We use envelopes and some stationary made from recycled and unbleached paper. All of our waste id now divided into recyclable, composted and general waste.

If you could eat at any vegan restaurant in the world where would it be?
The Millennium Cafe in San Francisco is my favourite vegan restaurant. I thought the food, ambiance and service were all fantastic.

Do you have any advice for those wanting to start a vegetarian/vegan restaurant?

Yes – 30 Points out of 1000 possible ones!

1. Choose a good location.

2. Make sure it is large enough to provide sufficient seating for your customers and to help make it all work out financially.

3. Develop an amazing product that anyone would be thrilled to eat, whether they are vegan, vegetarian or meat eating.

4. Have superlative customer service. Hire front of house people who are very suited to that role, and who really enjoy dealing with the public.

5. Develop a happy, healthy and enthusiastic team who are proud of the restaurant and all it does.

6. Hire talented and enthusiastic chefs who enjoy what they are doing and who feel they can develop themselves and their craft while working in the restaurant.

7. Develop a culture within the restaurant where everyone feels appreciated from kitchen porters to office staff.

8. Train staff well and listen to and involve the people who are doing the job when making any changes to job routines etc.

9. While having a passionate commitment to veganism as part of the ethos of the restaurant remove all politics from the restaurant floor. All customers are welcome and should come for the quality of the food above all.

10.Keep the premises well maintained, bright, attractive, well ventilated and nicely decorated.

11. Purchase the best quality equipment you can afford, and keep equipment well maintained.

12. Purchase the best quality raw ingredients you can, as this is the largest component of tasty, healthy food.

13. Never sell below par food.

14. Strive for consistency in standard, so that customers are not disappointed when re visiting.

15. Listen to the voice of the customer with comments boxes etc.

16. Set up good financial management systems within the restaurant so that the owner/manager sees the invoices, wages, administration costs and knows the bottom line figure on a weekly basis.

17. Develop a safety awareness within the restaurant and throughout the premises.

18. Pay suppliers on time and treat them with respect.

19. Manage cash flow intelligently and do not underpay for lengthy periods taxes, rents etc and have therefore an inflated or unrealistic cash flow.

20. Reinvest constantly in equipment and premises.

21. Have a very good handy man/ woman and have close working relationships with plumbers etc. The dish-washer machine will always break down at 7pm Friday evening on a busy holiday weekend!

22. When successful do not automatically decide to open a second premises. It can be difficult though not impossible to recreate the same magic elsewhere, and the same profitability especially!

23. Do not encourage over working in yourself or in staff members. Encourage work/life balance in yourself and in key long term staff members.

24. Be family friendly as an employer.

24. Do exit interviews – people can be quite open when leaving a job and may let you know helpful things to improve the restaurant they may not be so free to say otherwise.

25. Develop a culture of continuous improvement in all aspects of the business.

26. If a good employee has to leave invite them to return in the future. If they do return you have an experienced member returning to further strengthen the team.

27. Ask new employees how thing are done in their former place of work. You can learn quite a lot this way.

28. Be part of the local community, offering gift vouchers etc. for local charities.

29. Do not charge too little or too much for menu items. Pricing is an art form as much as anything else. If the quality is good people will pay. Be generous with portion sizes, but not over generous.

30. Try to never let a customer walk out dissatisfied. Keep the customer and not the sale. Offer refunds, complimentary desserts etc. A happy customer will tell a few. An unhappy customer tells a large amount of people!

Thank you Deirde and Tony for participating in our Interview Series! And a big CONGRATS on your 25th anniversary! If you are a restaurant owner that would like to participate in this series on HappyCow please let us know! 

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