'People were right not to take us seriously' - How to build a restaurant empire with zero experience
How did two women in their 20s with zero experience in restaurant management build a successful chain of eateries from scratch?
It's all about making mistakes and not taking no for an answer, says Lorraine Heskin.
She co-founded the Gourmet Food Parlour brand of restaurants in 2006.
What started as a small side-street endeavour in Dun Laoghaire is now a burgeoning food business empire - and there are no plans to slow down.
"You do need knock-backs to find that determination in yourself."
Lorraine spent a few years living and working in New York in her 20s.
As a consultant in the specialty food industry, she was exposed to lots of new delicacies.
When she came home to Ireland she took a job with Jacob's Biscuits but was itching to start working for herself.
When her friend Lorraine Byrne was made redundant, the two decided to take the plunge and set up their own restaurant.
Neither had any experience in the industry; not that that would stop them.
The Celtic Tiger was at its zenith and the two women had big ambitions - but had a fight on their hands to get people behind them.
“Our biggest struggle was finding a landlord who believed in what we wanted to do,” Lorraine Heskin tells us.
“At the time it was very difficult. There was a lot of door slamming and rolling of eyes up to heaven, looking at two blondes in their late 20s - just not taking us seriously.”
Lorraine puts this resistance down to their gender, their age and their lack of experience – and doesn’t blame the people who doubted them.
“I look back on it and I think they were right.
“I had no track record of running a restaurant, neither did Lorraine. We weren’t chefs, we weren’t waitresses. We had a dream and this idea – and that’s all we had."
They persevered and found a landlord willing to rent them a small premises on a side street in Dun Laoghaire, welcoming their first customers in 2006.
The early years were a sharp learning curve for the two newbie restauranteurs, with plenty of slip-ups along the way
“You need to make mistakes to learn and that’s scary, but I didn’t realise that before we opened," says Lorraine.
“We didn’t know a lot about the financial side but what we did know was that we wanted to create this brand, a brand that we were proud of.
“As luck would have it, it did work out but I think sometimes you do need those knock-backs to find that determination in yourself.”
In the 12 or so years since then, Gourmet Food Parlour has grown its initial staff of five to 300.
The side-street restaurant has been replaced by seven locations including Swords, Dun Laoghaire, Malahide and Salthill in Galway.
Even now, Lorraine can’t quite believe how far they’ve come.
“If you had told us this 12 years ago you probably would have had two Lorraine-shaped holes in the wall!
“The business has become so much than what we dreamed of.
“Even now, I look back and I just get shivers.”
“Brunch is after exploding in the past six or seven years."
While Lorraine believes her gender held her back earlier on in her career, it’s something that no longer applies.
Success comes down to perseverance, she argues, and that’s something that’s not gender specific.
“It goes back to the door slamming in your face.
“Do you take no for an answer? No, you don’t. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman.
"It’s more of a personality thing. What is your strength of character and how does that come out from within?"
As well as its owners' determination, keeping up with emerging trends has helped to give Gourmet Food Parlour an edge over the years.
What customers want from a restaurant experience is “ever-evolving”, Lorraine believes, and it’s a restauranteur’s job to keep up.
“If you rest on your laurels for a second, you’re making a mistake.
“You’re only as good as your next menu.”
Healthy eating is a huge trend that has influenced what Gourmet Food Parlour offers – eclipsed only by the popularity of brunch.
“Brunch is after exploding in the past six or seven years.
“It would be our busiest time of the day, no doubt about it. People just love it.”
Tactics like offering all-day brunch and bottomless drinks have helped them to make the most of this market.
“The weekend is all about relaxing and having a bit of fun and I think we do that quite well.”
Relaxing is something that Lorraine admits she herself finds hard to do.
Like many business owners she feels that the responsibility for everything lies on her shoulders.
As a mum of three, she leans on her team to be able to achieve that elusive work-life balance.
“I have one of those personalities where I like everything to be perfect - the devil is in the detail. I drive my staff mad!
“I can’t relax until things have been covered so I’m very lucky that I have strong people around me that can enable me to relax and switch off.
“It’s very important for your life, you need to be able to go home in the evening and leave things at the doorstep.”
"I still make mistakes and I don’t ever regret making them."
She says that after a hectic 2018, the next 12 months will be all about taking stock.
“2019 is going to be the year of the calm,” she tells us.
Revenue grew by a third last year “so we need to batten down the hatches and need to manage what we have.”
Don’t expect her to be idle, though – there are plans afoot to develop the catering side of the business and to expand on what Lorraine calls the “food concepts” in the restaurants.
She says she’s constantly looking at restaurant-goers' habits for inspiration
“It’s all about where are people going, what are they looking for when they go out.
“It’s about the food quality, about the service, the atmosphere that you set within the restaurant but it’s also about the extras.
“What drinks are they looking for? What extra touches are they looking for that we can provide?”
There are always new trends, but some things within the business will never change.
“There are dishes that we could never take off our menus, the customers would kill us.
“Our chicken quesadillas are our number one bestselling dish in all of our menus. It’s incredible how many we sell every day.”
Looking back at the 20-something who first set up Gourmet Food Parlour 12 years ago, Lorraine says she'd advise her younger self to work alongside a restaurant owner before opening her own one.
“It would have opened my eyes to an awful lot of things that I only encountered after I made the mistakes.
“I still make mistakes and I don’t ever regret making them, as long as you learn and you don’t repeat them.”
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