“Are you ready?”
Caroline Danaher laughs as she begins to list her tasks for the coming days, including delivering her award-winning cakes and bakes across the Dingle Peninsula, preparing home-catering orders for 120 people; and juggling her daughter’s birthday party, her son’s dentist appointment, pick-ups, swimming lessons and more.
“It is very hard work,” she acknowledges of running her own business, The Dingle Food Company, which she operates from two converted shipping containers close to the iconic Conor Pass.
“But I’m loving it.”
Set up during the COVID-19 pandemic, the business recently won Catering Service of the Year at the Irish Takeaway Awards and was highly-commended in the sustainability category.
But for Caroline, it is the culmination of a life-time of hard work; and proof that it’s never too late to reinvent yourself.
Clare to Kerry
Originally from Lisdoonvarna, Caroline’s passion for good food runs in her blood. She remembers in particular her grandmother making black pudding after the killing of the pigs on the family farm.
“Oh my God, that flavour,” she recalls, instantly transported back.
“They used to pull off - do you know from the pork fillet? - they’d call it ‘the secret’. A little strip that was pan-fried for the men after the butchering, so it was a really fast cook; seconds in the pan.”
No stranger to hard work, Caroline helped on the farm and worked in hotels during the match-making festival, but as a teenager, spent summers in west Kerry, working at her uncle’s hotel.
“At 14, I used to get on the bus in Lisdoonvarna, go to Ballyferriter on my own and work summers and get on the bus home,” she recalls.
At 18, Caroline welcomed her daughter Marie, but still continued to climb the ladder in the chef world, crediting The Texas Steakout in Limerick for facilitating her to upskill.
“If you’re willing to learn and you’re willing to work, they [restaurants] do give you steps to help you,” she acknowledges.
When Marie reached school-going age, however, Caroline was looking for a change of pace; and scenery. She decided to “pack up” for West Kerry.
“Never looked back,” she laughs.
Those early summers were spent working in Ballyferriter, with winters at Louis Mulcahy’s pottery studio.
“I would make lasagne dishes, napkin rings and tiles by hand,” lists Caroline. “I had a flow that I was never out of work.”
At 25, she took a leap of faith by opening her own café in Dingle. Looking back, she describes the experience as “the best learning I’ve ever done.”
“Because I went in there saying, ‘Yeah I’ll work hard, this will go great,’” she explains. “But I hadn’t done my finances. I hadn’t worked out my portion control. While I had great initiative, great work ethic, I didn’t have that.”
Back to education
While Caroline fulfilled her five year lease, once Marie started secondary school, she decided to return to education herself, studying culinary arts at IT Tralee (now MTU Kerry) and graduating with first class honours.
“I always said it when I had her at a young age, that was going to be my drive,” she reflects. “I was going to go to college and it was fantastic for Marie, because Marie has seen how hard I worked and Marie has great drive and initiative herself.”
From there, Caroline worked as head chef at the Boatyard Restaurant in Dingle town. Off-season, she tutored at the Dingle Cookery School- where she still teaches on the 21-week City & Guilds culinary arts course - and also took on a role with Corcoran’s Food Equipment in Tralee, providing training in commercial kitchens nationwide; from Google and Facebook to Déis schools.
In 2015, however, after a 22-year gap, Caroline welcomed her son, Michael, followed by daughter Katie in 2016. A change of pace called.
“Something had to give,” says Caroline, who decided to step back from her head chef role.
The Dingle Food Company
Never idle, however, Caroline would take catering orders in her spare time and after COVID hit, this idea grew legs.
“I was cycling around Slea Head with my friend one day and I said, ‘Do you know what? I have this mad idea. I’m thinking of converting my kitchen,’” she explains.
After taking some professional advice, she decided instead to convert a 20-foot shipping container that her brother-in-law had been using as an office. And thus, The Dingle Food Company was born in May 2021.
After her experience with the café, Caroline sought support from Údarás na Gaeltachta to draw up her business plan.
She was fortunate that her husband, Mike Lynch, an engineer, did a lot of the labour involved in kitting out the original container, though they ended up purchasing a second one a few weeks in after outgrowing the original space.
She was also able to source much of her equipment through her employer, Corcoran’s. All in, she estimates that the set-up cost €35,000-€40,000, funded primarily through savings, though she availed of an employment grant from Údarás for the first year to pay a percentage of the wages of her pastry chef, Grainne O’Donnell.
Údarás has also provided training grant support of 75% towards courses like food safety management level 6, and will also grant her up to 50% for the development of her website, planned for this year.
Initially, Caroline planned to supply basics like bread and cookie dough to other food businesses, but was advised to be more creative to win customers. Indeed, today, one of her best-sellers is her vegan chocolate chip cookie sandwich, followed by “fuel” muffins, breakfast bars and twice-baked almond croissants.
She supplies over 10 cafes, food trucks and restaurants across the Dingle Peninsula, and feels that with current chef shortages, this is “lifting a load of pressure for them”.
Given the seasonal nature of hospitality, however, Caroline also provides home catering for events, as well as delivering meals to holiday makers, and offering “fill the freezer” packages that are popular particularly with people living alone, as well as new mothers.
This work is essential for the survival of the business; especially with rising costs.
“The price of butter and sugar is gone through the roof on us and the unfortunate thing for us is we’re selling into a coffee shop who has to sell that product on again, so we have a very tight margin when it comes to our bakes,” explains Caroline.
“The business would not survive if I didn’t have the catering side of it.”
Caroline tries to source as much as possible locally; a commitment that saw her named Local Food Hero for Munster in the 2022 Irish Restaurant Awards amongst her other recent awards.
Her advice to any would-be food entrepreneur?
“It’s never too late,” she stresses. “I was in my 40s setting this up.
“If you have the passion and the drive, you will succeed.”
For further information, find The Dingle Food Company on Facebook and Instagram, call 087-055-8694 or email firstname.lastname@example.org