Cork: It’s time to eat and drink for Ireland

Jola Wojtowitz outside her (now closed) restaurant in Lower O’Connell Street in Kinsale.

LAST weekend when the staff in O’Brien’s Chop House in Lismore, Co Waterford finished cleaning up after Sunday lunch, the lights were turned off; the ovens went cold and they went for a few remorseful beers to wake the unfortunate and premature end of a wonderful project.

The clocks had indeed gone back. O’Brien’s Chop House was just the latest in a long and depressing list of restaurants forced to close because of this bloody, unforgiving recession. It followed Augustine’s, Dillons’, Mint, Mermaid, Gruel, Bentley’s, Jola’s, Poulot’s, two of Conrad Gallagher’s, Casino House and scores more restaurants no longer able to fend off the unsustainable reality represented by too many tables too often left empty.

Like hundreds, if not thousands of other businesses’ gallant rearguard actions, energy had finally and reluctantly petered out.

In the short few years O’Brien’s the Chop House has existed — the lovely little Victorian bar began this iteration as a restaurant in the summer of 2009 — it has won more gongs than Henry Shefflin and had more positive reviews than the most fragrant PR smoozer could contrive, including an effusive one here in August of last year.

Less than two months ago The Sunday Times’ Ernie Whalley sang its praises in a most unambiguous way: sadly Ernie, none of us will get to go back.

Almost 20 jobs were lost directly but a whole range of local suppliers lost an outlet, a platform to show off their produce. Local brewers and cider makers, cheese makers and McGrath’s, the butcher across the road who supplied really wonderful beef, have all lost a customer, a valuable window to the bigger world.

Lismore, surely one of the prettiest towns in these islands, has lost one of the many attractions that made it such a wonderful domestic and international tourist destination.

This reality should not be dismissed too lightly as figures show an almost 10% fall in tourist numbers from Britain, so anything that makes this country less attractive is a jobs’ issue, especially as the Chop House/Lismore story has become far too commonplace.

The loss of the opportunity represented by these closures for young people who want to learn the food business is more than disheartening for a generation that has taken more than its share of this recession’s trauma too.

At this stage, there is a real prospect of some of the great advances made over recent decades being reversed, as the skills needed to run a good restaurant take years of training and practical experience to develop.

Restaurateurs, just as any other business people, speak of how almost endless uncertainty has destroyed customer confidence, leaving tables empty for too long. They speak of how PAYE, VAT and PRSI deductions every two months cripple cash flow.

They are in absolute dread of Welfare Minister Joan Bruton’s suggestion that employers might have to pay a greater proportion of sick pay for employees — one suggested this would be the decisive nail in the coffin for many.

Changes around drink driving has had a huge impact too, especially for restaurants outside of large urban areas. That restaurant profitability is so dependent on wine sales exacerbates that vicious circle too.

It may seem a bit too Paris Hilton to write about the closure of establishments dependent on discretionary spend when so many families are struggling to meet basic demands, and on one level, it is. However, on another it is not.

This is a jobs and an Ireland Inc issue that needs to be addressed. The jobs are invaluable and if this country is to realise its tourism potential, it needs a network of good restaurants to show off its wares and to show how professional we can be when opportunity, imagination and effort come together.

And, as anyone who has visited a country with great attractions but pretty grim food will confirm, the most beautiful scenery pales pretty quickly if there’s nothing but burgers on the menu.

All of our lives would be a bit poorer, and in more ways than one, if this trend continues so maybe it’s time, if we can at all, to eat and drink for Ireland.

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