After selling millions of cups of the stuff, in a 35-year career that saw the café queen run ten shops and bakeries in Ireland and Britain, you’d reckon she’d served it all.
But, for all her experience, she’s still a coffee-bean barista beginner. Mary Rose might handily serve up a low-fat, decaff latte with no foam, but “back when I started it was just ‘tea or coffee, black or white?” says the woman whose early coffee shop days saw cream spread across coffee mugs, and cream mounds, avalanching over warm apple tarts. Not only was that posh, but prawn sandwiches were all the biz, so we’re talking late 1970s.
Mary Rose was born to be a brand. It’s her real name. Her father, Kevin McGrath, was general manager of Woolworths in Dublin (she married an O’Donovan), but it was the double Christian name, Mary Rose, over a business’s door that had currency.
Right now, it is her only daughter, Orla, who’s getting the full benefit of Mary Rose’s business brain and business nous. In sort of biblical “I must be about my father’s business,” Orla has gone into her mother’s area of expertise, cafés, and Mary Rose is right on hand. And on her feet, to make sure it works.
“I reckon I must be the oldest waitress in Ireland,” says Mary Rose as she bustles about the café floor at daughter Orla’s new Fig Tree and Olive restaurant in west Cork’s Clonakilty.
In some ways, this mother-daughter start-up parent-pairing reprises the support Mary Rose got in the late 1970s from her father, when property entrepreneur, Robin Power, told a 30-something Mary Rose he had a business venture and location for her in the old Savoy cinema in Cork city, which he was redeveloping.
Having spent ten years as a domestic food instructor for the ESB, Mary Rose was ready to go entrepreneurial, scouting city streets for a modern café.
“My father gave me the deeds of his house, and Ulster Bank gave me £10,000, a fortune back then, and I spent it on glass, brass and mahogany to do up my café in the Savoy, after checking out the look of the Lido in Paris. It was the first in Ireland to open in the middle of the floor, without a roof, sitting at high tables and people said it would never work. But it got so busy, that at weekends we had to stop the queue as it was blocking up the shopping mall,” she says.
That Savoy success (she recalls filling 50 loaves of bread a day with egg-and-salad sandwich filling) was the engine that started a mini-empire, and Mary Rose soon took over Julia’s Hot Bread Shop close by to do her baking, then spread to the Queen’s Old Castle, and thanks to Robin Power’s team of Jim Twomey and architect Billy Wilson, next came the Powerscourt Centre in Dublin, noted for its resident piano player in the chic city mall. Mary Rose also stormed Limerick, Galway and Manchester’s Royal Exchange, too (bombed by the IRA in 1996).
“Mum put in managers and staff who were critical to the business being able to grow, but at the end of the day it was always the Savoy which ran the best because it was owner-run — which is where we are back to today,” says hotel and catering-trained Orla, now the same age as when Mary Rose herself went solo.
“Ironically, the menus are similar to when mum started back then, people want value, and good, simple food done well, however, now the prawn sambo is also available on a gluten-free roll,” Orla says.
Mary Rose wound down her own business chain in 2000 (“I sold off in the good times,”) and opened a corporate B&B in her Bandon period home, Floraville. Not surprisingly, that level of feet-up retirement didn’t suit, so she opened a small Bandon coffee shop to keep her on her feet.
Right now, Mary Rose is the cool business head behind Orla O’Donovan’s enthusiasm for food in the new 70-seat fig Tree and Olive, slamming on the brakes with reminders of the need to make profit, keep a margin, and keep customers happy and well-fed, all at the same time.
Mary Rose’s maxims: “If you waste two scones a day, that’s €500 a year. What goes out as waste in your black bag is your profit. Watch what comes back on plates, why isn’t it being eaten? Watch your floor, have people got what they want? A coffee refill?”
Mary Rose could write the book for getting a business through a recession.
Another tip, Mary Rose confides, you have to sell as well as serve. “I made a soup one day, and customers one after another said ‘no thanks’ when I told them it was broccoli. The next person along, I told them it was green vegetable soup. And they loved it,” she says.