Gourmet Food Parlour is one of the most exciting and dynamic companies in Ireland at the moment.
Last month, the leading restaurant and catering group launched three new dining concepts in Arnotts, Ireland’s most iconic departments store. The landmark deal, which sees an independent Irish business partner with a retail powerhouse, has increased the Gourmet Food Parlour workforce and will add an estimated €2.5 million in revenue to the company annually.
Established in 2006 with a restaurant in Dun Laoghaire, there are now six locations across Dublin and Galway, including a catering kitchen in Santry.
Much of the company's success is down to Lorraine Heskin, the founder and CEO of Gourmet Food Parlour. Hailing from a small village in Co. Galway, she studied at the University of Limerick before heading off to New York for five years, working in a diverse range of food businesses.
On returning to Dublin, Heskin opened the first restaurant in Dun Laoghaire in 2006. Since then, Gourmet Food Parlour has grown into a business employing over 200 people across its seven locations.
Lorraine Heskin spoke exclusively to Hospitality Ireland this week about the secret behind the Gourmet Food Parlour's success, the three new dining concepts in Arnotts, her love of New York and the one thing she always keeps in her fridge.
Tell us about the origins of Gourmet Food Parlour?
We opened in 2006. I always had a hidden love for launching my own business.
By that time, I had spent over five years in my twenties working in New York. I worked in the food business and I absolutely fell in love with it, and I worked in so many different areas.
I was very lucky to be able to travel America with my job and I just loved everything about the customer service - the whole food offering from the hip-hop coffee shops, right up to brunch venues and restaurants. I was fascinated by the style of service.
The spark of inspiration to open my own business definitely came to me when I was living and working in New York. That's where it all started.
I moved back home then to Ireland in 2005 and worked in Jacob Fruitfield Food Group for about two years which was an amazing experience.
And then, I decided if I don't start my business now, I will never do it, so that's when I started Gourmet Food Parlour.
What have been the high and low points of the last 17 years?
I will start with the highs. To work in hospitality you really need to love it. The high points are the rewards of happy customers who are continually coming in, and are loving what we are doing as an Irish food business.
I have pride for the brand and most importantly the team, that have worked and are working for Gourmet Food Parlour. I am genuinely blessed with a very strong team and they work so hard to make Gourmet Food Parlour what it is every single day. That makes me so proud and even more determined to be better, and to do better as a business for them, and for our customers. That's the highs.
The lows are definitely the recession that impacted the economy in 2008 which was a huge stand out for me personally, just from a business perspective, it was very difficult to trade during those times.
Covid was another challenge, our revenue was slashed overnight and it really impacted the trajectory and growth of where our business was going. It impacted every business in the world but it was very difficult because we closed overnight, and then a few days later we started at zero again.
I always say what happened during those times made me a better person and definitely a better business person because when things are difficult, you really go into that fight or flight moment, and it really forces you to dig deep, and look at the positives within your business and how you can help to make it survive because it is so much responsibility, and the number one thing is to keep the brand going, and the pride behind that, such as the jobs that you have created for people, the career paths that you have created, and also for your customers as well.
The unknown is the thing that has always been very difficult. You can plan for something when you know it's coming down the line but for the curveballs, as I call them, they are very difficult to deal with.
Situations like this show strength of character in the team, there is always a fight, there is a fight in every team. We have an incredible culture and team in the business. We are very lucky, I have to say.
What does it feel like to reach this stage of the company's development?
I don't often reflect on that, isn’t it funny? I keep going every day and 2023 has been a huge year for our business.
Opening our new restaurant offering in Arnott's has been a real proud moment, and we have definitely reflected on that. We are very honoured to part of such an iconic department store, and we're very proud that our Irish brand is a part of it as well. I am just very happy with the business and I love it so much, I really do!
There is huge potential for Gourmet Food Parlour and there is great excitement within the business this year, and if you could bottle that feeling it would be great but you just have to remember these moments as well but I am very proud of the company, the team, and the brand that it has become.
Where do you see the company going?
There have been so many opportunities over the years and there are always opportunities in hospitality, but it's a difficult trading environment right now, and I am very mindful of that.
We have close to 300 staff and we have got a big offering right now. My immediate focus is the day- to- day, making sure that we continue to be better as a team, and better as a business for our customers, providing them with the best food, and the best service. That's the immediate goal.
We also want to bring a strong, solid Christmas trading environment to our business this year, through both our restaurants, our catering division, and our gifting business as well.
The more medium-to-long term goals involve traditional opportunities in the pipeline. We are working on some new ideas which are very exciting. We are also going to expand our catering division in 2024. We plan to double the output because catering, thankfully, is very busy at the moment. We are also going to build an extension on to our Santry restaurant, to have a dining garden at the front.
We have lots of plans in the pipeline that we are very excited about, and we believe in the brand more now than we ever have. We look forward to developing, and growing the business but at a pace, the company and the people can manage, in an astute manner, so that the growth doesn’t surpass us.
Tell us about yourself and your background-where you grew up, studied, etc.
I am from Bearna in Galway, that's where I originally come from.
I went to the University of Limerick where I studied for a degree in Spanish and Economics, and then I went on to do a postgraduate course in business, which I absolutely loved. I definitely found something I was very passionate about, and I was lucky to be able to do that after I finished my degree.
After this, I went to work for IBM. They had interviewed graduates of the business course, and I went to work in their facility in Damastown, which was an incredible experience. I worked in the production control department. To see the efficiency was incredible. But I was ambitious to grow and develop, and I felt like a small fish in a big pond.
From there, I moved to New York. During my summers in college, I had always worked in Roche's Stores and saved for the following year ahead in college. Apart from going to Spain for one summer to learn Spanish, I had never been abroad. I never went to the States, I never availed of a J1 or anything like that, so I always knew I wanted to do that, so then I moved to America in March 2001. It was one of the most incredible experiences.
I went to work for a company called Irish Food Distributors and I was selling English and Irish food products at the start to retailers and large supermarket chains on the East Coast. I worked for them for a couple of years which was a great experience.
I then became a broker, which basically represents retail manufacturers to the retailers. I t was in the specialty food industry which was a huge and growing in America at the time. I got a wealth of experience in selling products and dealing with buyers, going into retailers, representing the manufacturers, dealing with all the supply chains. I was so young, I was only in my early to mid-twenties, so it was brilliant and I loved every second of it.
I went back to Dublin and went to work for Jacob Fruitfield, they had just bought over Jacobs from Danone, so that merger was an unbelievable experience, because to be part of the merging of two iconic amazing Irish branded companies was privilege. I learned so much from it.
What was your first major role?
It was definitely IBM, I went in as a production control analyst, and then I went into commodity management straightaway, pretty much after a year. IBM were excellent because your roles and responsibilities are given to you and you are not micro-managed.
Coming out of university at the time, and then going to work in such a strong business where you have to represent yourself in meetings every morning and where the supply chain is very pressurised, was a good experience for me because I learned a lot about different departments, and how they need to learn to work together and make things cohesive and productive to reach goals. From that perspective, the job set a strong foundation for me when leaving university.
What do you enjoy most about your job presently?
At the moment, I love the ideas and marketing side of the business. I love that within foods, there are no limitations, you can have such fun with it. The innovation and creative side, I love all of that.
It's great meeting people from the team and getting everyone together, just seeing how they work within their own teams, and the creativity and foundations that they build in their own cultures in the restaurant, the head office, and the catering division. That really inspires me because I love being around people.
I always say to anyone in business, if you surround yourself with good people, great things can happen and that is such a true philosophy for having your own business. So, I love the people side, I love seeing customers happy in the restaurant, the buzz of the restaurant, the atmosphere that's within the restaurant, that always inspires me as well.
I love everything really!! But those are the most specific parts at the moment.
I love coming up to Christmas time because we have such a huge offering. Within our restaurant, we have lovely lunch menus, dinner menus, and we've got catering home menus for people if they don't want to cook on Christmas Day, we make everything for them, so its literally just prepared so they can just put it in the oven, and you take away that whole prep side of it.
Also, we have a fabulous catering offering and a gourmet gifts business as well. I love seeing that come to fruition over the season of Christmas.
What do you like to do when you are not working?
I am busy at work and busy at home. I have three young kids. I am generally on the sidelines of pitches or at various other activities. I'm very close to my family and friends, and I love spending time with them.
I walk, I run (very badly!). I like to exercise by myself, listen to a podcast and just take that time to myself. My schedule is busy, and it really allows me to reflect, and make sure that I prepare myself mentally for the next day ahead. It's really important to do that.
I love reading and I love listening to podcasts.
What is your business motto?
I have several.
As I have said, you need to surround yourself with good people. That may sound simple but it is very true.
Yesterday is over, and today is a new day, focus on the day in front of you.
In business, there are so many mottos, but you have to be grateful and you have to be strong. That said, there is nothing wrong with asking for help when you need it.
Make sure you surround yourself with people you can mentor, and who can mentor you.
What is your favourite pub?
Keogh's in Dublin.
What is your favourite meal?
Definitely a really nice seafood pasta.
What is your favourite drink?
New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.
Your favourite holiday destination?
Name one thing that you always have in your fridge?