Susan O’Sullivan smiles wryly as she recalls how she was once introduced by an acquaintance shortly after she opened The Farmhouse Café.
“He said: ‘She runs a place up the Long Mile, it’s kind of a hobby for herself and her daughter.’
"And I thought: ‘If only you knew,’” she exclaims, explaining that far from a flight of fancy, “failure wasn’t an option” when she started her café five years ago with just six tables at the side of her husband’s safety wear shop.
“It just had to work, it was as simple as that,” she continues. “We were both self-employed, there was nowhere else to turn, there’s no dole, there’s nowhere to go… and five kids.”
Susan O'Sullivan. \ Ramona Farrelly
Of course, on paper at least, Dublin’s Long Mile Road – with its traffic and trade showrooms – is not the most likely of locations for a farm-to-fork café; not least one that shares floor space with safety workwear and steel-toe boots.
Yet, within seconds of stepping in the door, it’s clear that there is no shortage of style, substance or sustenance at this McKenna award-winning café.
As a barista brews up the Ariosa coffee, breakfast is in full swing, from the “full farmhouse” and organic jumbo oats with apple and honey to more millennial fare, like avocado toast with homemade cashew butter and super-start juices using kale and beetroot from the garden.
Some of the food on offer at the Farmhouse Cafe on the Long Mile Road. \ Ramona Farrelly
In the kitchen, slow-roasted meats from the Aga are being pulled for hearty sandwiches – think roast Irish chicken with jalapeno mayo and leaves or their own gammon with French emmental, gherkin and sweet mustard mayo – along with soups, superfood salads and the hot specials for the day, from smoky beef goulash to savoury lamb tagine.
Meanwhile in the bakery, loaves of sourdough, crusty cobs, courgette bread, bloomers and baguettes sit side by side with the sweet treats displayed on a countertop from the former Cleary’s department store, to be served on a selection of mismatched china.
And making sure it all runs smoothly is Susan; the city girl-turned-farmer and foodie.
Suburbs to self-sufficiency
Originally from Clontarf, her first introduction to rural life was when she met her future husband, Donal O’Sullivan, who was originally from a cattle and sheep farm in Cahersiveen – but qualifies that they “didn’t even have a cat” when they settled down in Rathgar and started their family.
"And then it came out – I didn’t know this before the wedding – but ‘I need to get back to the land,’” she laughs of Donal’s declaration one day, which saw them up sticks from suburban Dublin to 50 acres five miles west of Enfield in Co Meath in the late ’00s.
“I said: ‘Great… an adventure,’” says Susan, who had previously worked in sales and ran her own company selling corporate wear, which she sold when the third of her five children arrived.
With an old walled garden in need of restoration, however, Susan got stuck into her next challenge, using books by Alan Titchmarsh and Nigel Slater as her guide to growing food for her family and working with the seasons.
It all started to just slot into place,” she says, “because you go into a supermarket – which I was doing – and everything is there all the time, so you have no idea what’s in season or not.
Her journey continued after she inherited six Aylesbury ducks from her next door neighbour, followed by three purebred piglets for her birthday.
Rare breed Highland and Galloway cattle soon joined the fledging farm, as well as sheep – with Donal and her Kerry in-laws guiding her through her first lambing season.
“There’s a ewe running around, there’s a head sticking out, what am I going to do?’” she recalls of one frantic phone call to her brother-in-law, Michael, while Donal was away for work.
“‘Well, you’ll just have to catch her,’ he’d say. And I’d just have to go and catch her and pull.
“That was a learning curve too, I tell ya!”
Farm to fork
Before long, the O’Sullivans were stocking their freezer with their own lamb, pork and beef, but the rude arrival of the recession meant that what started out as a lifestyle choice was soon to become part of their livelihood.
As Donal’s business specialised in high-quality safety wear for construction and manufacturing, the downturn meant that their trade suffered dramatically.
“It just died, completely died,” says Susan, who says they were “completed blindsided” by the sharp decline.
One day, however, in the middle of dinner, the seed for what would become The Farmhouse Café was planted.
“Donal said to me: ‘Will you just do coffee and cake or something at one end of the showrooms, just to generate a little bit of activity,’” recalls Susan, who, despite never having even waitressed before, decided to go with the idea.
“We were really on skid row now, it was difficult,” she continues, explaining how they started with just six tables and a second-hand oven.
We didn’t paint it, we didn’t put up signs, we didn’t have the money – we didn’t have the money for anything.
What they did have in abundance, however, was their own farm produce and a commitment to doing things right – from their own sausages and rashers for their full-Irish to gammons and chickens slow roasted in their Aga for sandwiches and salads, with the bones used to simmer proper stock for their soups.
“Very ordinary, straightforward, simple food,” says Susan, who also used to bake at home for the café while she found her feet.
And in the meantime, customers found them: from trade and sales people passing through the Long Mile Road to “suits” from the nearby business parks in City West and Ballymount, with the café gradually extending from six tables to catering for 70 to 75 covers today, as well as a van for corporate deliveries.
Not that it was without its challenges, however.
Susan admits that she really struggled with operations management at the start, but her decision to work with restaurant adviser Blathnaid Bergin proved a turning point.
“Like, for example, when we were very busy, we’d clear a table. She had on video one of the girls – a great girl now – making seven trips to clear a table. She said: ‘Pick up a tray and make one trip,’” explains Susan. “Tiny obvious things just to be more efficient.”
Confidence was also a hurdle, having been out of the workforce for a few years, despite her success with the café.
“I have no formal training in any of this at all,” she says. “There is that slight feeling that other people know so much more about this than I do and how did we manage to get this far, are we going to be ‘found out’ kind of thing?”
However, her decision to participate in programmes like “Going For Growth” for female entrepreneurs has helped her to challenge self-doubt and spurred her on to take more risks, such as opening the bakery within the café and looking at new opportunities, from wholesaling their bread to their own jams, chutneys and pickles.
A more personal challenge was being diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid last Easter, resulting in surgery and treatment– though fortunately it was caught at an early stage.
However, rather than the café being a stress at this time, Susan says it was almost like a form of therapy in its own way.
“It gives you something positive to focus on, rather than focusing on yourself,” she says.
And with life kicking off on the farm again, there is much to look forward to.
Working closely with Dermot Carey, who specialises in creating kitchen gardens, Susan is currently planning her planting year in her plots and polytunnel, as well as restocking the farm after recent sales and lambing.
“I love it, it’s just a great buzz,” she smiles, explaining why it is so special to her. “It’s one of the first things that I really got involved in, apart from growing.”
As for advice for anybody who wants to take a leap of faith in a new direction, Susan knows how fear of the unknown can hold you back.
“I thought about it so many times – ‘I should do this’ and ‘I’d like to start something,’” she says.
And then you see people have actually done it and you think, ‘I could have done that!
And at The Farmhouse Café, Susan O’Sullivan has defied all the doubts – including her own.
“I had to do it,” she says simply.
The Farmhouse Café, Long Mile Rd, Dublin. For further information, follow on Facebook or Instagram