Last weekend I was, as usual, fooling around West Cork and came across a small establishment outside Macroom in a place called Toons Bridge.
This is a tiny shop attached to a dairy and it has just opened a tiny cafe.
The dairy produces mozzarella cheese and other milk products from a farm of buffalo just across the river. The shop sells the dairy products and an assortment of fine Italian foods imported directly. The cafe offers both in a menu of high quality but inexpensive dishes served up with a smile and courtesy.
Hold on. Ireland is in the grip of a dramatic recession. Emigration is rampant, morale is low and political leadership is watery. Yet here we have the true definition of entrepreneurship. Someone has decided to feck the begrudgers and set about offering fresh food at a competitive price in the heart of rural Ireland. What should we all learn from this initiative ?
There are numerous points here but the most obvious are; (1) an individual or couple in Ireland with determination and imagination can create a viable business on their own doorstep; (2) quality produce and service has a habit of generating positive responses from consumers anywhere in the country; (3) small can be beautiful if packaged in the right way, and; (4) offering produce at truly competitive prices wins custom and loyalty.
These themes can be applied at the national level too. If Ireland is to extricate itself from the morass that it now sits in, drive and ambition will be key elements of recovery.
A downside of the Celtic Tiger years was a drift into complacency about productivity, value for money and civil behaviour towards customers. On top of that pricing went ballistic (cup of coffee for €3 anyone?) as business owners and landlords believed everything could be solved by jacking up prices. Now, the scene has changed dramatically.
I noticed last month that the area around Grafton Street in Dublin is buzzing again and the suspicion must be that rents are being struck at rates which make the risk of opening a new retail offering worthwhile.
The collapse of the commercial property market is bringing rents to levels that give entrepreneurs a decent shot at opening up with prices for customers that make sense.
The recession is forcing those same entrepreneurs to work really hard at being kind to those who walk through their doors and at introducing products at a price and quality that actually sells.
Let’s hope this phenomenon spreads out. Rural Ireland is in desperate need of positive energy.
Too many streets are awfully quiet and retail outlets have closed down across the land. Rebooting these will be helped if the owners offer them at rock bottom prices. Then, we need a generation with imagination to open up shops, cafes and other consumer-facing projects that offer high quality and affordable prices.
Imagine for a minute if we could create 100 outlets akin to those in Toons Bridge. These would help; (1) create jobs; (2) lift the quality of food produce we offer to locals and tourists alike; (3) breathe life into small communities. All sounds rosy, right? Not quite.
If Ireland is to drag itself off the floor and win back the markets lost in the recession (tourism being No 1) it must never again fall in to the trap of assuming its customers will tolerate shoddy service, mad prices and inferior product. The standards from here on require diligence, discipline and a huge amount of patience.
If the people behind The Dairy in Toons Bridge keep these issues in mind over the next 10 years their business will thrive. If they ever let complacency seep in to their staff or product line the consequences will be dire. The same applies to Ireland Inc.
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