Top women in Ireland's food industry creatively keeping their businesses going

Sisters with an appetite for fresh ingredients: We profile leading women in the food industry who have adapted to the pandemic  
Top women in Ireland's food industry creatively keeping their businesses going

Cinnamon Cottage owner and Ballymaloe graduate Ally Crowley has seen turnover increase by 20%. Picture: Dan Linehan

International Women’s Day on 8 March is a perfect opportunity to celebrate the work of women in food who have adapted in different ways to the challenges of the last year. 

Fluctuating lockdowns has meant longer working hours. Those who needed to downsize for a while wanted to keep staff, but with Covid payments exceeding their wages, some part-timers did not want to return during the summer. There was a lot to consider. While they thought about it, they had to be creative to keep their businesses afloat. 

These women are an example of inspirational sisters who are doing it for themselves, so this year we salute them and those who support them.

Caroline Robinson: 

 Caroline Robinson at the Farmers Market in Macroom, Co Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan

Caroline Robinson at the Farmers Market in Macroom, Co Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan

One of the most constant faces at farmers’ markets on Saturdays on Cork’s Coal Quay and Tuesdays in Macroom where she sells vegetables grown on a 12-hectare farm outside Cork. A strong advocate of sustainability, she and her husband Eddie planted native trees and created a lake to support an ecosystem to allow for chemical-free produce. They have supported three sons through university— one now helps to run the farm, his partner takes care of online orders. A second son’s partner works on the farm and at the stalls. There are seven working full-time, two part-time. Lockdown saw a 30% increase in sales, new customers waking up to local and seasonal produce. Caroline’s quiet strength has proved that sustainability is possible, even on a small farm.

Kay Harte and Maróg O’Brien: 

Kay Harte and Marog O'Brien. Picture: Gavin Browne

Kay Harte and Marog O'Brien. Picture: Gavin Browne

These talented culinary sisters have added significantly to Ireland’s food culture. Kay and Maróg share an interest in simple food made from meticulously sourced ingredients. The renowned Farmgate Restaurant in Midleton, created by Maróg, is now run by her daughter, Sally. Since 1994, The Farmgate Café at the English Market has been a Cork landmark. It’s run by Kay who has been joined by her daughter Rebecca, leading a team producing delicious food for lockdown, sold at their stall on the ground floor and NeighbourFood.

Ali Crowley: 

Cinnamon Cottage owner Ally Crowley. Picture: Dan Linehan

Cinnamon Cottage owner Ally Crowley. Picture: Dan Linehan

A 20% increase in turnover at The Cinnamon Cottage last year is in large part down to the bright energy of this Ballymaloe graduate. Ali Crowley worked in Hayfield Manor and Crawford Café before The Cinnamon Cottage, Rochestown, Cork. Two years later, with her sister Sinéad and her husband Patrick O’Riordan as business partners, she bought the business.

For seven years they have built a business based on consistently high-quality readymade meals, treats and deli products. Long-fingered web ordering development became a priority with Covid-19. Jobs have been created, but not without, says Ali, the tireless contribution of her partners and staff.

Ellie Kisyombe: 

Ellie Kisyombe. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Ellie Kisyombe. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

In 2010 she arrived from Malawi as an asylum seeker. Now she is a legal resident in Dublin along with her 20-year-old twins Tina and Maurice. Through the Irish Refugee Council she met food writer Michelle Darmody who in 2015 partnered with her to set up Our Table, a space where asylum seekers could meet to work, cook and provide catering industry training for interested asylum seekers, and highlight problems of Direct Provision. Experimenting with recipes, Ellie has developed a range of hot sauces, pasta sauces and snacks. Gluten-free and vegan-friendly, they are available on line at ellieskitchenhomeedition.com.

Madeline McKeever: 

Madeline McKeever of Brown Envelope Seeds. Picture: John Hennessy

Madeline McKeever of Brown Envelope Seeds. Picture: John Hennessy

For over 30 years Trinity graduate and botanist Madeline has developed a business that has exploded during Lockdown.

On a farm in West Cork, she grows vegetables organically and dries their seeds for her company Brown Envelope Seeds.

Drying seeds is time-consuming and, while demand has increased during lockdown, she is doing her best to produce seeds quickly enough to meet it. She has lost her right-hand woman, daughter Holly Cairns, who has forged a career in politics and unlikely to return soon, so the website is open on Saturday only.

She hopes to encourage others to dry and sell seeds online. See: brownenveolpeseeds.com

Avril Allshire-Howe: 

Avril Allshire-Howe from Rosscarbery Recipes. Photo Joleen Cronin

Avril Allshire-Howe from Rosscarbery Recipes. Photo Joleen Cronin

One of life’s enthusiasts, in 1994 Allshire-Howe and her husband Willie bought a house on eight hectares. Buying pigs to keep the weeds down, it wasn’t long before Caherbeg free-range pork was born, leading to Rosscarbery Recipes using pork from local suppliers.

Her sons, William and Maurice, have joined her and husband Willie, planting 20 hectares of trees to develop a farm tourism enterprise. They have already introduced forest bathing, a slow relaxing guided walk through forests.

The short notice of restaurant shutdowns prompted selling meat online, including burgers and steaks, and NeighbourFood is an important source of business to make up for revenue lost from restaurants.

Isabel Sheridan: 

Isabel Sheridan, proprietor of On The Pigs Back in the English Market. Picture: Cillian Kelly

Isabel Sheridan, proprietor of On The Pigs Back in the English Market. Picture: Cillian Kelly

For the past 29 years, On the Pigs Back has been one of the leading attractions of Cork’s English Market and owner Isabelle is its dynamic force.

Born outside Paris, she has been selling French cheeses and charcuterie, making patés and terrines for her extended stall in the market. Her 70-seater café/bistro and deli at Douglas Woollen Mills, was adapted to producing for other delis, Sheridans’ units in selected Dunnes Stores and to SuperValu nationwide. She also sells online through NeighbourFood and her own online shop. Adaptability during the pandemic has been key.

Karen Austin: 

Karen Austin at the launch of The Lettercollum Cookbook. Picture: Domnick Walsh

Karen Austin at the launch of The Lettercollum Cookbook. Picture: Domnick Walsh

Closed since Christmas when the 5k rule was imposed, Lettercollum Kitchen Project is ready to reopen when allowed. The food Karen produces is labour intensive — quiches made fresh from her garden ingredients need to be bought on the same day.

She has been creating new recipes for the shop and for her fully booked cookery classes which also had to be cancelled. She was sad to postpone cookery holidays in Greece.

With her daughter, Hazel, she has spent time changing the decor of the shop. Once travel restrictions are lifted, with renewed typically calm energy, Karen’s delicious pastry will rule again.

More in this section

Lifestyle
Newsletter

The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up