When my colleague Maria Moynihan wrote about Susan O’Sullivan’s journey from losing it all in the recession to running her own, hugely successful, farm-to-fork cafe on the Long Mile Road in Dublin, one of Susan’s standout quotes was: “Failure was not an option.”
This speaks volumes to not only Susan’s journey in becoming a successful agri-entrepreneur, but to her overall character and her continued approach to business.
We catch up on how life and business have gone since her involvement in our 2019 Women and Agriculture Conference, which took place in Sligo.
At the 2019 event, Susan was a panellist on a discussion we called “Second-Chance Careers”.
She and the other panellists shared their stories of overcoming personal or financial circumstances to create a meaningful career through agriculture and food. She says the conference was eye-opening in its frankness.
“I think I was invited because the [Irish Country Living] girls were coming in and out of the cafe for lunch all the time,” she laughs. “During the conference I was shocked with how they would just cut to the chase with any topic. Ours was about making a radical change at a more ‘mature’ age. I had started the cafe completely as a reaction because we had lost everything.
“My husband and I were under pressure – we had five children – so I thought: ‘What can I do just to generate some business?’”
Making farm life work for her
Eight years previous, Susan and her family had moved from the city to their farm in Kildare. She had gotten some piglets for her birthday and she started seriously working to regenerate the farm into something profitable. From that first idea, things grew exponentially.
“Suddenly, in the post-recession period, we found ourselves with 14 staff and absolutely heaving on a Friday lunch. I remember thinking: ‘Where can we go from here?’” she recalls. “Everyone was under various pressures, at this stage [in 2019], and the conference just really highlighted that. It was women talking about gutsy, relevant issues. I was just blown away by it.
“People came up to me after [the panel discussion] and said they were going to do this, or wanted to do that, and I could really relate to what they were saying because I had been there too.”
W&A personal highlight
Susan recalls many powerful speakers during the 2019 conference, but one in particular has stayed with her.
“Vicky Phelan – she made a very personal account of exactly what had happened to her and it was from a personal perspective of her health, her marriage – she was so honest,” Susan says. “I couldn’t help but feel she couldn’t have [been that open and frank] to a room full of men. I don’t mean that to sound sexist but you would speak to men differently about these kind of personal matters. You could hear a pin drop and just the whole emotion in the room; I’ve never been to a conference like it. There was something very grounded and real about it.”
Susan also recalls the “fun bits” – seeing what everyone was wearing and engaging with the women who return to the conference year after year.
“It’s a phenomenal thing,” she muses. “Over 600 women together, from every walk of agricultural life. Not everyone was out milking the cows every day, they were all involved in farming and agriculture in different ways – the group was very diverse.”
A bright future after dark days
The pandemic has not been easy for anyone in hospitality and Susan’s business was no exception to the rule. With much of her usual clientele suddenly working from home, she not only had to close the cafe to indoor dining but she found the takeaway lunch footfall much lighter than usual.
However, she used the same innovative skills as when she first found herself starting her business and has come out of the pandemic stronger than ever and with some fresh and innovative offerings.
“We’re still not open indoors because a lot of our customers are still working from home,” she explains. “Many of our clientele work in offices in Citywest and the surrounding area and they’re just not back yet.
“But we are open now. We’ve opened outdoors and we have a click-and-collect service, which has been working very well. We’ve also linked up with a delivery company. We have two new offerings in the works, One is a bread subscription, which we just launched, where you can pre-order your sourdough. People often come in and say: ‘Oh no, you’re out of sourdough.’ Sourdough takes two days to make. So this way they can pre-order the bread to collect when they plan to be in the office.
“Then, even though we still don’t have our indoors open, we haven’t compromised at all in the way we make our food – we’re still growing our own ingredients and making everything fresh,” she continues. “Originally, we always made a different special every day and we thought: ‘Why don’t we harness all of those recipes and launch Farmhouse to Your House?’ We changed our kitchen layout a bit to allow for customers to go to our fridge wall and choose a dinner to take home. “With commuting, especially if you have children at home, bringing home a wholesome dinner would help so many people who work full time.”